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Unveiling the PLA-ISF and China's AI Ambitionsby@hughharsono
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Unveiling the PLA-ISF and China's AI Ambitions

by Hugh HarsonoMay 2nd, 2024
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In mid-April 2024, China’s CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission (CMC) unveiled its rebranding of its People’s Liberation Army - Information Support Force (PLA-ISF). The creation of the PLA-ISF is cause for concern because it suggests increased CCP control over all AI activities within China, while also highlighting the potentiality of China to execute long-term military campaigns leveraging AI technologies. The PLA-ISF is China’s latest step to modernize its military specific to information warfare and other emerging technologies in a multi-domain operational concept.
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In mid-April 2024, China’s CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission (CMC) unveiled the rebranding of its People’s Liberation Army - Information Support Force (PLA-ISF). The PLA-ISF is China’s latest step to modernize its military-specific to information warfare and other emerging technologies in a multi-domain operational concept.


The creation of the PLA-ISF is cause for concern because it suggests increased CCP control over all AI activities within China, while also highlighting the potentiality of China to execute long-term military campaigns leveraging AI technologies. Additionally, the increase in Chinese gray-zone activities serves to underscore this notion, with the effects of social media manipulation, infrastructure, and cybersecurity attacks being significantly amplified if coupled with AI.

Restructuring the PLA-ISF

The now-dissolved PLA-Strategic Support Force (PLA-SSF) was originally formed in December 2015 with the intent to develop China’s space capabilities. However, during its 8-year tenure, the PLA-SSF eventually acted as a centralization and consolidation point for all information networks and support operations for the entire PLA.


The PLA-SSF’s two main departments were the Network Systems Department and the Space Systems Department, which operated with significant autonomy compared to other PLA units. Previously, each PLA service branch had its own information network and support units.


The PLA-ISF has resulted in the creation of an Aerospace Force, a Cyberspace Force, and an Information Support Force, with these three arms operating in conjunction with the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), which itself was established back in 2016 to improve Chinese military logistical operations.


This reorganization, along with the increased rank needed for a Force to be run instead of a Department, highlights a strategic realignment within the PLA, showcasing the emphasis the CCP is placing on these “new” Forces as part of its modernized warfare capabilities.

PLA Applications of Artificial Intelligence

The PLA has long been pursuing AI-enabled systems and capabilities as part of its military modernization in alignment with its national military-civil fusion (MCF) strategy, with these capabilities extending from traditional military functions to more modernized digital warfare.


PLA units have had a long focus on developing robotics and other unmanned systems specifically for military applications, chief among them the Caihong 4 (CH-4).


Developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, which itself is a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The CH-4 is nearly identical to General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, with sales to the Congo in 2023, Indonesia in 2019, and a multitude of other countries.


Other examples of AI being used in Chinese military applications include the Shanyi 5 unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) and the even smaller UBot-SCU B 10 UGV. Additionally, the PLA could leverage AI for military decision-making, missile guidance, and electronic warfare.


On the modern warfare front, AI could be used to assist gray-zone activities conducted by state-sponsored actors. Future state uses of AI could include generative AI for social media manipulation and the use of AI as part of a threat attack (ex: bot attack, Distributed Denial of service (DDos), etc.).


Some notable past examples of previous gray-zone activities include the May 2023 Microsoft disclosure of activity attributed to hacker group Volt Typhoon, which targeted critical cyber infrastructure in internet-connected systems, as well as the May 2014 indictment of five Chinese military hackers belonging to Unit 61398 for computer hacking, economic espionage, and more.


The addition of AI to these efforts, whether explicitly or implicitly backed by the PLA, should raise significant alarm.

CCP Emphasis on Artificial Intelligence

In March 2023, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping Xi called on the PLA to “raise the presence of combat forces in new domains and of new qualities.” to help ensure China’s national strategy of MCF to enable the PRC to become the most technically advanced military in the world.


This built upon statements Xi made in October 2017 at the 19th CPC National Congress, where he highlighted the importance of AI and innovation while advancing China’s military.


This is particularly concerning given the prolific nature of Chinese research into artificial intelligence, with Chinese researchers publishing 155,487 AI papers in 2022, followed by EU researchers with 101,455 publications, and U.S. researchers with 81,130. The Chinese accounted for nearly 40% of global AI publications in 2021.


Additionally, the PRC’s mixture of both licit and illicit means to obtaining knowledge around AI, whether through investment in private industries and research collaborations or through forced technology transfer and outright theft, highlights why a new consolidated military command focusing on network operations and emerging technologies is quite concerning.

Conclusion

While the formation of the PLA-ISF may seem like a simple rebrand to some, the newly established PLA-ISF implies significant changes to the way China approaches emerging technologies and intelligent warfare. The elevation of the PLA-ISF and its associated leadership as an entity, along with the formation of the Aerospace Force, Cyberspace Force, and Information Support Force, demonstrate the military commitment that the PLA is undertaking to better ensure the integration of emerging technologies within the PLA.


The increased rise of grey-zone activities as part of modern warfare demonstrates the immense negative potential that AI can have if leveraged inappropriately and without proper safeguards. With CCP ethics already being questionable to begin with, the world can only imagine what true AI integration as part of China’s national military-civil fusion strategy will have on the rest of the world, particularly in light of the creation of the PLA-ISF.


The views expressed in this piece are personal. This article does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.