Beyond Defense: China’s Pursuit of Unorthodox Force Multipliers

Features | Security | East Asia

From animal mimicry to neuroscience, there is a hidden arms race underway in areas beyond “defense,” as traditionally understood.

Robots from Chinese intelligent robot manufacturer Dataa Robotics are displayed during the 2023 World Artificial Intelligence Conference held in Shanghai, July 6, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The super-power rivalry between the United States, Russia, and China is intense, but nuclear capability means there is a strong incentive to avoid direct conflict. The Ukraine-Russian war is viewed in some quarters (Moscow) as a proxy conflict between NATO and Russia, but both are aware of strategic “red lines” that must not be crossed to avoid triggering nuclear catastrophe.

This aversion to using weapons of mass destruction has led to the emergence of “hidden” arms races below the nuclear threshold. These involve unconventional military capabilities, in a non-nuclear sense, that are unorthodox in the exploitation of novel and disruptive hard and soft technological power. Such capabilities fall into three thematic areas: first, military mimicry, whereby the superior capabilities of animals are copied to improve military performance; second, artificial intelligence (AI), through which autonomous “robotic” weapon systems are developed to replace and/or extend conventional military capability; and, third, neuroscience, reflected by extraordinary innovations to gain military advantage through the development of super-intelligent soldiers.

Russia has identified the strategic benefits from the first two of these fields, exemplified by the use of beluga “spy” whales in the waters off the Scandinavian Peninsula and deployment of semi-autonomous unmanned drones in the Ukraine conflict. Moscow is committed to the AI-driven arms race, symbolized by President Vladimir Putin’s oft-quoted statement that “AI is the future, not only for Russia but for all mankind…whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

However, the rhetoric does not match reality. Analysts have labeled Russia as an “outsider” in this fourth industrial revolution, arguably due to the distractions of war, sanctions, and the demise of its non-military economy. As a result, only paltry sums have been invested into AI, and hence the principal rivalry is between the United States and China.

In the military mimicry domain, the U.S. is remarkably advanced in utilizing animal (non-human) capabilities. For example, it exploited dolphins’ highly-evolved bio-sonar to protect U.S. sailors in Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, and again in the 2003 and 2011 Gulf Wars through detection of underwater mines, affording safe passage to troop carrier and logistical supply ships. Moreover, around one-quarter of the United States’ nuclear submarine bases are guarded by “serving” dolphins.

The U.S. has also been researching the wider military benefits of marine life. This includes a program focused on “hiding” covert messages in sounds emanating from mammals, with the U.S. Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) project researching innate marine animal sensing capabilities for identifying and tracking adversary assets in the oceans. Similarly, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investigating whether goliath groupers can serve as underwater surveillance systems to detect adversarial oceangoing drones, nuclear submarines, and other threatening underwater vehicles.

Chinese mimicry research initiatives have sought to match if not surpass U.S. efforts. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) researchers have gone beyond simply using recordings of whale and dolphin songs as secret code, unnoticed by enemy eavesdroppers, to now using artificial signal synthesis to “create” whale and dolphin sounds. In particular, Chinese scientists have used sperm whale sounds as a means of transmitting coded messages from Chinese submarines to prevent enemy reconnaissance systems from detecting and deciphering their content.

In the bio-engineering domain, military scientists are aggressively pushing the boundaries of knowledge by developing robotic weapons systems. The U.S. has invented “Legged” Squad Support Systems and cyborg cockroaches that carry mini-power packs on their backs to transport and reconnoiter hostile terrain. Additionally, advanced research is exploring the potential of adapting dragonfly “hover” techniques as well as engineering “bio” armor adapted from the unique fiber and exoskeleton configurations found in snail shells and mantis shrimp claws.

Similar marine mimicry is pursued by the PLA, as exemplified by a remotely controlled robo-shark whose bionic tailfin power source is able to reach a top speed of six knots, can maneuver to avoid underwater obstacles, and conduct missions, including reconnaissance, search and rescue and battlefield surveillance. Also under development is a bright yellow biomimetic manta ray, possessing the capability to dive 1,000 meters and employ high propulsion efficiency, but with the ability to soft land on the seafloor.

In land systems, since 2016 China’s Ground Force Equipment Department has been incorporating animal robotics into its forces, including armed combatant robo-dogs. In 2022, Chinese engineers developed a large, four-legged robotic “yak” capable of hauling up to 160 kilograms and traveling at 6.21 miles per hour over various terrains including grasslands, deserts and snow fields.

