The PLA is preparing for modern, networked warfare with more artificial intelligence, warships, and even a space station.
China is set to double its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, operates the world’s largest Navy, is surging its space capabilities, and embedding artificial intelligence across everything that it does, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual assessment on Beijing’s military power.
In several key aspects, the Chinese and U.S. militaries are pursuing similar trends, such as expanding naval power, the movement toward a more integrated joint force, and an embrace of emerging information technologies like AI.
The Defense Department’s 2020 China Military Power report, released Tuesday, assesses that China will “at least double” its nuclear stockpile to about 400 warheads and is strengthening its nuclear deterrence. “New developments in 2019 further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.” China is also pursuing its own version of a nuclear triad, with air-launched ballistic missiles, in addition to ICBMs. Pentagon officials assess China will have 200 intercontinental missiles in the next five years.
“Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia, briefing reporters on the report at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The United States had been looking to include China in discussions about an enhanced New START treaty, which governs the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launch platforms that the United States and Russia can keep in their inventories. China has so far said that it isn’t interested in participating in a trilateral discussion on nuclear arms control.
“The United States is willing to make progress with Russia while waiting on China to recognize its interests in behaving like a great power and a responsible nuclear weapons state by pursuing negotiations in good faith,” Sbragia said.
China has also built up its Navy to become the world’s largest with 350 ships and submarines (and 130 surface combatants.) That’s a change from last year’s report, which describes China as having the largest “regional” Navy. “In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020,” notes this year’s report.
Speaking to the conservative American Enterprise Institute later Tuesday, Sbragia added “the caution is always [that] numbers are one element, not the entirety… There's tonnage, capacity, sophistication.” For instance, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier last year, with its second scheduled for 2023, compared to the fleet of 11 U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
For years, Pentagon leaders have boasted that despite China’s buildup of new technologies and weapons, the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, lacked the American training and fighting experience in joint combat scenarios that synchronize land, air, and sea power, giving the United States tremendous advantage in any potential head-to-head conflict. According to this year’s report, the PLA is working hard to change that.
“More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by [Chinese Communist Party, or CCP] leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the [People’s Republic of China, or PRC’s] overseas military footprint.”
Additionally, China’s space activities are maturing “rapidly,” the report says, noting that China wants to have its own permanent space station by 2022. “Beijing has devoted significant economic and political resources to growing all aspects of its space program, from military space applications to civil applications such as profit-generating launches, scientific endeavors, and space exploration.”
Beijing is also putting emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence, at the center of its efforts to modernize its military. “The PRC is pursuing a whole-of-society effort to become a global leader in AI, which includes designating select private AI companies in China as ‘AI champions’ to emphasize R&D in specific dual-use technologies,” the report states. It’s part of China’s five-year plan to become the world’s dominant player in the technology by 2030.
“In 2019, the private PRC-based company Ziyan UAV exhibited armed swarming drones that it claimed use AI to perform autonomous guidance, target acquisition, and attack execution. During the past five years, China has made achievements in AI-enabled unmanned surface vessels, which China plans to use to patrol and bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has also tested unmanned tanks as part of research efforts to integrate AI into ground forces’ equipment,” it says.
Just as the United States says artificial intelligence is helping to increase the speed of warfare, China is also operating under that assumption. “The PLA argues that the implementation of ‘intelligentized’ capabilities will increase the speed of future combat, necessitating more rapid processing and fusing of information to support quick and efficient command decision making.”
Sbragia described the underlying strategy informing how China develops and fields weapons, and undertakes military operations, as one of “active defense.” China, he said, sees itself as constrained by the “requirement to safeguard national interests and not do so in a matter that would be catastrophic to long term aspirations… Use of force, bound by those two conditions… always in those terms.”