China’s continued focus on developing advanced and emerging technologies to grow its armed forces into world-class fighting machines is challenging the United States’ position as the global technological powerhouse.
“The continued development of an innovative and advanced technological base will be critical to China’s efforts to develop its economy and fulfill its ambition of possessing ‘world-class armed forces,’ and thus advanced and emerging technologies will be at the forefront of China-US competition,” according to an exhaustive report on China’s leap in critical defense technologies by the US-based Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA).
Only mini and multilateral arrangements by the US with other like-minded, friendly nations are likely to ensure Washington maintains a distinct technological advantage vis-à-vis China, such as the AUKUS, which is intended to contribute toward maintaining a favorable balance of power within the broader context of China-US competition.
“In this context, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, or AUKUS, the pact is a leading example, with investment and collaboration on cyber capabilities, AI, quantum technologies, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems forming, alongside the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, core priorities,” the report noted.
According to the IDGA paper, authored by Dr. James Bosbotinis, here are the five hi-tech sectors that China is exploiting to emerge as a military powerhouse, not just in Asia, but also the world, and to overtake the US as the global superpower:
Military Applications Of Emerging Tech
The 2019 defense white paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, emphasized the importance of emerging technologies to strategic competition and military capability development.
The white paper states, driven by the new technological and industrial revolution, the application of cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field. International military competition is undergoing historic changes. New and high-tech military technologies based on IT are developing rapidly.
The white paper added that this is accompanied by a prevailing trend to develop long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy, or unmanned weaponry and equipment. War is evolving towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.
In this regard, the authoritative textbook, Science of Military Strategy, an edited volume published by the National Defense University, Beijing, intended for senior People’s Liberation Army officers and most recently revised in 2020, provides valuable insight into contemporary Chinese thinking.
On the impact of emerging, particularly information technologies, the Science of Military Strategy states: “The rise of high and new technology centered on information technology and intelligent technology has enabled military forces to develop from mechanization to informatization, and to advance toward intelligence.”
Advanced science and technology stimulate the potential factors of military power. Various high and new technologies act on weapon systems and military systems simultaneously, speeding up the upgrading of weapons and equipment, changing the mode of combat power generation, and improving the efficiency of military power generation.
This is reflected in the People’s Liberation Army’s new operational concept, ‘Multi-Domain Precision Warfare,’ described in the 2022 annual report on Chinese military power, as leveraging a network information system-of-systems that incorporates advances in big data and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the US operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities.
As a RUSI Journal paper highlighted, “the PLA seeks to leverage today’s strategic emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence (AI)” to develop ‘world-class’ armed forces.
Artificial Intelligence Potential For ISR Capabilities
AI has multiple potential military applications, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target recognition and acquisition, logistics, air and missile defense, command and control, electronic warfare, and autonomous vehicles.
In addition, AI is used for the first pass of sifting through mountains of signals intelligence to find potentially valuable insights and for the fusion of datasets, which human analysts then scrutinize.
The People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) is reportedly looking at using AI to enhance its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. More broadly, in 2017, China promulgated a ‘New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,’ setting out the aim for China to be a world leader in technology by 2030.
China is widely viewed as the United States’ closest competitor. China is leading artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and hardware accelerators (37% of the world’s top 10% high-impact research output, 2.76 times the US).
It has a research lead in the remaining technology areas: advanced data analytics, advanced optical communications, advanced radiofrequency communications, artificial intelligence algorithms, hardware accelerators, distributed ledgers, machine learning, and protective cyber security technologies, an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) paper, released earlier this year, said.
However, the US excels in the design and development of the most advanced semiconductor chips and has a research lead in the technology areas of high-performance computing and advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication. China’s dependence on foreign semiconductors constitutes a significant vulnerability.
Quantum Technologies Could Upgrade China’s Submarine Warfare
The disclosure by Edward Snowden in 2013 of US intelligence activities reinforced Beijing’s belief that dependence on American technology created severe security vulnerabilities, according to The Brookings Institution paper in 2021. The ASPI report said it contributed to China’s development of quantum technologies, particularly quantum communications.
