Last year, China allocated USD 209 billion for its defence budget. Of late, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is focused on equipment more than training, personnel, and maintenance. In the 60s, only 20% of the military budget was set aside for equipment.
Over the years, the Chinese Communist Party have made military “modernisation” a priority. According to a recent report by Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), the PLA’s equipment expenditure is an understatement because the published military budget did not report many important categories. The actual military expenditure is higher than what was mentioned.
The PLA has integrated AI into their mechanisation procedures to develop various forms of electronic warfare systems.
Intelligent and autonomous vehicles
Since the launch of the Wing Loong-1 combat UAV in 2009, the PLA has been continuously developing intelligent and independent systems for aerial and marine warfare. The CSET has looked at more than 343 AI equipment contracts (PLA), out of which 35% were about intelligent or autonomous vehicles. The procurement records show the defence SOEs (state-owned enterprise) have purchased COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) vehicles with the help of a public purchasing platform known as the Drone Network.
Meanwhile, most UAV contracts have been directed towards the airforce. CSET found that PLA units have funded research on autonomous flight and purchased “intelligentised” interference and data processing modules for UAVs. For example, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Shenyang Institute of Automation (SIA) are state-backed and work towards intelligent vehicle research. In 2020, the institutes were given contracts to build a “3D intelligent collision avoidance system” for China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) and “intelligent self-flying machinery” for PLA Air Force (PLAAF).
Predictive maintenance and logistics
Like the United States, the PLA has deployed AI for maintenance and logistics. Additionally, 11% of the 343 AI contracts was focused on maintenance, repair, logistics, or sustainment, CSET reported. Meanwhile, established PLA contractors have come up with AI-based softwares to detect leaks, fault diagnosis, and automate ordering (smart warehouses). In March 2020, the Academy of Military Sciences reached out to Anwise Global Technology to build an automated code testing platform.
Today, Anwise is China’s largest intelligent equipment manufacturer that exclusively focuses on military aerospace and electronics. The company has also developed AI-based applications to create a virtual prototype library for evaluating aerospace weaponry.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
AI has the potential to disrupt military Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Interestingly, one in every five PLA AI deals were around ISR. AI is widely used for geospatial imagery analysis, media analysis, and intel acquisitions.
During 2020, CASC and PLASSF sent out orders for acquiring equipment for polarised surface detection, distance measurement, and multisource data fusion systems embedded in satellites. In addition, the PLASSF has signed a deal with Beijing Uxsino Software Co to develop a geospatial information perception and intelligent analysis subsystem.
Simulation and training
Earlier, the PLA had struggled with lack of aircraft, improper training, internal issues during joint ops, and rigid organisational structure. Now PLA uses war-gaming to simulate warfare to train military officers in strategic thinking or to study the nature of potential conflicts.
The PLA has rolled out contracts for developing a proprietary AI-based war-gaming software used in military institutes and educational programmes. For example, a Chinese company called DataExa developed an AI-based war-gaming simulator known as AlphaWar, inspired by AlphaStar, a DeepMind’s Starcraft-playing AI system.
Automated Target Recognition (ATR)
Industries worldwide have shifted to automation to cut costs and improve efficiency. Similarly, the PLA has stated that target recognition and fire control are the most important characteristics of modern weapons systems. However, using AI in this is relatively new and unorthodox. In 2020, the PLA and defence SOEs started distributing contracts for target detection based on synthetic aperture radar imagery, target recognition algorithms for UAVs, feature extraction, recognition algorithms, and multi-target fusion.
The PLA deploys AI-based ATR software in aerial vehicles. Today, private companies like Shandong Hie-Tech advertise ATR systems installed in UAVs. The company was asked to make “UAVs and supporting equipment” in June 2020 for PLA.