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Tackling Chinese Technological Advantage

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Sat, 20 Nov 2021   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

“China has won the artificial intelligence battle with the United States and is heading towards global dominance because of its technological advances”. When the Pentagon’s former software chief Nick Chaillan made this claim, it felt as if the whole world had come crashing down. The whole episode gave rise to the debate about who’s ahead in artificial intelligence. There is little doubt that India, the US, China, and other world militaries see the critical advantage of technology and its usage, in the event of a conflict. For sure the debate has just begun, and it is not going to die down anytime soon.

If the United States feels that it is losing the technological battle with China, then where does India stand? Are we just mute spectators? Do we always just react or do we have a long-term plan to take advantage of our technological prowess, well-trained workforce, and resurgent private sector? Let us explore.

TRUTH VS PROPAGANDA

In June this year, the People’s Liberation Army Airforce (PLA) reported that an artificial intelligence system has been repeatedly beating top PLA fighter pilots in a simulated dogfight. As we know Chinese state media went bonkers over the achievement. However, everyone conveniently forgot one fact that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) AlphaDogfight Trials had achieved similar results, months ago, without much hoopla.

It is a known fact that China indulges in propaganda warfare to exaggerate its achievements regularly. The U.S. has had a clearcut technological advantage until now. So what aspect of the Chinese technological prowess had alarmed Nich Chaillan? What forced him to make this expose and resign from his post? Indian policymakers must analyze the whole episode, thoroughly.

Thanks to the Chinese propaganda machinery, the Indian establishment is also shaken up and has been forced to take notice of these extraordinary developments. The main reason behind India’s proactiveness is the simmering tension between India and China. India is also well aware of China’s use of AI-enabled systems at the LAC. India doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the fact any longer and has no option but to take steps to reduce the technological gap.

INTELLIGENTIZED FORCE

Ryan Fedasiuk of the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology’s (CSET) produced a report in October this year on the Chinese military’s adoption of artificial intelligence. The report on AI-enabled systems and equipment provides an extraordinarily detailed picture of China’s efforts to build an “intelligentized” force.

PLA’s ‘New Generation AI Development Program’, to become a world-class military commenced in 2017. Within four years China has made considerable progress. Their ultimate aim is to be world leader in AI by 2030. Therefore it paints two scenarios. Firstly, PLA still doesn’t feel that they are world leaders in AI, and secondly, it gives India breathing space for another decade.

The Indian armed forces are heading for a revolutionary change in their structures, through Integrated Theatre Commands. China’s AI-enable projects would be designed to degrade the Indian military’s jointness, especially when it is new and not so cohesive. With AI-enabled systems, they would use techniques like ‘adaptive radar jamming’ and ‘vulnerability fuzzing’ to hit at the core of jointmanship.

Indian forces will have to develop not only AI-enabled offensive but defensive systems too. Study of the Chinese whitepapers discloses that they have plans to use machine learning systems to counter India specific drone systems. This further emphasizes the requirements of guarding the system data and specifications, more than ever.

BUDGETARY GAP

PLA has heavily invested in its AI initiatives. India’s overall defence budget is $65.7 billion. Compared to this the Chinese defence budget is $207 billion. But as per the American Department of Defence (DoD), China’s actual defense spending could be four times larger than its officially announced budget. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates their actual budget to be 40 percent higher than the declared budget. Any which way, it is a huge budget and puts a strain on Indian policymakers’ budgetary allocation policy.

China spent $378 billion on research and development (R&D) in 2020. Since China has dual usage policy it becomes very difficult to differentiate between civilian and defence R&D. SIPRI estimates their spending on military equipment and R&D to be around 41 percent of their total defence budget. All in all, their defence R&D could be as much as India’s total defence budget.

India spent $17.7 billion on R&D in 2018-19. That is just 0.7% of GDP and way below the targeted 2%. Since this is the overall budget, Defence & Space has a share of approximately 26 percent, or a mere $4.6 billion.

