China’s Military: From ‘Informationization’ to ‘Intelligent Warfare’

News Analysis China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing a profound transformation since at least the turn of the century. In the first place, it has spent years pursuing a “double construction” approach of mechanization and “informationization.” This “two-track” approach called for the near-term modernization of “existing equipment combined with the selective introduction of new generations of conventional weapons,” together with a longer-term transformation of the PLA along the lines of the information technologies-based “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). Officially, the PLA expects to achieve mechanization and make “major progress” toward informationization by the 2020, achieve “complete military modernization” by 2035, and become a “world-class” military by 2049. In keeping with this timetable, the PLA is currently all about “informationization.” Informationization entails using information technologies to conduct joint military operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. It also means exploiting technological advances in microelectronics, sensors, propulsion, stealth, and especially cyber to outfit the PLA with new capacities for long-range strike and disruption. In short, the PLA, in its long transition from People’s War to limited local wars under conditions of informationization, is seeking to move from being a platform-centric to being a more network-centric force, or a military where the crucial characteristics of force are the network linkages among platforms, as opposed to the platforms themselves. China’s 2015 defense white paper explicitly made informationization central to PLA operational concepts, deemphasizing land operations in favor of giving new stress and importance to sea- and airpower. The PLA Navy (PLAN) was to “gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,'” while the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) would “endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.” “Informationized warfare” also puts a much greater emphasis placed on both space and cyber operations. China’s 2019 defense white paper bluntly states that “outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” As such, the weaponization of space is increasingly a fact of life and a key future battlespace, and China plans to develop the capacity to “enter, exit, and openly use outer space.” At the same time, cyberspace is regarded to be “a key area for national security, economic growth and social development,” and therefore the PLA is accelerating the building of its cyberspace capabilities. Yet even as the PLA labors to adopt “informationized warfare,” it is already planning for the next phase of its modernization, which it has termed “intelligent” or “intelligentized” warfare. As China’s 2019 defense white paper puts it, “war is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.” At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged the PLA to accelerate the development of military intelligentization, and this “authoritative exhortation” has in turn “elevated ‘intelligentization’ as a guiding concept for the future of Chinese military modernization.” In particular, intelligentized warfare entails the militarization of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR). Critical 4IR technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, quantum computing, cloud storage, autonomous unmanned systems, 5G networking, and the like. The 4IR is a key enabler in China’s future efforts to gain a dominant technological advantage over its rivals. According to a report released in 2019 by the Center for a New American Security, “the Chinese believe artificial intelligence (AI), big data, human-machine hybrid intelligence, swarm intelligence, and automated decision-making, along with AI-enabled autonomous unmanned systems and intelligent robotics, will be the central feature of the emerging economic and military-technical revolutions.” China particularly values AI as a critical technology that could prove consequential to its strategic competition with the United States. Chinese military thinkers believe AI likely will be the key to surpassing the U.S. military as the world’s most capable armed force. Consequently, China has laid out an ambitious program for it to lead the world in AI by 2030. In July 2017, Beijing released its “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” This plan has three main strategic goals: first, to bring China’s AI sector up to the level of the global state-of-the-art; second, to achieve major breakthroughs in terms of basic AI theory by 2025; and third, by 2030, to make China the global leader in AI theory,

China’s Military: From ‘Informationization’ to ‘Intelligent Warfare’

News Analysis

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing a profound transformation since at least the turn of the century.

In the first place, it has spent years pursuing a “double construction” approach of mechanization and “informationization.” This “two-track” approach called for the near-term modernization of “existing equipment combined with the selective introduction of new generations of conventional weapons,” together with a longer-term transformation of the PLA along the lines of the information technologies-based “revolution in military affairs” (RMA).

Officially, the PLA expects to achieve mechanization and make “major progress” toward informationization by the 2020, achieve “complete military modernization” by 2035, and become a “world-class” military by 2049.

