In recent years, as progress in artificial intelligence (AI) has accelerated, nearly every major power has pledged to develop advanced AI capabilities and effectively integrate AI into their armed forces. Yet none have pursued those efforts as purposefully as China. Not only has Beijing issued an ambitious plan to make China the world’s leading AI power by 2030, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has unveiled an aggressive innovation-driven strategy for the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Likewise, Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the CCP, has consistently emphasized China’s commitment to AI development and “intelligent warfare”– most recently in his landmark report this fall to the 20th Party Congress.
If China’s strategic ambitions for AI are clear, how it intends to integrate AI into the PLA remains opaque. The CCP’s goals for militarized AI are still shrouded in mystery, even as the PLA clearly views AI as a technology that will be vital for driving next-generation warfare.
However, the recently established PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) offers at least some clues into how Beijing aims to infuse AI capabilities throughout the military. Although the precise purpose of the SSF is not yet well understood, the organization has been charged with something like a mandate to innovate and tasked with integrating numerous “strategic functions.” Given the breadth of its organizational structure and mandate, the SSF appears to be at the forefront of the PLA’s efforts to modernize around new technologies like AI.
To better understand the SSF, we recently investigated whether it will have a “game-changing” impact on future conflicts in which mastering the information domain and integrating AI effectively are likely to dictate the winner. Our research into the SSF took a deep dive into open-source information, convened subject matter experts, and looked to scholarly analysis to form a more precise understanding of what role the SSF might be playing in the PLA’s AI innovation—and what role it definitely is not.
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Gerald L. Epstein is a distinguished fellow in the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University.
Amy J. Nelson is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program and with the Center for Strategy, Security and Technology.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.