A Smarter Battlefield?: PLA Concepts for “Intelligent Operations” Begin to Take Shape

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 4

PLA personnel perform testing on an unmanned tank, March 2018. (Source: CCTV)


CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has shown himself to be a great enthusiast for the subject of artificial intelligence (AI). He is often photographed for propaganda purposes meeting with scientists at various research centers around the country, and has delivered high-profile speeches on the importance that AI development holds for China’s future (South China Morning Post, October 31 2018; Xinhua, November 1 2018). This intensive AI focus on the part of the PRC leadership has generated concerns among national security circles in the United States and other countries that emerging AI technologies will be incorporated into the Chinese military—and there is ample evidence that PRC political and military leaders do indeed see AI as a critical component of their country’s future military capabilities (CNAS, February 6; MIT Technology Review, February 7).

Most of China’s current AI military research is focused on hardware—such as robotic tanks and vehicles, autonomous drones, and remotely-piloted submarines. These pursuits are heavy on mechanical engineering and traditional research and development. They also fit within a broader pattern that has been noted by PLA scholars for the past two decades: the development of advanced weapons and military technologies as part of the “assassin’s mace” concept, in which the PLA will seek to conduct crippling asymmetric blows against potential opponents. [1] Previous examples of “assassin’s mace” weapons might have included the deployment of an anti-ship missile versus an aircraft carrier; however, assassin’s mace weapons might now include the use of big data, the Internet of Things, or cloud computing integrated with next-generation weaponry.

However, in regards to the future course of PLA weapons development, there is much more to consider than just technology—what, for example, about the tactics and doctrine accompanying the technology? Are Chinese military thinkers and academic institutions grappling with the complex issues associated with integrating new technologies into combat operations? The answer is yes: in one prominent example, the Academy of Military Science (Zhongguo Junshi Kexue Yuan, 中国军事科学院), or AMS, arguably the PLA’s premier institution for doctrinal development, is now focused on a significant program of reform and academic outreach intended to allow the PLA to better integrate and employ AI, robotics, and intelligent manufacturing (China Brief, January 18).

The PLA Seeks to Develop “Intelligent Operations”

The reforms at AMS are not occurring in isolation. Another key component of the PLA’s efforts to integrate new technologies is the emerging concept of “intelligent operations” (zhinenghua zuozhan, 智能化作战). Although the concept appears to still be evolving, an article from the official Xinhua state news service has defined intelligent operations thusly: “Intelligent operations have AI at their core, and use cutting-edge technologies throughout operational command, equipment, tactics, and other areas… they must be understood by the core concepts of ‘system intelligence is central,’ ‘full use of AppCloud,’ ‘multi-domain integration,’ ‘brain-machine fusion,’ ‘intelligent autonomy,’ and ‘unmanned struggle for mastery'” in the battlefield environment. [2]

An article from the PLA Daily has predicted dramatic impacts from the advent of intelligent operations, predicting that this new form of warfare will “break through traditional time and space limits of cognition,” “reconstruct the relationships between humans and weaponry,” and “bring about entirely new models of command and control” (PLA Daily, July 26 2018).

Two Chinese researchers, Shen Shoulin and Zhang Guoning, have identified another aspect of intelligent operations in the form of “cognitive confrontation” (renzhi duikang, 认知对抗), in which the key objective will be to achieve decisive supremacy over enemies in terms of information and awareness. As a result, future operations will attack enemy perceptions and understanding of the battlespace by “taking the cognitive initiative and damaging or interfering with the cognition of the enemy based on the speed and quality of the cognitive confrontation.” Such a struggle will replace traditional warfare concepts that have emphasized the control of physical domains such as the land, air, and sea (National Interest, May 30 2018).

In January, analyst Li Minghai from the PLA Daily went into further detail on intelligent operations, and the related concept of “intelligent warfare” (zhinenghua zhanzheng, 智能化战争). Li asserts that “future intelligent warfare is a three-dimensional, all-field warfare.” He further predicts that it will rely heavily on unmanned systems, which will “greatly reduce the ‘observation-judgment-decision-action-cycle’” faced by units in combat (Xinhua, January 15.)

