China has revealed it is testing unmanned tanks that can potentially feature artificial intelligence-based systems, as the country looks to revolutionise its armed forces.
The Chinese state broadcaster CCTV revealed a brief clip of an ageing Type-59 tank fitted with new remote control technology and seemingly being driven by a soldier sitting at a nearby control deck.
State media said the Chinese military was investigating how to network the tanks to aircraft and satellites to work in a quicker and more lethal way than human driven versions.
Defence experts said the attempt appeared to be the latest foray into unmanned technology as part of a major overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army.
The four-man Type-59 tanks were once a mainstay of the Chinese forces, but are soon to be retired.
The Global Times newspaper quoted Liu Qingshan, chief editor of Tank and Armored Vehicle, as saying: “A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence.”
President Xi Jinping, who recently scrapped presidential term limits to set himself up as a potential leader for life, is reforming the army. Earlier this month China announced that its military budget for 2018 is 1.11 trillion yuan (£125 billion) – up 8.1 percent from 2017 – as the government targets becoming a global superpower by 2050.
Mr Xi has said that China will never seek expansion but will robustly defend territory Beijing considers part of China, including in disputed regions such as those in the South China Sea.
The unmanned tanks are not ready to roll onto the battlefield quite yet.
“Although the CCTV footage shows the country has managed to operate tanks using remote control, there are still many technical problems that need to be resolved before they can achieve the same combat capabilities as manned tanks,” the Global Times said.
Samuel Cranny-Evans, a land warfare platform analyst at IHS Jane’s, said China had a history of experimenting with unmanned vehicles.
China’s military has previously shown off small reconnaissance robots, drone aircraft and a driverless lorry that could form unmanned supply convoys, but this was the first report of an apparent unmanned tank.
He said: “It’s difficult to say why they are doing it, but we do know that they are trying to modernise their forces extensively and inherent in that is building lots of new technologies.”
He said it was unclear why the remote control technology had been fitted to obsolete T-59 tanks, rather than a more modern vehicle.
He said: “It could be that they are developing the technology to control unmanned tanks so that they could put it on something better.”
Alternatively they could be looking at using the tanks as added firepower in the early stages of a battle.
He said: “The armour on them is really not good enough for a modern battlefield, but this is only a problem if you have people inside. They could use them as a way to add firepower.”
Other militaries have also looked at the possibility of using unmanned tanks, but have struggled with how they might be deployed.
Russia is believed to have gone furthest in developing the weapons and has said its new Armata main battle tank will have the potential to be fully unmanned.