Artificial intelligence funding in India in 2020 was also a measly $949 million. Compared to this a much smaller country, the United Kingdom received $1.3 billion funding during the same period. Despite all that, India shows promise. Artificial Intelligence Index, released by Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centred Artificial Intelligence (HAI), ranks India at number 6 in research output, economy, and inclusion. India is second only to Brazil when it comes to hiring AI talent.

Courtesy: prsindia.org

INDIA VIS-A-VIS CHINA

In the second half of 2020, over 5 percent of all contracts awarded by the PLA were related to AI or “intelligent” equipment. These included autonomous vehicles, surveillance systems, training simulators, and battlefield decision support software. It is yet to be seen how much Indian armed forces have invested in these fields during the same period.

PLA is heavily investing in AI capabilities that would help in jamming, blinding, and hacking the Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance(C4ISR) systems. India may assume that these systems are meant to be used against the United States. However, that is wishful thinking. Mere presence of such systems with an adversary should alarm the Indian establishment.

When the whole world was struggling with COVID-19, PLA units and research institutions utilized that time and invested in “microwave reconnaissance jamming drones” and “electromagnetic weapon” payloads. Swarms of these small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could penetrate Indian airspace with such payloads attached and create havoc.

The PLA Navy is filling up its undersea warfare disadvantages with the U.S. with the introduction of autonomous undersea vehicles. These vehicles can be utilized for mine-laying or anti-submarine warfare. In last six years they have also made steady progress in foundational technologies like battery life and deep-sea communications. Today AI-based systems are extending the PLA Navy’s undersea reconnaissance operations well beyond the first island chain. Fishermen have caught such vehicles as far as Indonesia. India may not be affected by these capabilities today, but sooner or later we will see these surface and subsurface vehicles in the Bay of Bengal. Indian Navy’s status of adoption of these technologies is unknown.

THE PLA VULNERABILITIES

Despite all the hubbub the PLA has two clear-cut vulnerabilities in its “intelligentized” force blueprint. The five years old Chinese ‘Theatre Command’ structure may crumble if these vulnerabilities are effectively exploited by the adversaries.

The intelligentized forces heavily depend upon the cloud-based networks. China has not given any indication in any of its whitepapers about how it intends to address the vulnerabilities related to information manipulation, data poisoning, and data integrity. An analysis of all the Chinese contracts indicates that China has not even started working in that direction.

China’s “intelligentization” strategy is based on access to chips for AI-enabled systems. China heavily depends upon U.S. companies for access to such technology. Taiwan is the major manufacturing hub for U.S. companies. Therefore access to such technology is highly controlled. In fact, the United States has already placed embargo on China’s access to these chips. Without access to these chips, China’s ‘Tower of Babel’ of intelligentized warfare would come crumbling down.

INDIAN STRATEGY

There is no doubt that India has to do a lot of catching up with China and that too in a very short time. The Indian ‘Theatre Command’ structure is about to get a shape. A proper planning will mitigate many future issues and prepare the forces for a future war. Following are the recommendations for the Indian Planners:

  • Boost own autonomous vehicle industry using PPP model
  • Create inexpensive platforms based on the principles of mosaic warfare
  • Thrust to research in manned/unmanned teaming, keeping futuristic carrier borne unmanned flights in mind
  • Boost investment in counter-autonomy and adversarial AI research
  • Create models to exploit Chinese system vulnerabilities
  • Strengthen own AI systems vulnerabilities
  • Scale up investment and regulate organizations like DRDO
  • Enhance budgetary allocation for R&D
  • Until own capabilities have caught up, forge partnership with friendly countries

Artificial intelligence and its importance and utilization in a future war cannot be emphasized any more. The Indian armed forces need to undergo a sea change in the way, how they plan to fight a future war, and what force structure would be capable of fighting that war. I am sure India has come out of World War 2 syndrome, but today even concepts of the 70s and the 80s are inadequate. And what better way to usher those changes in when India celebrates ‘Swarnim Vijay Varsh’, the 50th anniversary of the Indian armed forces victory in the 1971 INDO- PAK war.