The “Algorithm Game” and Other Aspirational Notions for Intelligent Operations

Li Minghai also introduced a curious notion called the “algorithm game” (suanfa boyi, 算法博弈), describing how this provides an advantage in warfare; in so doing, he builds on what Shen and Zhang detailed with their cognitive initiative concept. According to Li, various algorithms can predict what happens on the battlefield, and may therefore offer a cognitive advantage to PLA soldiers. Li’s supreme “algorithm” reduces the fog of war and helps fighters achieve better situational awareness: “The party that grasps the advantages of the algorithm in future war can quickly and accurately predict the situation on the battlefield, innovate the optimal method of warfare, and achieve the war purpose of ‘winning before the war’.” Li’s algorithm concept is based on big data and speed of computational power, especially with the use of quantum computing: he believes that quantum computing can “quickly propose flexible and diverse operational plans and countermeasures against the changes in the enemy’s situation, constantly disrupting the enemy’s attempts and deployments.” (Xinhua, January 15) [3]

Beyond the “algorithm game,” Li also proposes other aspirational ideas that could become a part of intelligent operations in the future. For example, he describes a “cloud brain” that would link combat units to an intelligent network, while battlefield decision-making and weapons control systems would be integrated on an undefined “net.” Meanwhile, intelligent warfare would combine this “net” with a “smart cloud” that would provide situational awareness (or what Western militaries might call intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). Somehow this system would be available to the common soldier, but how this would happen is not clear. Li mentions the use of a neural network to enhance the cloud-brain’s information and decision making, but he offers no concrete steps to make it a reality (Xinhua, January 15).


Chinese military writers are definitely applying innovative thinking to consideration of modern technology and its connection to warfare. Cognitive initiative will prove to be an important and revolutionary concept should Chinese intelligent warfare doctrine develop in a way that can trickle down to use by the PLA’s lower echelons. Capabilities such as cloud brain intelligent decision-making may be many decades away from real implementation, but they remain intriguing aspirational goals.

The emerging Chinese theorists of intelligent operations are attempting to address what Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war”—the collected uncertainty and confusion that reigns on the battlefield. Intelligent operations and intelligent warfare could offer answers to this age-old problem. The PLA should be given credit for thinking big to solve problems that participants in warfare have grappled with for generations: cognitive advantage, speed, early warning, and first-mover advantage. They are creating an underlying strategic doctrine for AI and other cutting-edge technologies in future warfare; if they can implement this successfully, the PLA will possess an obvious advantage in future conflicts.

Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is a Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in the Security Policy Studies MA Program. He is also a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army.


[1] The concept of “assassin’s mace” (shashoujian, 杀手锏) remains controversial, and scholars continue to debate exactly what the term means. For one of the earliest and most extensive examinations of the term, see: Jason Bruzdzinski, “Demystifying Sha Shou Jian: China’s ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Concept” in Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress (U.S. Army War College, Sep. 2004), pp. 309-364. https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1686.pdf.

[2] See: “Is This the Start of a Military Revolution? Six Major Keywords for Deciphering Intelligent Operations” (掀起新的军事革命?六大关键词解读智能化作战), Xinhua News Service, March 1, 2018. https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1593693342902366286&wfr=spider&for=pc. (Original text:智能化作战,是以人工智能为核心的前沿科技在作战指挥、装备、战术等领域渗透…可以从制智为要、泛在云联、多域一体、脑机融合、智能自主、无人争锋”等核心概念来理解和把握。”)

[3] The key difference between quantum computing and conventional computing is the use of the quantum bit or “qubit.” Classical bits can only hold a binary value of 0 or 1, but a qubit can hold a combination of 0 and 1 at the same time. This makes their computing power formidable and faster. The other major difference is that quantum computing is much more energy efficient; as problems that need computational power evolve and require more energy consumption, this is a great advantage.