In keeping with this timetable, the PLA is currently all about “informationization.” Informationization entails using information technologies to conduct joint military operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. It also means exploiting technological advances in microelectronics, sensors, propulsion, stealth, and especially cyber to outfit the PLA with new capacities for long-range strike and disruption.

In short, the PLA, in its long transition from People’s War to limited local wars under conditions of informationization, is seeking to move from being a platform-centric to being a more network-centric force, or a military where the crucial characteristics of force are the network linkages among platforms, as opposed to the platforms themselves.

China’s 2015 defense white paper explicitly made informationization central to PLA operational concepts, deemphasizing land operations in favor of giving new stress and importance to sea- and airpower. The PLA Navy (PLAN) was to “gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,'” while the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) would “endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.”

“Informationized warfare” also puts a much greater emphasis placed on both space and cyber operations. China’s 2019 defense white paper bluntly states that “outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” As such, the weaponization of space is increasingly a fact of life and a key future battlespace, and China plans to develop the capacity to “enter, exit, and openly use outer space.” At the same time, cyberspace is regarded to be “a key area for national security, economic growth and social development,” and therefore the PLA is accelerating the building of its cyberspace capabilities.

Yet even as the PLA labors to adopt “informationized warfare,” it is already planning for the next phase of its modernization, which it has termed “intelligent” or “intelligentized” warfare. As China’s 2019 defense white paper puts it, “war is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.”

At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged the PLA to accelerate the development of military intelligentization, and this “authoritative exhortation” has in turn “elevated ‘intelligentization’ as a guiding concept for the future of Chinese military modernization.”

In particular, intelligentized warfare entails the militarization of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR). Critical 4IR technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, quantum computing, cloud storage, autonomous unmanned systems, 5G networking, and the like.

The 4IR is a key enabler in China’s future efforts to gain a dominant technological advantage over its rivals. According to a report released in 2019 by the Center for a New American Security, “the Chinese believe artificial intelligence (AI), big data, human-machine hybrid intelligence, swarm intelligence, and automated decision-making, along with AI-enabled autonomous unmanned systems and intelligent robotics, will be the central feature of the emerging economic and military-technical revolutions.”

China particularly values AI as a critical technology that could prove consequential to its strategic competition with the United States. Chinese military thinkers believe AI likely will be the key to surpassing the U.S. military as the world’s most capable armed force. Consequently, China has laid out an ambitious program for it to lead the world in AI by 2030.

In July 2017, Beijing released its “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” This plan has three main strategic goals: first, to bring China’s AI sector up to the level of the global state-of-the-art; second, to achieve major breakthroughs in terms of basic AI theory by 2025; and third, by 2030, to make China the global leader in AI theory, technology and application, as well as the major AI innovation center of the world.

Epoch Times Photo
A security officer keeps watch in front of an AI (artificial intelligence) sign at the annual Huawei Connect event in Shanghai, China on Sept. 18, 2019. (Aly Song/Reuters)

In addition to these investments in AI, China is seeking to become a world leader in other 4IR technologies, including quantum computing, 5G, robotics, and biotechnology, among others. Beijing sees its strategies to lead in AI and these other technologies as mutually reinforcing; accordingly, it is investing heavily (for example, through its “Made in China 2025” initiative) in associate technologies, and companies (both domestic and foreign), and human capital in order to realize those ambitions of global superiority.

It would be premature to argue that China will catch up to the defense-technological state-of-the-art any time soon. For all of its talk of becoming an “informationized” or “intelligentized” military, the PLA is still a decidedly platform-centric force. Most of its modernization efforts over the past two decades have been dedicated to building new combat aircraft, new warships, new submarines, new missiles, and new armor. Becoming a networked or intelligent military is still years, if not decades, off.

Furthermore, this process of informationization or intelligentization itself has been evolutionary: old weapons and military equipment are being gradually replaced, modified, and upgraded, or else being supplemented by and subordinated to more technologically advanced systems.

Nevertheless, the PLA appears to be progressing toward becoming a truly intelligentized armed force—a long-term strategy, to say the least, but backed by a long-term commitment by the Xi regime.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.