Why China Will Soon Have One of Its First Military Advantages over the United States

Image Source: WikiMedia Commons

By Stanley Shapiro

By every measure, the United States military is the most technologically advanced on the planet. Through the creation of fifth generation stealth fighter jets, nuclear powered aircraft carriers capable of launching fixed-wing aircraft, Ohio-class guided-missile submarines, and an array of other targeting systems and remote weapons capabilities, the US has firmly planted itself on top of the global military hierarchy, a supremacy it has enjoyed for decades. However, US dominance is now threatened by a technology relatively new to the battlefield: Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI has a wide range of military applications including surveillance, reconnaissance, threat evaluation, and cyber security, among many others. With its wide breadth of crucial applications, AI proves to be the most important technology currently in development by militaries. By 2030, China will have an AI program that is comparable with the United States, and because their military’s main focus is modernization, they will leverage AI as a leapfrog technology, putting the United States at a military disadvantage.

Once China realized the commercial and military benefits of AI, they invested billions of dollars into its development, creating an unparalleled state-led push to develop AI. This investment will result in a top-tier AI program rivaling that of the United States by 2030. On the commercial end, China laid out three distinct checkpoints occurring in 2020, 2025, and 2030 for its AI development over the next decade in a report titled “A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” Their first checkpoint, occurring this year, has the goal of matching competitors, mainly the United States, both on the metrics of technology passed and the ways AI is being applied. Though it is not publicly disclosed how much money the Chinese government is putting into these programs, there are estimates ranging from $1.7 billion to tens of billions of dollars. An analysis generated by Georgetown suggests many of the numbers United States officials are citing are highly inflated. When comparing China’s 2018 estimates and the United States’ 2020 fiscal year budget, the gap is around $2.5 billion. The United States is still being outspent, but by a lower margin than commonly thought.

The next checkpoint, occurring in 2025, states that China will “achieve major breakthroughs in basic theories for AI, such that some technologies and applications achieve a world-leading level and AI becomes the main driving force for China’s industrial upgrading and economic transformation, while intelligent social construction has made positive progress.”  Though this checkpoint is five years away, considering its progress in the last three years, China will complete almost every part. This is partially because China’s AI plan is not the only measure in place to propel their country towards technological superiority.

In 2015, they launched a plan called “Made in China 2025,” with the intent of becoming the leader in global high-tech manufacturing. This plan, like the AI Development Plan, is state-led. They work in tandem with each other using new technology to develop AI and vice-versa. Specifically, China is bridging a major gap holding them back from AI dominance through the 2025 plan: reliance on foreign technology. Officially, made in China 2025 was erased from the public in 2019. It ceased to be mentioned by any officials or in any Chinese reports and Chinese media was banned from reporting on it. Unofficially, the plan continues actively. China will not be technologically independent by 2025, but it is making strides.

Finally, by 2030, the plan states: “China’s AI theories, technologies, and applications should achieve world-leading levels, making China the world’s primary AI innovation center…” China wants to make the themselves the unipolar superpower in AI. They still have a long way to go to achieve this goal, and it is likely one that will not be accomplished in its entirety.

Since China has fewer obligations than the United States, both financially and politically, to maintain an expensive and expansive military, they will leverage AI as a leapfrog technology. As a result, they will lead global integration of AI into military technologies. This is not to say that China’s technology will be any better, but they will be faster to implement it into military systems. Leapfrog technologies are nothing new, especially with the Chinese. An example is mobile payment. China did not develop credit card technology, and instead, skipped right to mobile payment. There were $13 trillion in mobile payments in China compared to $49 billion in the United States. Even adjusting for population, China still uses mobile payment by a factor of roughly 62x. The same will be true for the modernization of China’s military. China has the distinct advantage of implementing AI alongside a new modernization initiative. While these technological reasons make a compelling argument in and of themselves, China also has the advantage of an authoritarian government. Public opinion, elections, and multiple branches of government play far less of a role in determining spending and foreign policy.

Chinese R&D spending is increasing across all sectors, putting it on a path to surpass the United States in R&D funding in the near future. Proportionally, the Chinese military spends more on R&D than the United States military. In 2017, the United States spent $610 billion on defense (there was a budget of $700 billion allocated for 2018) compared to an estimated $228 billion spent by the Chinese. For more context these numbers, from 2008-2017, Chinese military spending increased 110% compared to a 14% decrease in United States military funding. Given the fact that in that same time period China’s military decreased by 200,000 people, it is reasonable to assume their budget is focused on modernization and not physical expansion. To put spending in perspective, according to the Department of Defense 2019 fiscal year report, the United States spent $280.6 billion on Operations and Maintenance. In 2015, Operations and Maintenance made up around half of the defense budget. This shows the spending burden the United States must shoulder in order to maintain their military. China, on the other hand, spent just 28% of their military budget on training and maintenance. 41% of their spending was on equipment, an 8% increase in proportional makeup of military spending. Though these numbers are not completely reliable as they come from the Chinese Ministry of Defense, they can still be used to determine spending trends within the Chinese Military.

There is still time for the United States to reverse this trend. For almost twenty years, it has been actively involved in conflicts in Afghanistan, and Iraq, alongside many other shorter engagements. It is important for the United States military to maintain focus on these conflicts, but as they scale down, it must shift its attention to China. Current weapons systems give the United States a colossal advantage in countries such as Afghanistan or Syria, but China is a completely different enemy. A military conflict the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely, but nonetheless, the focus needs to be on modernization. First, the investment in unmanned platforms and AI for defense purposes needs to increase. It currently receives only 20% of all R&D funding for platforms, a number that is unacceptably low. Unmanned platforms will be the future of wars, whether in China or the Middle East. Second, the United States must stop funneling money into unnecessary weapons programs such as that of the F-22 Raptor. Third, the United States must be willing to cut off old technology and consolidate its military. In 2012, there were more than 2000 inactive tanks in an Army depot in California. The Army said it did not want more tanks. Congress then set aside $181 million for the purchase of more tanks. Instances like this are common, and the result is billions of wasted dollars that could be spent developing future, far more effective technologies. Fourth, the United States needs to focus on the right kind of innovation. While stealth fighter jets and aircraft carriers are an important part of the military, they are not the only modernization our government should be focusing on. If the AI systems within them are obsolete, all the other technology will be at a disadvantage. If the United States puts the proper funding, attention, and focus into AI, then the pairing of advanced technology and AI systems will preserve its spot on top of the global military hierarchy. Finally, United States military officials have an obligation to convince both the public and congress that AI is a weapon worth investing in. Without widespread internal support, it will be nearly impossible for the United States to maintain a technological advantage. However, as the United States stands now, seeing that China will likely have an AI program on par with it, a massive push for military modernization, and no burden to maintain a massive, technologically advanced military, the United States is losing a technological battle that does not have an immediate end in sight.

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