China may boost accuracy of its hypersonic weapons via AI technology

Chinese PLA researchers are reportedly seeking to improve the accuracy of the country’s hypersonic delivery systems via artificial intelligence, according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday refuted a report by the Financial Times saying that the country conducted a hypersonic missile test in August. First, it was not a missile but a space vehicle; second, the trials took place in July, Zhao specified.

Earlier, FT dropped a bombshell by claiming that China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon. According to the report, the Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the Earth through low-orbit space before cruising towards its target.

Beijing’s recent statement does not mean, however, that China’s hypersonic missile research has not been going at full throttle. On 14 October, Stephen Chen, the South China Morning Post’s Beijing-based senior reporter who investigates major research projects in China, reported that People’s Liberation Army (PLA) scientists are seeking to step up the accuracy of hypersonic weapons via the usage of artificial intelligence (AI).

Chen quoted a research paper by Xian Yong and Li Bangjie, from the Rocket Force Engineering University’s College of War Support, who proposed giving the weapon more decision-making power. This could step up the weapon’s overall positioning accuracy “by one to two orders of magnitude”, according to the researchers. Given that a hypersonic carrier has to travel up to thousands miles to deliver its load while making complex manoeuvres during the flight, this depends on how precisely it can determine its position.

Yet, the weapon’s built-in inertial sensors are typically subjected to physical disturbances during assembly, transport, and routine maintenance, argued Xian and Li. In addition, powering the hypersonic weapon up may cause further deviations from its factory settings and subsequently affect its precision capabilities, according to the study.

To fix this problem, Xian and Li’s team proposed replacing the factory settings with AI technology. The AI would start working once the weapon is launched and “write” the weapon’s software “on the fly”. It would calculate the missile’s position using the signal from the GPS or the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System and compare it with the results generated by the on-board sensors. By using this data, the AI would create a unique positioning algorithm for the weapon’s flight control programme.

The SCMP reporter remarked that while the speed of the processors used in China’s hypersonic military programme is classified, their performance is said to be increasing steadily.

Several years ago, the Chinese media also discussed the development of a family of cruise missiles with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. On 21 September 2016, The Diplomat examined these reports arguing that the Chinese sources provide no insight into the specific nature of the autonomous technology. At that time, The Diplomat expressed scepticism about the use of AI technology in cruise missiles, admitting, however, that AI “is considered indispensable in the development of new-age naval weapons, in particular hypersonic missiles”.

In 2020, the Washington-based Brookings Institution issued a review emphasising “significant investments in robotics, swarming, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)” in China’s PLA. The report noted that the PLA’s official dictionary included a definition of an “AI weapon” as early as in 2011.

However, China’s military AI programmes remain top secret prompting the authors of the report to acknowledge that “the PLA’s trajectory in the development and potential employment of AI/ML-enabled and autonomous weapons systems remains uncertain” while “the maturity of these capabilities… cannot be assessed with high confidence at this point”.

Source: RIA Novosti

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