At a time when China is facing pushback from global powers including the US and regional foe India, Beijing has upgraded its next five-year plan by shifting the focus to “disruptive” technology to compete with its adversaries.
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Beijing published the blueprint of its development plan of China called the five year plan that reportedly used the term “disruptive technology” for the first time concerning military development.
The plan intends to “accelerate the modernization of weapons and equipment, focus on indigenous innovation in national defense science, expedite the development of strategic forward-looking disruptive technologies, and accelerate the upgrading of weapons and equipment”.
Citing military analysts, a report in SCMP said that disruptive technology would mean changing the status quo, including sixth-generation fighters, high-energy weapons like laser and rail guns, quantum radar and communications systems, new stealth materials, autonomous combat robots, orbital spacecraft, and biological technologies such as prosthetics and powered exoskeletons.
Military experts believe that while the development of these technologies may take some time and won’t be used in current regional conflicts, it aims at potentially competing with the military technology of the US and Russia.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress”, the US has already acknowledged the steady progress in developing advanced military technologies.
“As these technologies are integrated into foreign and domestic military forces and deployed, they could hold significant implications for the future of international security writ large, and will have to be a significant focus for Congress, both in terms of funding and program oversight,” the report said.
Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the People’s Liberation Army talking to SCMP said that one of the most likely disruptive changes to military technology would be the greater use of unmanned weapons.
“In the future, we will see wars fought by unmanned warships, unmanned aircraft, and unmanned ground equipment, all controlled by AI [Artificial Intelligence],” he said.
China is already moving on the path to compete with the US in the AI technology race. According to the Congressional Research Service report, in addition to developing various types of air, land, sea, and undersea autonomous military vehicles, China is actively pursuing swarm technologies, which could be used to overwhelm adversary missile defense interceptors.
Moreover, open-source publications indicate that China is developing a suite of AI tools for cyber operations.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pointed out that some Chinese weapons manufacturers have advertised their weapons as having the ability to select and engage targets autonomously. He characterized the five attributes of the Chinese Lethal Autonomous Weapons System (LAWS).
The first is lethality, which means sufficient payload (charge) and for means [sic] to be lethal. The second is autonomy, which means the absence of human intervention and control during the entire process of executing a task.
Thirdly, the impossibility for termination, meaning that once started there is no way to terminate the device. Fourthly, indiscriminate effect, meaning that the device will execute the task of killing and maiming regardless of conditions, scenarios, and targets. Fifthly evolution, meaning that through interaction with the environment the device can learn autonomously, expand its functions and capabilities in a way exceeding human expectations.
While China lacks war experience in comparison to its adversaries, it is capable of achieving an edge in niche areas which would help it thwarting the adversary without entering the battleground.