Is China Really Building Missiles With Artificial Intelligence?
Military missiles are presented during the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, in Beijing, China (September 3, 2015.)
Image Credit: REUTERS/Rolex Dela Pena/Pool

Is China Really Building Missiles With Artificial Intelligence?


With rising security challenges in the global commons, there is growing interest in the subject of “intelligent” weapons systems. This is especially so in the maritime realm, where recent studies have shown that precision-guided weaponry and networked systems are likely to play an increasingly important role. Even while accepting autonomous systems as the future of maritime warfare, however, many find the subject of “intelligent weapon systems” to be deeply contentious.

A good point of departure for the discussion on autonomous combat systems is a recent report in the Chinese media about the development of a family of cruise missiles with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. In August this year, a Chinese daily reported that China’s aerospace industry was developing tactical missiles with inbuilt intelligence that would help seek out targets in combat. The “plug and play” approach, a Chinese aerospace executive pointed out, could potentially enable China’s military commanders to launch missiles tailor made for specific combat conditions.

Oddly enough, no clarifications were offered for what “tailor made cruise missiles with high levels of artificial intelligence and automation” really meant. Apart from reiterating China’s global leadership status in the field of artificial intelligence, the Chinese source did not provide any insight into the specific nature of autonomous capability being developed.

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The issue for many naval commanders is the dichotomy between the theoretical definition of Artificial Intelligence and its popular interpretation. Technically, AI is any onboard intelligence that allows machines in combat to execute regular tasks, allowing humans more time to focus on demanding and complex missions. Modern-day combat requires war-fighters to operate with the active assistance from sensors and systems. In theory, AI provides the technology to augment human analysis and decision-making by capturing knowledge that can be re-applied in critical situations. It purports to change the human role from “in-the-loop” controller to “on-the-loop” thinker who can focus on a more reflective assessment of problems and strategies, guiding rather than being buried in execution detail.

In practice, however, Artificial Intelligence is a term used for a combat system that has the ability to take targeting decisions. This is more in the nature of “who to target,” as opposed to “how to target,” which is anyway a task that guided missiles have been performing with some precision. It’s worth emphasizing that maritime forces remain skeptical of autonomous weapon systems with independent targeting capability. In the nautical realm, the launch of a missile on an enemy platform is an act of war. The decision to execute a missile launch is the exclusive preserve of the command team (led by the ship’s captain), which must independently assess the threat and act in pursuit of war objectives.

Despite several advancements allowing for a more precise targeting of platforms, the logic of maritime operations hasn’t fundamentally changed. As a result, naval missiles haven’t been invested with any serious intelligence to make command decisions to target enemy units. While their ability to strike targets has been radically enhanced — through the use of superior onboard gyros, computing systems, and track radars — the basic mode of operation of cruise missiles remains the same.

To be sure, Artificial Intelligence is considered indispensable in the development of new-age naval weapons, in particular hypersonic missiles. After China’s recent high-speed (over Mach 10), “extreme maneuvers” hypersonic tests, it is amply clear that future combat missions will require a human-machine interface on an unprecedented scale; which is why four other Asian states — Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan — have been developing supersonic and hypersonic systems. Each one of them has expressed an aspiration for a sophisticated maritime force, with long range sensors, armor protection, precision weapons, and networking technologies. Yet none has been developing naval missile systems with artificial intelligence.

A useful illustration of the predicament that AI poses for the naval community is the U.S. Navy’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Often portrayed by senior officers as a single-shot remedy for America’s surface-combat deficit at sea, the LRASM is a replacement for the Harpoon missile (albeit a more powerful version) and a supposedly “intelligent” missile system. Guided first by ship-borne equipment and then by satellite, the projectile is jam-resistant and capable of operations without the Global Positioning System. Flying through a series of way-points, evading static threats, land features, and commercial shipping, the LRASM has the capability to detect threats independently, and navigate around them.

The nature of the LRASM’s “intelligence,” however, tells a story. The missile is smart enough to avoid the engagement zone of an enemy ship that is not on the target list. To bypass enemy warships that aren’t on the target list, it skips way-points that lie within their weapons-engagement range. With an inbuilt capability to dive to sea-skimming altitude in its approach to the target vessel, the missile can strike at an independently calculated “mean point of impact.”

Notwithstanding its considerable computing and processing capabilities, however, the LRASM does not select its target in flight. Human operators feed that information into the missile, providing it with a continuous stream of data. In crime-investigation lingo, the missile is not the mastermind of the encounter; only the assassin. This also demonstrates of the limits of artificial intelligence, where the missile makes its own decisions only after it receives critical targeting information from the command team. Despite its coordinated attack capabilities, the LRASM cannot be termed as a fully autonomous weapon.

Understandably, the debate surrounding artificial intelligence and autonomous naval platforms is a contentious one. AI might have the potential to radicalize naval operations at sea, but many maritime practitioners are uncomfortable with its use in combat – particularly the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). The ethical dilemma arises from the LAWS’ ability to kill people, and policymakers’ reservations about inanimate systems that can take decisions to terminate lives.

It is instructive that while the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has, in recent years, developed programs that envisages the use of LAWS, these apply only to Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) — where autonomous aerial vehicles must only target enemy platforms in situations where signal-jamming makes communication between human commanders impossible.

Here too, there is a debate about its humanitarian implications, because international humanitarian law — which governs attacks on humans in times of war — has no specific provisions for such autonomy. The 1949 Geneva Convention on humane conduct in war requires any attack to satisfy three criteria: military necessity; discrimination between combatants and non-combatants; and proportionality between the value of the military objective and the potential for collateral damage. Evidently, these are subjective judgments no current AI system seems able to fully to satisfy.

In the absence of consensus around “artificially intelligent” weapons, autonomous naval combat systems are yet to find ready acceptance in the military. Navy officials aren’t against the use of AI technologies to hasten command and control processes and human decision-making on naval platforms, but it is unlikely they will easily acquiesce to weapon systems taking independent targeting decisions.

Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation at New Delhi. His recent report on Unmanned and Autonomous Vehicles and Future Maritime Operations in Littoral Asia elaborates on issues covered in this piece.

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