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Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

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POST COMMENTS (24)

HARBANS KHAJURIA

Dec 02, 2021
i am really impressed by your report on PLA which among other things includes budgetary support not merely on hardware but also software; especially Artificial Intelligence. The spending could be exorbitant since its actual defence spendings are laced in secrecy and there is no one who can question their intention. As far as India is concerned, she has to take care of budgetary support on multiple fronts; social, defence, healthcare etc. Further, India too has to walk on type rope in many fields than one. Further, the infra development in LAC had to be done and it is being done posthaste; this aspect was not taken hitherto into cognizance. Then there is the question of dealing with our neighbours who are under the bad influence of China. Be that as it may, India will have to be go near or be comparable with R&D in defence production etc. Your write up is really outstanding to say the least. Thanks for putting your viewpoints which is well researched, analyzed and based on fact. WITH REGARDS

Gp Capt TR Ravi

Nov 30, 2021
Fantastic points to justify as why India needs to strive hard to get ahead in AI. It may be encouraging and satisfying to know that we may stand 6th in the field but we are nowhere near competitiveness. Budget will always be a constraint but we need to choose a field and specialize. I bet Data Poisoning and manipulation would be the key to an edje over. I thank Cdr Dhawan for such an informative article.

Nilanjan Biswas

Nov 27, 2021
Lot of Chinese in US college and technology industry. Is it time to deny them that access. USSR did not have that previlege. Of course US business will lose some Chinese brains

Rakesh P

Nov 25, 2021
Thank you for educating us. The government of India needs to pay attention.

Dhirender Gaur -a fellow traveller

Nov 24, 2021
China’s next adventure: Technology, manufacturing, and innovation Digital innovation looks set to drive China’s future productivity growth as companies there absorb the lessons of successful enterprise IT programs elsewhere in the world, capture opportunities to exploit “big data,” and reinvent operating processes to increase efficiency. The relative scarcity of big legacy IT systems, the high penetration of mobile devices, and the wide popularity and use of social media are all advantages on which the country can build. Manufacturers in particular must rapidly adapt to rising labor costs, growing volatility, more complex value chains, and increasingly sophisticated consumers. Average Chinese's skill levels are rising; obsolete technology is being replaced; investment in new infrastructure is attracting scientists to centers of excellence in biotech, electronics, and pharma; and businesses are developing new approaches to organizing R&D. India needs whole new paradigm to stay ahead it's technological advantage so far.

Cdr Deepak Singh

Nov 24, 2021
Sandeep I agree with all your suggestions. But PPP and Indian Democratic Government has a Bureaucracy in between. Believe you me, this is the biggest blockade, who think that everything is Top Secret and getting Private Players will be disastrous. PPP is the need of the hour and results will be visible in no time.

Shaunak

Nov 22, 2021
Enlightening and an eyeopener. We need to work a lot and work fast. A concentrated and coordinated R&D in all fields are required if we are to meet these challenges. Also, we need to provide a budget for a team who would start thinking out if the box not just R&D.

Deovrat Pagay

Nov 22, 2021
The future belongs to those who master the four domains, namely, AI, Robotics, Nanotechnology and EM spectrum. The rules of the have changed! We need good R&D and an effective national policy in this regard. Well brought by Sandeep Sir.

D'Nanda Dunham

Nov 22, 2021
A real eye-opener of an article, Commander. Thank-you, as usual. I hope every partner in the "Quad" wakes up and takes up the challenge China poses in this area of development and others.

Tapan Jatakia

Nov 21, 2021
This is quite an insightful article, Sir.

Raghu

Nov 21, 2021
Excellent article . I do hope Indian Policy Plañners do wake up & pay attention to this aspect before its too late .