In the aerial domain, the PLA has been experimenting with insects, creating flying robotic machines that mimic the ways lightning bugs move, communicate and fly. Chinese security forces  are also developing a high-tech spy drone code-named “dove” that mimics 90 percent of actual dove movements. Dissimilar to conventional UAVs, it can gain altitude, dive, and accelerate, and is hard to detect since it attracts actual birds, and flies within the flock. Robotic doves can be used for surveillance, incorporating a high-definition camera, GPS antenna, and a flight control system, enabling satellite communication capability. China has reportedly deployed these bird-drones in the highly securitized Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The next step is to develop drone swarms, and here China is in in fierce competition with the United States. The U.S. Department of Defense has committed $3 billion to research human machine combat teaming and swarming operations by unmanned drones. The work is propelled by the imperative of acquiring an autonomous drone swarm system to counter China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems. An AI-enhanced command swarm will have the ability to control other swarms of thousands of unmanned aerial, surface, underwater, and ground drones to overwhelm military installations. DARPA’s Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive “Swarms-of-Swarms” (AMASS) research project is directed primarily at countering China’s DF-16 and DF-21D short-range ballistic missiles and “carrier-killer” anti-ship missiles that can take-out U.S. naval flotillas.

In response, China is attempting to build a counter drone-swarm capability. It will likely succeed, as China is already the world’s leader in drone technology, possessing the widest range of attack, surveillance, and logistics drones. In fact, in late 2022, evidence emerged of a 10 drone swarm navigating through a thick bamboo forest in fully autonomous mode, though scientists admit the technology needs to mature, and thus the search continues to find the elusive “intelligent algorithm.”

Aside from the requirement for drones to be autonomous, parallel research is examining the delivery vehicle for launching drone swarms. One possible option is China’s notorious high-altitude balloon. Indeed, in 2017 at least two uncrewed “bat-sized” drones were launched in Inner Mongolia from a stratospheric balloon. An inherent benefit of high-altitude balloons is that they offer the possibility of low-cost, long-endurance, maneuverable military missions. Once navigated into range of the target, the balloons can then loiter and release fully networked swarms in which individual drones can be configured to perform just one mission, with the entire group then able to carry out multiple tasks simultaneously. Significantly, the Pentagon has stated that the Chinese spy balloon shot down near the coast of South Carolina in February 2023 had the ability to maneuver via four sets of propellers.

The China-U.S. AI military race is clearly full on, with Beijing viewing the fourth industrial revolution as an opportunity to seize the initiative and become the world’s leading power in weaponizing AI and biotechnology. However, through its national strategy of military-civil fusion, China is also investigating the military applications of neuroscience. A recent paper by Elsa B. Kania paints a vivid picture of the PLA’s pursuit of military advantage via cognitive science and biotechnology.

The PLA predicts that future war will evolve from “informationized” to “intelligentized” conflict. For Beijing, the starting point was the 2016 launch of its integrated brain research, which was a response to the United States’ $2 billion BRAIN Initiative, established in 2013. China seeks hybridization of human and machine intelligence, leveraged from brain-computer interfaces to create intelligent autonomy. According to PLA scientists, the future human brain will become the new combat space. Cutting-edge technologies will be developed from biosensing to biomaterials to accelerate human enhancement for achieving military mental/cognizance dominance.

China believes the means to securing operational advantage and overpowering adversaries will be determined by algorithmic competitive advantage. This will be leveraged by futuristic intelligentized military systems, which are mooted to include transcranial magnetic stimulation to maximize integration between humans and weapons on future complex battlefields. Research aimed at brain mimicry and brain control has already commenced, with the purpose of facilitating a transition to completely autonomous robotic weapons systems.

Future weapon systems will also derive from biological dominance, broadening the battlefield canvas not only to include bioengineering of living organisms but also to capture genomics –  the next disruptive technology frontier. Work has already begun on the gene-editing of animals and human embryos. In fact, one research team has successfully inserted a gene from a microscopic tardigrade into human embryonic stem cells, leading to increased resistance to radiation and raising the prospect of super-troops able to survive nuclear fall-out.

Prospective changes to the nuclear calculus reinforce the judgment that the present China-U.S. AI-powered arms race will transition the world beyond “defense,” as commonly understood, profoundly changing the nature of war.

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