Quantum technology translates the principles of quantum physics into technological applications, which in the military domain would include quantum sensing, quantum antennas, quantum communications, quantum computing, and quantum radar.
China is already a world leader in quantum technology. In 2016, it completed the construction of an approximately 1,250-mile Beijing-Shanghai quantum network and launched a quantum satellite.
In March 2023, it was announced that China would deploy a quantum communications satellite network, with the first quantum critical distribution satellite reportedly launched in 2022.
The Science of Military Strategy refers to quantum technology, AI, and nanotechnology as “disruptive frontier technologies” in future maritime warfare. Quantum sensing could enable significant improvements in submarine detection, and alternative positioning, navigation, and timing options that could allow militaries to continue to operate at full performance in GPS- degraded or GPS-denied environments.
Developing technologies that could enhance China’s ability to conduct undersea warfare more effectively would be very much sought after.
Advanced Manufacturing And Materials Help Build Modern War Machines
Advanced manufacturing and materials are central to China’s continuing military modernization efforts, particularly regarding air and naval force developments, the IDGA report said.
China launched in June 2022 the Fujian, the first Type 003 aircraft carrier, displacing more than 80,000 tons (the most prominent carrier built outside of the US) and equipped with an indigenous electromagnetic catapult system.
In the air domain, China has built more than 200 J-20s and is developing multiple advanced manned and unmanned combat air systems, namely, the J-35 carrier-borne fifth-generation fighter, the H-20 strategic stealth bomber, a regional stealth bomber, and a sixth-generation fighter.
It has been reported that additive manufacturing is utilized significantly, including in producing the J-35, which will provide the Chinese Navy with its first naval fifth-generation fighter.
It has also been reported that metamaterials are utilized in the J-20, most likely to improve stealth, communications, jamming, and sensors. Metamaterials are “composite metals and plastics that use artificial geometry to influence the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, as well as elastic waves and sounds…[or] using nanotechnology can also be used as super strength materials.”
In a notable sign of China’s improving technological and manufacturing capabilities, it has further closed a longstanding capability gap in the domestic production of military-grade afterburning turbofan engines.
Conversely, China is looking to further invest in its supply chain and wrought superalloy materials to achieve its large-scale military engine production roadmap, with supply chain issues reported and dependence on imported complex machining tools remaining a source of vulnerability.
Advanced manufacturing and material technologies are also critical to developing hypersonic weapons and air vehicles due to the highly challenging requirements associated with hypersonic flight.
Global Leader In Hypersonic Technology
China possesses a significant hypersonic technology base and is developing various systems for military and civilian use. It has publicly disclosed thus far the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), and the YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship missile, which arms the Type 055 cruiser and the H-6K bomber.
An H-6K carrying two missiles, bearing the stenciling ‘2PZD 21,’ was displayed at Airshow China 2022, held in Zhuhai in November 2022; this is the air-launched version of the YJ-21.
Leaked US intelligence reports have confirmed that a new Chinese long-range ballistic missile equipped with an HGV, the DF-27, believed to have a range of 5,000-8,000 km, has been successfully tested; and in 2021, the US reported that China had conducted a test of a fractional orbital bombardment system with an HGV. Interest in intercontinental ballistic missile-launched HGVs has also been reported.
China is developing the technologies required for hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). For example, in May 2018, a scramjet test vehicle, the Lingyun-1, was publicly exhibited for the first time in Beijing, while in August 2018, China successfully tested a hypersonic wave rider test vehicle, the XingKong-2 (‘Starry Sky-2’), which attained a speed of Mach 6. In April 2019, Xiamen University successfully flew the Jiageng-1 test vehicle, which employed a ‘double wave rider’ configuration.
An HCM will likely be deployed in the near-to-mid-term, if not already. Similarly, China may have deployed an HGV-equipped air-launched ballistic missile with the PLAAF’s H-6N bomber.
Again at Airshow China 2022, a reusable, hypersonic unmanned air vehicle concept demonstrator was exhibited. The MD-22 is stated to have a range of 8,000 km and a speed of Mach 7; such a system could, for example, provide penetrating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability.