New Tech, New Concepts: China’s Plans for AI and Cognitive Warfare
The United States and its allies may have built the Maginot Line of the information age. But just as the German armored units broke through the Ardennes Forest in ways the French did not expect, so the Chinese People’s Liberation Army may break through the United States’ information-age arsenal, no matter how cutting-edge, if the technology remains tied to the operational concepts of a previous era. China is developing a new concept of warfare, which they call intelligentized warfare (智能化战争). First mentioned by the government in 2019, it is an innovative military concept with a focus on human cognition, which Beijing intends to use to bring Taiwan under its control without waging conventional warfare. However, only a few of the many studies on intelligentized warfare have focused on this aspect of human cognition.
Chinese thinkers have clearly stated that the core operational concept of intelligentized warfare is to directly control the enemy’s will. The idea is to use AI to directly control the will of the highest decision-makers, including the president, members of Congress, and combatant commanders, as well as citizens. “Intelligence dominance” or “control of the brain” will become new areas of the struggle for control in intelligentized warfare, putting AI to a very different use than most American and allied discussions have envisioned.
This article analyzes the essence of China’s intelligentized warfare, its possibilities, and limitations, and suggests measures that the United States and its allies should take.
Why China Needs a New Operational Concept
There is a lot of debate about the likelihood and timeline for China’s strongly desired annexation of Taiwan. Considering China’s recent military activities around Taiwan, the shortest potential time frame for war to begin is the next two years. Also, given concerns about the sustainability of China’s economic growth model, there are arguments that war is most likely to occur in the late 2020s as Xi Jinping seeks to build a legacy before the economy falls into long-term stagnation. However, assuming China’s economic growth continues, another analysis suggests that a war in the 2030s is more likely.
On the other hand, there are debates about the feasibility of occupying Taiwan through conventional warfare. Many studies point out that invading Taiwan through conventional operations would be difficult under present conditions. The tidal currents and shallow seabed in the Taiwan Strait make it difficult for submarines to operate, and landing craft are vulnerable to anti-ship missiles. China’s existing landing forces are limited, and considering the area of Taiwan, it would not be easy to completely occupy the island using conventional operations alone. In addition, the Chinese military has never fought using modern warfare, and China itself has pointed out in many documents that there are major structural problems with its capabilities.
The initiation of war depends on the decisions of political leaders, and the existence of these problems does not guarantee that a conventional war will not occur. Many possibilities exist that could trigger a war, such as a Taiwanese move toward independence or a Chinese miscalculation regarding the strategic ambiguity of U.S. support for Taiwan. Historically, uncertainty about the intentions of other countries has often been a cause of war.
However, a conventional war would come at a high cost to China. Many studies have pointed out that missile surprise attacks against U.S. military assets, cyber-attacks, and attacks against satellites are likely to take place in the early stages of the war to prevent U.S. support for Taiwan. However, such attacks could arouse public opinion in the United States and lead to full-scale U.S. intervention, which could lead to a long, messy war between the United States and China.
Considering these problems, direct attacks on human cognition are highly logical for China. To solve the problems with their political goal of resolving the Taiwan issue, the Chinese government needs a new operational concept, distinct from an extension of conventional warfare. In an invasion of Taiwan based on intelligentized warfare, the theory is that unmanned weapons would affect the human cognition of Taiwan, the United States, and its allies, resulting in victory without using conventional weapons. The development of such an option would have great appeal to Chinese policymakers.
‘Intelligentized’ Warfare as the Solution
In July 2019, the People’s Liberation Army of China, in its first defense white paper in four years, wrote that “war is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligentized warfare is on the horizon,” indicating their recognition that a new form of warfare had emerged. Although the Chinese government has not provided its official definition, several Chinese researchers explain this concept as, “integrated warfare waged in land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic, cyber, and cognitive arenas using intelligent weaponry and equipment and their associated operation methods, underpinned by the IoT [internet of things] information system.”
Chinese researchers have consistently referred to the cognitive domain (认知领域) when explaining intelligentized warfare, and this has become a distinctive feature of it. However, only a few analyses in the United States of the intelligentized warfare concept mention the cognitive arena. The Department of Defense’s 2021 report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, which provides the most detailed analysis of intelligentized warfare, focuses on the technology used, defining it as “the expanded use of AI and other advanced technologies at every level of warfare,” but there is no mention of the cognitive domain. This concept describes human cognition in warfare in parallel with the land, sea, air, space, and cyber arenas, a concept not defined by the United States or its allies.
From the perspective of using AI in warfare, intelligentized warfare is not a new concept. On the contrary, the United States is far ahead of China. The Third Offset Strategy announced in November 2014, long before intelligentized warfare was announced, emphasized leveraging AI and automation. Moreover, U.S. analysts have conducted many excellent recent studies, such as a study on information and command in a techno-cognitive confrontation in addition to decision-centric operations that exploit AI and autonomous systems. China’s intelligentized warfare overlaps with these concepts in many respects.
The characteristics of intelligentized warfare described by Chinese researchers are the improvement of information-processing capabilities, rapid decision-making using AI, the use of swarms, and the fact that the cognitive domain will become the next most important battlefield after the physical and information space. In the United States, many studies discuss AI in relation to conventional concepts of warfare. However, in China’s intelligentized warfare, the military will use AI for an entirely new purpose: direct influence on the enemy’s cognition.
What might this look like in practice? Consider a hypothetical example from a Chinese strategist. An ultra-small intelligent unmanned system, perhaps simulating a small animal, can enter the rooms of the highest decision-makers (president, members of Congress, combatant commanders) without being detected. It would be activated to threaten the target or their family at the right moment, using lethal or non-lethal means, drugs, or some yet-to-be-determined form of mind control. It can also project text, voice, and images to convey its demands, thereby subduing the enemy’s will and controlling it. If a country threatens or kills decision-makers in this way, citizens may raise a backlash against the enemy country. For this reason, intelligentized warfare will also manipulate public opinion. Fake news and disinformation could discredit the target country’s government, with unmanned systems operating in cyberspace potentially used for this purpose. This manipulation conditions citizens to accept the policy changes caused by decision-makers succumbing to this technique.
These specific methods are described in a book published by Chinese strategist Pang Hong Liang and do not represent an official Chinese operational plan. However, his work is worth paying attention to because he is a pioneer of intelligentized warfare, and he proposed the concept as early as 2004, with an eye to the possibilities of AI in the future. In the 2000s, only a few theorists were discussing intelligentized warfare, but the Chinese government finally adopted the concept officially in 2019. Chinese military officers are active in publishing military theories, and often their personal writings are mistaken for the official views of the Chinese government. For example, two Chinese Air Force colonels who did not specialize in strategic analysis personally published Unrestricted Warfare in 1999, which was never adopted as China’s official strategy, but was translated into English with the subtitle China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, and was erroneously understood by media and policymakers. But this is not a case of mistaking a personal theory for official strategy: the fact that Xi Jinping has officially adopted the theory that Pang Hong Liang has been studying for nearly two decades is remarkable.
In addition, it is not only Pang Hong Liang who described these concepts. According to the writings of many Chinese theorists, China plans to avoid escalation through physical attacks, instead attacking the cognition of the people and elites of the United States and its allies, and their intelligence and command systems preemptively, if possible. As mentioned above, if there are major problems with conquering Taiwan through conventional warfare, these methods of intelligentized warfare would be attractive to Chinese policymakers.
Feasibility of A Surprise Attack
Military organizations that operate new technologies using the previous era’s operational thought have usually been defeated. Germany’s quick defeat of France at the beginning of World War II is one such example. The reason for this was Germany’s innovative military concept of blitzkrieg, one of the core technologies of which was the tank. The French had many tanks with better performance than the Germans. French military thought had not changed since World War I, however, and they treated tanks as support weapons for infantry. They could not cope with the blitzkrieg assault from the Ardennes Forest by German armored divisions composed of tanks.
The core technology in China’s intelligentized warfare is AI. China aims to use AI to develop an unprecedented and innovative operational concept like Germany’s blitzkrieg. Chinese strategists believe that even recent warfare strategies using cutting-edge information technologies will become obsolete if this is realized. As happened with France in World War II, even if a country uses new technologies such as tanks or AI, they will not achieve victory in the war if they continue to use the operational concept of the previous era.
In the age of information technology, information networks stretching from the ocean floor to outer space have been at the core of advanced military technology. Information networks have made it possible to shoot precisely and achieve excellent effects with less ammunition. Also, the coordination between sensors and firepower has become much better, making it possible to detect targets and unleash firepower immediately. The symbolic theory of this was Network Centric Warfare, proposed by Arthur K. Cebrowski in 1998. He insisted that rapid decision-making is possible in a networked organization, and overwhelming victory could be expected due to the superiority of decision-making speed.
The United States has built up a powerful military force in the information age and has demonstrated tremendous results. China is devising an asymmetric combat strategy to counter this powerful military force. In addition to missile attacks, cyber-attacks and attacks on satellites can disrupt U.S. information networks, thereby giving China an advantage in the information space. Such asymmetric operations interfere with the accuracy and speed of firepower achieved by information technology.
Chinese theorists, however, are looking further ahead. They believe that the development of information technology has reached its limits, and that future wars will occur in the cognitive domain. The Ardennes Forest of future wars that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army intends to exploit is a pathway of direct attack against human cognition, using AI and unmanned weapons. The French builders of the Maginot Line could not imagine the assault of German armored forces from the Ardennes Forest. Likewise, to those of us who have been accustomed to almost three decades of information-age warfare since the Gulf War, intelligentized or cognitive warfare seems a strange and unrealistic way of thinking.
Influencing human cognition requires a large amount of detailed personal information to identify influential individuals or to conduct influential operations according to the characteristics of subgroups of people. China has already collected a massive amount of personal information on government officials and ordinary U.S. citizens, ensuring a foundation for influencing people’s cognition. This includes the confidential data of 21.5 million people from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the personal information of 383 million people from a major hotel, and sensitive data on more than 100,000 U.S. Navy personnel. The Chinese government has then allowed Chinese IT giants to process this large amount of data, making it useful for intelligence activities. In this way, China has accumulated an enormous amount of data over the years which could be weaponized in the future. China has even succeeded in identifying CIA agents operating in foreign countries using such data. These activities are particularly aggressive and coercive in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which the Chinese government considers its territory. Attempts to use digital means to influence elections have also been seen in Taiwan’s recent presidential election.
The idea of a direct attack on human cognition, however, is not new. A representative example is Giulio Douhet’s aerial warfare in the 1920s. He argued that strategic bombing of enemy capitals would become possible with the advent of airplanes. As a result, citizens, seized with fear, would be expected to demand that their governments end the war, bringing it to an immediate conclusion. However, in World War II, no country surrendered because of strategic bombing, and the new technology of aircraft did not directly affect the will of belligerent countries. The idea of directly influencing human cognition through the latest technology of AI may fail in the same way. The advent of new technology often results in overconfidence in its potential, and the idea that it would solve previously unsolvable military problems has arisen time and again throughout history.
There is an abundance of debate about the use of AI in future warfare, and the consensus that AI will change the characteristics of warfare is growing. There are various analyses of China’s use of AI, but some suggest that Chinese theorists have overlooked the inherent vulnerabilities of AI and autonomous systems, and have placed too much emphasis on their capabilities. As mentioned above, these theories were adopted out of political necessity to achieve the political goal of annexing Taiwan and may overestimate its feasibility. However, leaving it unnoticed as an object of analysis may lead to a future surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest.
The task now is to ascertain whether the AI in intelligentized warfare is the tank in blitzkrieg or the strategic bomber in aerial warfare.
Measures the United States and Its Allies Should Take
The United States and its allies should analyze intelligentized warfare more to avoid surprise attacks in future wars. They should also designate the cognitive arena as a new operational arena, along with land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace, to raise awareness and invest resources. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider how to win the “battle of narratives” to counter the manipulation of public opinion in wartime.
Future warfare comes from innovative theory and cannot be derived from existing weapons. In the 1920s, when Germany developed the concept of blitzkrieg warfare, the country did not have any tanks, as the Treaty of Versailles banned them. Even in 1939, when Germany led the blitzkrieg, less than 10 percent of the German troops were armored forces. Most of China’s colossal military still has outdated equipment, and only a tiny percentage of its troops have modern intelligence equipment. The vision of future warfare lies not in existing equipment, but in military thought. The United States and its allies have to evaluate hypotheses about the future, rigorously and effectively.
Regardless of whether China’s intelligentized warfare succeeds or not, it is important to pay attention to the cognitive domain in warfare and consider the means to win in it. The idea of directly influencing human cognition is not new, but with the development of AI, it may be more feasible. Intelligentized warfare uses AI to intimidate the enemy’s decision-makers and manipulate public opinion. Dealing with the direct manipulation of public opinion requires a complex operation. There are many studies about the manipulation of public opinion by China and Russia in peacetime, but there have been few analyses on wartime efforts. In warfare, both sides will use their own narratives. For example, in the case of the Taiwan-China conflict, the Chinese narrative will be something like, “These are China’s domestic problems that other countries should not be involved in.” In contrast, the narrative of the United States and its allies will likely be about the defense of democratic society. Many sub-narratives will support these narratives. There will be a battle of the narratives to determine which narratives will penetrate and gain support in the international community.
China’s intelligentized warfare is a far cry from the information age wars that have been waged in the past and is not simply the use of AI or unmanned weapons systems in warfare. Its feasibility is unknown and may have been overestimated, out of political necessity. But with its goals of influencing human cognition directly and controlling the enemy’s will, it is a revolutionary idea.
Col. Koichiro Takagi is a senior fellow of Training Evaluation Research and Development Command, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. All views in the article are his own. He is a military theorist in Japan who has published many peer-reviewed articles on future wars. He is a former deputy chief, Defense Operation Section, 1st Operations Division, J-3, Joint Staff Japan, and has designed joint operation plans and orders in the severe security environment in East Asia.
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