Cdr Mathews

Nov 21, 2021
Capt Dhawan a good acessment .India with its cumbersome documentary procedures financial regulations bad decision making at all levels cannot achieve what other countries like China are doing.The make in India too though launched is not achieving the desired results then how do we bridge the gap .Good acessment .Kindly next time provide some inputs how the MOD and GOI goes for fast decisions without the opp parties accusing causing trouble.

Nitin A S

Nov 21, 2021
You have handled this challenging and stimulating topic in a lucid and befitting manner. Future Battlefield indeed would be highly sophisticated, relying heavily on C4ISR. An AI mindset needs to be created and developed at tactical, operational and strategic level clearly defining our mission requirements/ deliverables over short, medium and long term. To achieve our desired goals, there is be a need to fast-track the AI development process by a collaborative approach between industry, academia and the subject matter experts. Adequate/ prioritised funding and Project-based focussed approach are likely to yield results expeditiously. Creation of an advanced, interoperable and secure AI ecosystem clearly is the need of the hour.

Judithann Campbell

Nov 21, 2021
Thank you so much, Commander Dhawan, for offering knowledge, strategies, and hope!

Shaily rawat

Nov 20, 2021
... makes a lot of sense.... Put across in s very precise n concise manner ... Cutting out the fat ... The main meat makes a lot of sense ... I hope people in the right places read n take notice ...

Sid Gupta

Nov 20, 2021
You have clearly brought out the dominance of AI, machine learning, including deep neural networks as a potent ingredient for any future warfare strategies. May it be hardware or software development associated with that. The future warfare doctrine is already changing. This article brings some facts in that direction. Bravo.

Narinder

Nov 20, 2021
Good insight into AI capabilities of China. I feel that thinking that India has the potential in matching the advancement in AI adopted by China by way of it's intelligent workforce and technological prowess may be a little too far fetched. We are still in the process of establishing our Defence Integration structure. We donot actually know as to what is required and how to use AI to our advantage. This is one field where we cannot actually be playing the catch up game but with R&D we should be opening newer fields where we enjoy advantage. Hope our scientists and intelligent workforce in private sector can bridge the gap and come together

Gyan Sharma

Nov 20, 2021
Very well articulated

Wendell Bruges

Nov 20, 2021
Once again thorough research and in-depth analysis by Cdr Sandeep. I am sure that the Indian armed forces are not shying away from adopting the new disruptive technologies. You have very aptly said that wars won't be the same again. The faster you adopt the better prepared you are for a future war. Congratulations once again.

Rajiv Gaur

Nov 20, 2021
Realistic assessment of the situation China has become big economic giant and likely to progress more into this kind of hi tech warfare. India needs to look into R&D sector. Chinese are going to block your visionary post again.

Tackling Chinese Technological Advantage - Insightful Geopolitics

Nov 20, 2021
[…] Tackling Chinese Technological Advantage […]

Rammohan

Nov 20, 2021
Nice article with lot of research, India needs to evaluate the future scenarios as brought out in the article.

Gaurav Chaturvedi

Nov 20, 2021
Another Gem from Cdr Sandeep.He is emerging as China specialist .A very informative and eye opening article on AI.Role of Indian universities must be incorporated into defence r& d.Its being done but requires more focus.

Joseph Mathew

Nov 20, 2021
Another nice article on the emerging Chinese threat. AI is going to be the dominant factor in any military conflict in the near future. We can't plan to counter China using technology sold by friendly nations as that would possibly be a little too primitive for that time. If we wish to have the edge we have to create our own AI based technology by investing heavily in this sector. After all brilliant Indian engineers have been migrating to the West and helping them create cutting edge technology. The next war with China is unlikely to be land centric and it is time we realise that. Disruptive technology, control of electro magnetic spectrum, and swarms of tiny armed drones could neutralize conventional ground forces without making contact. I hope we are doing what is required to win the next war.

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