AI Strategies in the PLA’s Coastal and Air Defense

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 17

(Image: Use of AI tools in military command and control; Source: SECRSS)

China has made significant strides in its ongoing contest with the United States to dominate the technological vanguard, especially in the military realm. One primary indicator of these efforts is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) vigorous pursuit of integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into its defense apparatus. As tensions around territorial assertions become more pronounced (See for instance: RFA, September 4; VOA, September 18), it is imperative to understand the implications of AI in shaping potential conflict scenarios. Insights drawn from Chinese military documents and affiliated think-tank articles reveal an emerging era where AI does not merely supplement but revolutionizes military operations and strategic paradigms. China’s escalating prowess in AI-driven coastal and air defense is helping consolidate its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities which, given China’s regional aspirations, should serve as a compelling signal for other nations to be aware of this emerging military reality.

As global superpowers navigate increasingly choppy geopolitical waters, the concept of A2/AD has moved to center stage. Historically, A2/AD strategies were designed to prevent or deter adversaries from entering or crossing a specific geographical area, through a mix of missiles, naval assets, and other defense mechanisms. With the introduction of AI into the defense realm, the dynamics of A2/AD can be redefined. AI-driven systems, with their superior speed, precision, and predictive capabilities, bolster the efficiency and efficacy of traditional A2/AD methods. In the case of the PLA, the emphasis on integrating AI into air and coastal defenses showcases China’s intent to fortify its Western Pacific buffer to deter the U.S. military and its allies from entering the potential battlefields like the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. [1] As the competition for dominance in the Indo-Pacific intensifies, understanding the interplay of AI with other systems in shaping A2/AD capabilities offers invaluable insights into the future of regional security and global military strategies.

There has been minimal discourse on precisely how AI might reshape the PLA’s combat doctrines; and when it is mentioned, the pivotal role of AI in advancing the PLA’s air and coastal defense strategies often goes unnoticed. However, if China could incorporate AI to gain an edge in air and coastal defenses, this could lead to a marked improvement in the country’s A2/AD capabilities, which because of cross-Strait proximity, would translate to more pronounced control over Taiwan’s maritime and aerospace corridors. As China’s A2/AD capabilities mature, coupled with its advanced precision strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) reach extending beyond the first or even the second island chain, the United States’s freedom of navigation and posture in the Pacific could face significant challenges.

The PLA’s Strategic Vision is Rooted in AI

China’s president Xi Jinping (习近平) has been unequivocal about the nation’s ambitions: He aims to accelerate the transformation of the PLA into a world-class force, elevating its capabilities not only in terms of traditional hardware but also in terms of technological sophistication. Recent strategic communications have made a pronounced emphasis on “intelligentization” (智能化). This denotes a paradigm where AI-driven weapon systems are the very core of the PLA’s defense strategy, not merely supplementary to it. [2] With the integration of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization — the “three-izations” (三化) — Beijing signals its intent to evolve its military doctrine, positioning AI at its nexus. [3]

The depth of AI’s importance in Xi Jinping’s military modernization is widely recognized, but its strategic implications remain largely unexplored. Though the Pentagon’s “net assessment model” and its “perspective from the other side” methodology from the last century are well-understood among defense and strategy scholars, there remains a gap in the general understanding of how China’s defense establishment perceives its evolving capabilities and strategic balance in light of AI advancements. [4] Recent publications from these affiliated entities can help to piece together a clearer image of the strategic vision of the PLA and its affiliated organs.

Redefining the Skies: AI in Air Defense

Air defense, a realm historically dependent on human decision-making, is undergoing a transformative shift through its integration of artificial intelligence into its routine practices. States have a vast airspace that they are tasked with monitoring and protecting, so the challenges of real-time surveillance, threat identification, and interception are legion. In this context, the PLA’s focus on AI is growing rapidly.

From the PLA perspective, a stark difference is emerging between traditional and AI-integrated air defense techniques. Traditionally, air defense relied heavily on human operators and radar systems to identify, track, and neutralize threats. But even with the most well-trained human operators, there were inherent challenges: limited speed of analysis, the potential for human error, and sometimes cumbersome communication chains. Machine learning capabilities can improve the speed, accuracy, and real-time adaptability of air defense responses. The PLA’s sophisticated algorithmic technology is adept at coordinating different satellites, enhancing the efficiency of satellite communication, and handling the intricacies of space-based networks. [5] Chinese experts believe that by analyzing communication patterns, AI can foresee and counteract disruptions, guaranteeing stable and superior communication with space assets. This quality of communication is critical for surveillance, weapon system coordination, and multi-platform operations. [6] Unlike traditional systems that depend on manual adjustments and may falter with unforeseen communication issues, AI systems adjust in real-time, emphasizing AI’s essential role in ensuring dependable air-space asset (天基资产) integration and space-based ISR capabilities.

