The Pentagon is racing to outpace China in building military artificial intelligence (AI) systems ranging from vehicle maintenance to advanced warfighting tools like cyber weapons and drones, according to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“Whichever nation harnesses AI first will have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for many, many years,” Esper said this week at a conference in Washington on artificial intelligence.
“We have to get there first. Future wars will be fought not just on the land and in the sea as they have for thousands of years, or in the air as they have for the past century, but also in outer space and cyberspace in unprecedented ways.”
China, according to Esper, intends to be the world leader in AI by 2030 and Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that China must occupy “the high ground in critical and core AI technologies.”
China’s goal, he said, is to leapfrog US development of AI systems and weapons.
One area China is seeking a strategic advantage is in AI-powered autonomous vehicles.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is moving aggressively to deploy them across many warfighting domains,” Esper said.
Additionally, in addition to conventional weapons systems, China is building low-cost, long-range autonomous and unmanned submarines to counter US naval power.
And Beijing is also exporting advanced military drones to the Middle East, including radar-evading stealth drones.
More worrisome, the defense chief said the Chinese weapons makers are selling drones capable of conducting autonomous lethal attacks – drones that will sense and decide whether to conduct strikes without human intervention.
The Chinese also are developing AI technologies to strengthen the authoritarian control of the Communist Party of China over the population.
“All signs point to the construction of a 21st-century surveillance state designed to censor speech and deny basic human rights on an unprecedented scale,” Esper said, noting the incarceration of an estimated 1 million Muslim Uighurs in western China.
Esper decried what he said were foreign firms and multinational corporations inadvertently or tacitly providing technology and research for China’s AI programs.
US artificial intelligence programs will be consistent with capabilities that uphold American values of freedom and democracy and protect fundamental belief in liberty and human rights, Esper said.
“The question is not whether AI will be used by militaries around the world. It will be,” Esper said. “The real question is whether we let authoritarian governments dominate AI and by extension the battlefield or other industry.”
The Pentagon has created a special office called the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. The center is working on projects that include predictive maintenance that will extend the lives of weapons and equipment to cyber defenses that rapidly detect and identify cyberattacks.
Another area of Pentagon research on AI is joint warfighting – the complex process of merging intelligence, sensor information with command and control systems to conduct military operations with unprecedented precision and speed.
Cloud computing and the placement of vast streams of data into cloud databanks also will benefit from AI software that can exploit the information faster than humans.
With AI integrated into the US military’s extremely advanced sensor systems, warfighting systems will require only milliseconds to identify targets and immediate threats and thus allow action to be taken much quicker.
“We don’t approach AI or any technology for that matter as a panacea,” Esper said. “We also see it as a tool to free up valuable resources and manpower so our war fighters and operators can focus on high priority tasks in a more efficient and more effective manner.”
The US-China AI race was compared to the space race in the 1960s between the United States and Soviet Union which resulted in the1969 US moon landing of astronauts and their return to earth.
“This is the space race. Whoever gets there first is going to dominate,” Esper said.
China’s vision for military AI, termed intelligent operations, was outlined in a report in the official PLA newspaper in March 2018 which called for achieving “intelligence supremacy.”
“Intelligent operation can be understood from the core concepts of ‘focusing on intelligence supremacy, ubiquitous AppCloud, multi-domain integration, brain-machine fusion, intelligent autonomy, and unmanned combat,’” the report said.
“The core of ‘intelligence supremacy’ is the competition for cognitive speed and quality superiority,” the report said.
Military applications will include stealth camouflage, electromagnetic silence, electronic countermeasures, cyber takeover, and quantum communication.
The goal is perception management that renders enemies unable to perceive real information, or make them perceive useless and false information while assuring Chinese forces can accurately and quickly perceive the opponent and the battlefield.
Like the Pentagon, the PLA plans to use cloud storage and computing for its AI warfare capabilities – what the newspaper called the infrastructure of intelligent operations.
Chinese multi-domain AI warfare will expand the battlespace from traditional air, sea, and land, to intangible spaces such as enemy decision-making, society as a whole and cyberspace.
Brain-machine fusion is another area where the PLA will seek to develop AI-powered military decision-making.
AI weapons in the Chinese arsenal will perform reconnaissance, maneuver, strike, protection and other intelligent missions by assessing situations and selecting and implementing actions based on goals, the enemy situation and battlefield environment while continually learning and improving.
“Intelligent autonomous weaponry is equipped with human-like thinking ability,” the PLA report said.
PLA AI weapons and attacks will include three types. The first two are those totally controlled by people, or “man-in-the-ring,” and those controlled by autonomous weapons but capable of intervention by humans or “man-on-the-ring.”
The third type is called “man-outside-the-ring,” defined as weaponry used in operations that are completely decided and implemented independently with no human intervention.
Chinese military writer Zhao Ming stated that the report of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China urged speeding up the development of military AI.
“We must seize each day and each hour, set the goal, waste no effort in catching up,” Zhao wrote separately in the PLA newspaper, also in March 2018. He urged striving to overtake counterparts “at the curves” of the development road “so as to achieve the transitions from running behind to running side by side and, further, running in the lead.”
“We’re in a race,” as Esper put it. “We have to get to the end state quicker than the Chinese can, quicker than the Russians can, and there are a few key technologies out there. I put AI as number one.”
Other advanced weapons technologies will include lasers and other directed energy and hypersonic missiles and projectiles.
“But, even with those systems,” Esper said, “AI is still going to enable them in terms of how you employ them, how you maintain them. So, that’s why AI, to me, pops up as number one.”
Bill Gertz is a national security journalist and author of the book Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy.