China has launched a military agency to develop state of the art weapons, the latest step in the country’s ambitions to transform its army into a modern fighting force.
The Scientific Research Steering Committee was set up earlier this year but its existence was only reported this week, in a documentary aired by state broadcaster CCTV. It appears to be modelled on the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the US body set up in 1957 to identify and nurture technology with national security applications.
“The PLA sees technological innovation as a core aspect of military competition and seeks to draw upon Darpa’s model to achieve comparable successes,“ said Elsa Kania, an independent military analyst.
China’s economic explosion in recent decades has been accompanied by a rapid rise in military spending, which is expected to hit $150bn this year and more than $220bn by 2020, according to defence consultancy IHS Jane’s. However, its defence budget is still dwarfed by that of the US, which spent about $521bn on its military last year — roughly a third of the global total.
According to the documentary, the new agency will help implement “civilian-military integration“ — a catchphrase used by Beijing to describe efforts to enlist private companies in accelerating the development of the People’s Liberation Army. President Xi Jinping this year created the Military-Civil Integration Development Commission, a body he will head.
Pointing to several advanced military technologies developed in the US, the documentary also noted that “most are Darpa-related“ and declared: “If we want to win the military competition, we must undertake greater efforts to promote science and technology.“
Yue Gang, a military affairs analyst and retired PLA colonel, said the committee was part of China’s “strengthening military reforms“.
“We must restructure everything from the neck up,“ he said. “We want to be a strong technological army, which means not only having the best military equipment but also having the best in human talent to improve our ability to win.“
Last year China established a science and technology commission within the PLA. However, the new agency will have a broader mission of developing “not only the hardware but the software“ of the Chinese military, according to Mr Yue. Alongside defence technology, that would include honing military strategy and policy and new training regimes.
Revelations about the committee came during a week of celebrations to mark the PLA’s 90th birthday on August 1, highlighted by an exhibition at Beijing’s military museum that showcases the military’s weaponry from past to present.
The committee is the latest in a series of reforms overseen by President Xi since 2015 to make the PLA a leaner and more flexible fighting force, including a significant reshuffle of the PLA’s organisational structure to prioritise developing capabilities in information and electronic warfare.
Last week China’s State Council, or cabinet, announced plans to become the global leader in artificial intelligence technology by 2030. Under that strategy, military and civilian innovation resources will be “constructed together and shared“, and new-generation AI technologies will be applied as a “powerful support“ in military operations and designing defence equipment.
Several pieces of new military equipment have been unveiled this year, including the country’s first domestically-developed aircraft carrier. This month state news agency Xinhua revealed that China had tested a mass production model of the CH-5, an armed drone that resembles the US MQ-9 Reaper drone.