Data, often regarded as the “blood” of AI, is at the very heart of this technological integration. Emphasizing its importance, recent publications note that genuine adversarial data is becoming the foundation for refining combat principles and standards. Adversarial data are inputs given to machine learning models, which would not fool humans but are designed to trick AI. They are fed to models as a training method to identify weaknesses in models to better refine their learning capacity A significant lesson as described by Chinese sources is the United States’s progress in accumulating data, utilizing early warning systems, and blending multisource information to mitigate natural interferences. [7] For these AI systems to function optimally, it is not just the volume of data which is important, but their variety, veracity, and the connections that can be established between diverse datasets.

The PLA will likely see a need to gain a deeper understanding of aerospace intelligence. However, due to political sensitivities and the prohibitive costs associated with real-world training, opportunities for tests and exercises remain scarce. Thus, using adversarial data from realistic training and validating its impact can help bridge this gap. [8] Such exercises include simulating an entire interception process, which would not only bolster the learning capabilities of AI programs, but also train command and control systems to swiftly plan missions. This is regarded in the literature as creating a kind of battle-ready “subconscious.”

The interaction of AI and human decision-making (人机融合) in air defense is emerging as a focal point in modern military strategy. AI, with its capacity to process vast troves of information, offers a unique advantage, particularly when confronted with human operators’ physiological limits. Such capabilities promise to significantly bolster emergency response rates and enhance the overall decision-making framework in aerospace defense operations. However, there are some ethical and strategic challenges that are yet to be overcome. The debate in China over AI’s autonomy, especially when dealing with autonomous and lethal weapon systems, remains unresolved. [9] While AI can provide invaluable support in information processing and augmenting decision-making capabilities, it may not supersede the final oversight of human decision-makers. A fusion of AI’s computational prowess with overall human command is the desired endgame in the eyes of many Chinese experts. [10]

Guardians of the Coastline: AI-Driven Coastal Defense

In the realm of coastal defense, the Chinese government emphasizes the intricate balance between the needs of modern security and the pace of technological evolution. [11] Historically, the extensive and intricate nature of China’s coastline has posed significant challenges to its national security. [12] Effective surveillance and defense required extensive manpower and resources to monitor thousands of miles of diverse terrain. However, advancements in AI have ushered in a new era of coastal defense strategies for the PLA.

In the future, frontline information support requirements of modern coastal defense systems will lean more heavily on AI. The capability to perform unmanned surveillance over such vast expanses is crucial. AI-powered systems facilitate all-weather patrolling, intelligent data gathering, automatic identification, and real-time intelligence transmission. The use of unmanned radars, drones, autonomous underwater vehicles, and even robotic systems has become a cornerstone of this approach. With these tools, the PLA can aim to achieve constant, automated patrols and monitoring of substantial stretches of the coast. [13] The system is also able to automatically identify and analyze objects, including humans, vehicles, aircraft, and ships. This information is then transmitted to command centers in real-time, ensuring rapid response capabilities.

With Xi Jinping’s leading doctrine on “intelligentization” of warfare, the PLA’s coastal defense apparatus aims to be smarter and more responsive. An AI-led control process will necessitate real-time intelligence sharing for seamless operations. When dealing with multi-location operations near the coastline, the PLA would like to ensure real-time information delivery, coordinated decisions across multiple areas among different forces, and the ability for simultaneous assessment in the battlefield instead of conducting evaluation afterward. The PLA’s goal is not just to respond via machine but to evolve swiftly by making ultra-refined decisions, constantly adapting to new inputs at a speed and scale far beyond that at which humans can execute commands. [14]

AI allows for the redefining of operation assessments, which traditionally are only conducted after the completion of drills or military campaigns. Future warfare scenarios demand that an effective assessment organically modifies and enhances combat tactics and performance in real time without considerable human’s involvement. Unmanned platforms will be at the forefront, conducting autonomous evaluations. The fusion of big data, cloud computing, and expert databases ensures that these evaluations are comprehensive, with control systems autonomously gathering data, calculating evaluation metrics, providing feedback, and adjusting parameters in real-time (自我修正). [15]

There is an observable shift underway in the operational mode for coastal defenses. As robotics and drone technologies advance, the traditional “frontier reconnaissance followed by control” approach (前侦后控) is being replaced by one of “instantaneous detection and strike” (侦打一体). [16] Drones, powered by AI, are self-driven to scout and target enemies. They are programmed to optimize attack formations autonomously, acting on data inputs without the need for manual intervention. Referring back to global advancements, such as American research on drone swarm warfare and China’s own demonstrations, it is likely that the PLA is gearing towards enhanced autonomous special situation handling. The capability to autonomously control unmanned swarms, rapidly adapting to the dynamic nature of coastal defense scenarios, is integral to their strategy.

