The Pentagon is about to make a huge bet that it can field thousands of autonomous systems within two years — an attempt to use technological innovation to counter China’s much larger stockpile of traditional weapons.
The ambitious effort, named Replicator, will be spearheaded by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who previewed the push in an interview. Hicks will formally announce the initiative Monday in a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference.
China, China, China: Hicks said the time is right to push to rapidly scale up innovative technology. The move comes as the U.S. looks to get creative to deter China in the Indo-Pacific and Pentagon leadership has taken stock of how Ukraine has fended off Russia’s invasion.
“Industry is ready. The culture is ready to shift,” Hicks said. “We have to drive that from the top, and we need to give it a hard target.”
“The great paradox of military innovation is you’re going to have to make big bets and you’ve got to execute on those bets,” she added.
The plan: With Replicator, the Pentagon aims to have thousands of autonomous systems across various domains produced and delivered in 18 to 24 months.
Hicks declined to discuss what specific platforms might be produced under the program — such as aerial drones or unmanned ships — citing the “competition landscape” in the defense industry as well as concerns about tipping DOD’s hand to China. The Pentagon will instead “say more as we get to production on capabilities.”
Why now: The Pentagon is pushing to counter threats posed by China in the Pacific amid concerns that Beijing may accrue the military might needed to invade Taiwan before the decade is out.
Defense leaders are also fighting an arduous battle to quickly ramp up the industrial base to replenish military inventories of missiles and other weapons that have been sent to Ukraine, but that could also be of use in a China-Taiwan conflict.
Why this tech: Autonomous weapons are seen as a potential way to counter China’s numerical advantages in ships, missiles and troops in a rapidly narrowing window. Fielding large numbers of cheap, expendable drones, proponents argue, is faster and lower-cost than exquisite weapons systems and puts fewer troops at risk.
Rinse, repeat: Another major aim of the Replicator initiative is to provide a template for future efforts to rapidly field military technology.
She said lessons from the Replicator program could be applied throughout the Pentagon, military services and combatant commands.
“The pieces that work well, they can be replicated throughout the department where they see what we’ve been able to do,” Hicks said. “So if it’s cutting years off of a process because we’ve got the standards figured out and right. If it’s because there’s a lack of communication between two components and we fixed that problem, that kind of speeding can happen through this formal process.”
Funding: Hicks predicted the price tag would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars rather than billions of dollars. She noted that the Pentagon is harnessing many programs that are already underway, but added the Pentagon may need to “augment” some spending.
“Dollars are not the major challenge,” Hicks said. “Getting the production up and running and getting it at scale is.”