Digital dogfights, AI supremacy and China-US tension

The race for cutting-edge military technology underlines the intense rivalry between Beijing and Washington

A war is being waged but nobody is getting killed or injured, and nobody really knows much about it, except for the insiders.

For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), artificial intelligence or AI has become a mantra as it morphs into a world-class military, capable of rivaling its main adversary, the United States.

The future of combat is here and this is it.

Unveiled in 2017, Beijing’s New Generation AI Development Plan established China’s goal to become “the world leader” by 2030 – and this extends to the military.

Earlier this year, an artificial intelligence system reportedly beat one of the PLA’s top fighter pilots in a simulated dogfight, according to a report by research analyst Ryan Fedasiuk for Breaking Defense.

It was the first time on record that this had happened, prompting Chinese state media outlet Global Times to call it a watershed moment in the country’s military modernization.

In a training simulation, Fang Guoyu, a group leader of an aviation brigade affiliated to the PLA Central Theater Command Air Force, was shot down in a mock aerial battle against an AI aircraft, the official PLA Daily reported.

“AI has shown adept flight control skills and errorless tactical decisions, making it a valuable opponent to hone our capabilities,” Du Jianfeng, the commander of the brigade, was quoted as saying.

Dogfight showdown

But almost as significant was the fact that it came just months after the US military had achieved the same milestone.

In a 5 to 0 sweep, an “AI pilot” developed by Heron Systems beat one of the Air Force’s top F-16 fighter pilots in a simulated aerial dogfight showdown held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The three-day trials showed that artificial intelligence systems can maneuver an aircraft in a simple, one-on-one combat scenario and shoot its forward guns in a classic, World War II-style dogfight.

For years, experts have written off China’s plan to wield AI to gain a battlefield advantage, citing American hardware and development as sources of US strength.

Since then, tension has increased between Washington and Beijing over the Taiwan question. China claims the democratic island nation as its own under the “One China” policy.

The tense situation has forced Washington policymakers and Pentagon planners to wake up to the challenge of taking steps to defend the United States’ edge.

China’s PLA Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Navy

In the past week, Chinese H-6J strategic bombers armed with anti-ship missiles practiced “island bombing” as the PLA Navy (PLAN) projected its nascent power in the disputed South China Sea.

More broadly, Beijing appears on the edge of joining the tiny group of states that possess a nuclear triad.

According to a US Department of Defense report, President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party government has accelerated its nuclear expansion. This may enable China to have up to “700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027.” It could rise “to at least 1,000 by 2030.”

On top of that, China “is building hundreds of new ICBM silos, and is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers.”

China’s Navy is now the largest in the world, dwarfing US forces. It is also getting stronger and more powerful by the day.

Meanwhile, China’s efforts to build an AI intelligent-driven force were recently detailed in a new report for Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, co-authored by Fedasiuk.

Many of the AI projects identified in the study are explicitly focused on degrading and countering systems at the heart of the US military’s Joint Warfighting Concept, using techniques like adaptive radar jamming and vulnerability fuzzing, Fedasiuk said.

US drone swarm

Research papers from China’s defense universities even discuss using machine learning systems to counter specific US drone swarm projects such as Locust and Gremlins.

What is more, the PLA is backing up its ambitious AI development goals with significant investment.

Despite the several-hundred-billion-dollar difference in the topline budgets of the US and Chinese militaries, both countries are investing about the same amount in AI for military use. This runs into the low billions of dollars each year, Fedasiuk pointed out.

Between April and December 2020, more than one in 20 public contracts awarded by the PLA’s main service branches were related to AI or “intelligent” equipment.

In particular, the PLA is investing in AI capabilities meant to jam, blind, and hack the C4ISR systems – Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – that bind US assets together.

PLA units and state-backed research institutions have also awarded contracts for “microwave reconnaissance jamming drones” and “electromagnetic weapon” payloads that can be attached to swarms of small unmanned aerial vehicles and flown into enemy airspace, Fedasiuk said.

China is clearly not alone, in the relentless push for AI weaponization. US technology is also racing ahead and it is a lead it does not want to relinquish.

China and the US are in danger of heading down a high-tech hole. Image: File

This week, for example, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service hopes to give the secretive new Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber a drone sidekick.

“The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range. We’d like to amplify that capability,” Kendall said during a Defense One event.

The Air Force has floated the idea of a “Loyal Wingman,” a drone that would accompany fighter jets into combat and operate with some level of artificial intelligence.

The service is also developing an autonomy module under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program and has already integrated and flown that system with the uncrewed Kratos UTAP-22 Mako and General Atomics’ MQ-20 Avenger.

But despite the PLA’s significant progress in adopting AI-enabled systems, the program is still vulnerable, according to Fedasiuk.

While Chinese military leaders plan to exploit weaknesses in US sensor and communication networks, it is not clear how they plan to build resilient, cloud-based networks of their own.

Even though the US military is susceptible to information manipulation and data poisoning, the PLA would also struggle to ensure the integrity of data used to train its own AI systems. Added to that is the inherent fragility of AI-based computer vision and object recognition systems.

China’s intelligence strategy

There are other challenges. China’s intelligence strategy is entirely predicated on access to AI chips designed by US companies and manufactured in Taiwan and South Korea. The supply of these high-end microelectronics, though, is far from guaranteed.

Both the US and its allies have already adopted several measures to starve Chinese military companies of the chips required to train advanced machine learning models.

Xi’s government has been pushing the country’s high-tech giants to develop their own chips, with the goal of becoming self-reliant in critical technology. In reality, China is still a long way off even if it’s one step closer to self-sufficiency.

American General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered some perspective on China’s technological advancements and subsequent rise to power in an interview this week with Breaking Defense.

“If you look at 40 years ago, they had zero satellites. Look at what they’ve got today. They had no ICBMs. Look at what they’ve got today. They had no nuclear weapons. Look at what they’ve got today,” Milley said.

“They had no fourth or fifth-generation fighters or even more advanced fighters, back then. Look at what they’ve got today. They had no navy. Look what they have today. They had no sub-force. Look at what they have today,” he added.

“We’re witnessing, in my view, one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” Milley warned.