The integration of AI into the PLA’s coastal defense strategy signifies a shift in both technological application and strategic intent. By leveraging the capabilities of AI, from enhanced surveillance to predictive decision-making, the PLA is ensuring that its coastal defense systems are not only robust but are also constantly evolving. The future of coastal defense, much like its air defense counterpart, will be characterized by an increasing integration between man and machine.


Given the rapid pace of technological advancement in China, the next 3-5 years of military AI development will likely see an increased integration of AI-driven systems into coastal defense mechanisms, enhancing their efficiency and responsiveness. While the United States prudently restricts the export to China of the most advanced chips and the equipment to manufacture them, China will remain determined to leverage dual-use technology development in its quest for military modernization. The technological tit-for-tat will continue. For international stakeholders, particularly the United States and its allies, there is an urgent need to reassess defense strategies and recalibrate deterrence mechanisms where necessary.

As the PLA actively explores the integration of AI into its command-and-control systems, the outcome remains uncertain. Yet the commitment to embedding this technology at the heart of military modernization is clear. An underlying tension is evident between those who champion AI’s dominant role in real-time decision-making and others who advocate for AI’s enhanced role without entirely replacing human judgment. This potential dichotomy poses a challenge: can the PLA find a balance, especially when it implies granting machines significant autonomy in determining battle strategies? Entrusting AI with such authority could risk unintended escalations, causing situations to spiral out of the leadership’s control. These will be the key questions over the next few years, warranting careful consideration and decisive answers.


[1] “Experts say China’s military forces are forcing the United States to retract from the First Island Chain.” [专家称中国军事力量迫使美国从第一岛链向后收缩] People’s Daily Online [人民网], October 8, 2014

[2] “China’s National Defense in the New Era” [新时代的中国国防], National People’s Congress [国务院], July 24, 2019

[3] Koichiro Takagi, “Xi Jinping’s Vision for Artificial Intelligence in the PLA: China is seeking to use “intelligentization” to build a “world-class” military.”, The Diplomat, November 16, 2022

[4] Thomas G. Mahnken, “ANDREW W. MARSHALL: IN MEMORIAM”, War on the Rocks, April 8, 2019

[5] Li Qi, Qin Daguo, Wang Jun [李奇,秦大国,王军] “Analysis of the Application of Artificial Intelligence in Aerospace Defense”[ 人工智能在空天防御中的应用分析], National Defense Technology [国防科技], April, 2020

[6] Zhou Lai, Jin Xiaowei, Zheng Yikai [周来,靳晓伟,郑益凯]. “Research on Combat Assistance Decision-making Based on Deep Reinforcement Learning” [基于深度强化学习的作战辅助决策研究]. Aerospace Defense [空天防御], 2018

[7] Lu Hongya, Wang Qian, Chen Yue, Cui Peng [陆红亚,王倩,陈悦,崔鹏], “Analysis of the Development of U.S. Space Military Strategy and its Impact on Space Security” [美太空军事战略发展分析及对空间安全的影响研究] Modern Defense Technology. [现代防御技术] June 2023.

[8] Zhu Feng, Hu Xiaofeng, Wu Lin [朱丰,胡晓峰,吴琳] “From Situation Awareness to Intelligent Situation Awareness” [从态势认知走向态势智能认知] Journal of System simulation [系统仿真学报], 2018

[9] Liu Wei[刘伟]. “Rethinking Human-Machine Integrated Intelligence” [人机融合智能的再思考] Artificial Intelligence [人工智能], 2019

[10] Hu Xiaofeng [胡晓峰]. “Analysis and Evaluation of War Complex System Capabilities” [战争复杂体系能力分析与评估研究]. Science Press [科学出版社], 2019

[11] “Overview of the First Year of Implementation of the Outline for the Joint Operations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Trial) “[中国人民解放军联合作战纲要(试行)施行一周年综述]. PRC Ministry of National Defense [国防部], 2021

[12] Andrew Nathan & Andrew Scobell, “China’s search for security”, Columbia University Press, 2012

[13] Huang Zicai, He Chunyao, Yang Yuan. [黄子才,和春耀,杨元] “Intelligent Coastal Defense Construction” [智能化边海防建设]. Defense Technology Review [国防科技], June 2018

[14] Cao Lei [曹雷]. “Reshaping the Command Information System from the Perspective of Decision-Making Advantage” [决策优势视角下的指挥信息系统体系重塑]. China Command and Control Society Communications [中国指挥与控制学会通讯], 2017

[15] Tang Runze, Zhang Chenglong, Li Linlin [汤润泽,张承龙,李林林]. “Application of Artificial Intelligence on Situation Assessment and Game Countermeasure in Unmanned Battlefield” [人工智能在无人战场态势预判与博弈对抗中的应用]. Beijing Institute of Electronic System Engineering [北京电子工程总体研究所], October 2020

[16] Huang Zicai, He Chunyao, Yang Yuan. [黄子才,和春耀,杨元] “Intelligent Coastal Defense Construction” [智能化边海防建设]. Defense Technology Review [国防科技], June 2018