China is exporting drones that it advertises as having lethal autonomy to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

It’s the first time that a senior Defense official has acknowledged that China is selling drones capable of taking life with little or no human oversight, according to a report by Patrick Tucker at Defense One.

“As we speak, the Chinese government is already exporting some of its most advanced military aerial drones to the Middle East, as it prepares to export its next-generation stealth UAVs when those come online,” Esper said at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference in Washington, D.C.

“In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes.”

The Chinese company Ziyan, for instance, markets the Blowfish A3, essentially a helicopter drone outfitted with a machine gun. Ziyan says it “autonomously performs more complex combat missions, including fixed-point timing detection, fixed-range reconnaissance, and targeted precision strikes.”

As Greg Allen, chief of strategy and communications at the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, points out in this February paper for CNAS, Ziyan is negotiating to sell its Blowfish A2 to the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

“Despite expressing concern on AI arms races, most of China’s leadership sees increased military usage of AI as inevitable and is aggressively pursuing it. China already exports armed autonomous platforms and surveillance AI, ” Allen wrote.

Last year, Zeng Yi, a senior executive at NORINCO, China’s third-largest defense company, forecast that, “In future battlegrounds, there will be no people fighting” — as early as 2025.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China expanded its arms export customer base to 53 countries in 2014-18. Credit: Xinhua.

Esper also said Chinese surveillance software and hardware networks could help China develop AI.

“All signs point to the construction of a 21st-century surveillance state designed to censor speech and deny basic human rights on an unprecedented scale. Look no further than its use of surveillance to systematically repress more than a million Muslim Uighurs,” he said. “Beijing has all the power and tools it needs to coerce Chinese industry and academia into supporting its government-led efforts.”

Last week, the Defense Innovation Board put forward a list of AI principles for the US military, which listed human governability as key, in line with previous policy going back to 2012. Esper called the list comprehensive and applauded it.

He said it was “equally troubling are the outside firms or multinational corporations that are inadvertently or tacitly providing the technology or research behind China’s unethical use of AI.”

It’s just one of the many warning bells Esper is ringing with industry and allies about China’s all-out push on advanced technologies like AI and 5G, Breaking Defense reported.

“Don’t write off what we’re saying as United States scaremongering or [Defense Department] scaremongering about China,” Esper implored today. “Don’t think we’re overstating the problem. There are serious issues out there and we’ve been asleep at the switch here for quite some time.

“China believes it can leapfrog our current technology and go straight to the next generation,” Esper warned. “In addition to developing conventional systems for example, Beijing is investing in low-cost long-range, autonomous and unmanned submarines, which it believes can be a cost-effective counter to American naval power.”

While Esper took some shots at Russia as well for using “the latest technologies against democratic nations and the ideals of free and open societies,” he reserved most of his rhetorical fire for China, emphasizing it was the No. 1 threat – not just to the US but to its allies and to private companies, Breaking Defense reported.

“Cooperation with Beijing has consequences, not just for democracy and human rights, but also for the strength of our partnerships abroad,” he said. “If our allies and partners turn to Chinese 5G platforms, for example, it will inject serious risk into our communication and intelligence-sharing capabilities. Our collective security must not be diminished by short and narrow-sighted focus on economic opportunity.”