BREAKING: Pentagon Launching Autonomous Systems Initiative to Counter China
The Defense Department announced a new project called the Replicator Initiative, an ambitious swing at what Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks called China’s “biggest advantage: mass.”
Speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference Aug. 28, Hicks said the initiative’s goal is to build attritable autonomous systems at scale “of multiple thousands in multiple domains” within the next 18 to 24 months.
Hicks revealed few details about the initiative, but she said some will be “spelled out in the coming weeks,” though the department intends to remain “cagey” in terms of what it wants to share.
Hicks called the initiative a “big bet” and easier said than done, but expressed confidence in the department’s ability to carry it out. She said Replicator is a “comprehensive, warfighting-centric approach to innovation” that will galvanize the full weight and leadership attention of the Defense Department.
“If the operational challenge we must tackle is one of countering mass, we will do so not only through existing approaches and systems — those remain important — but we already know how to build and use today's technology. This is about mastering the technology of tomorrow,” she said.
Attritable autonomous systems are “less expensive with fewer people in the line of fire and can be changed, updated or improved with substantially shorter lead times,” she said, adding the United States will stay ahead by leveraging the systems in all domains.
Hicks said Replicator intends to counter China’s mass with “mass of our own,” but mass that will be harder to plan for and harder to hit, with smart people, smart concepts and smart technology.
The initiative will be overseen by Hicks together with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and support from the director of the Defense Innovation Unit.
Hicks said the department intends to bring “the full power of the DoD’s innovation ecosystem to bear. These capabilities will be developed and fielded in line with our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems, where DoD has been a world leader for over a decade. We will employ attritable autonomous capabilities in ways that play to our enduring advantages, the greatest being our people.”
Attritable, while somewhat nebulous, generally refers to a design trait that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost, reusable weapons. All-domain attritable autonomous systems will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area denial systems, she said. “Our AD/A2 to thwart their A2/AD.”
Addressing potential skeptics of the ambitious initiative, Hicks acknowledged a slow system of which she is “deeply, personally familiar with almost every maddening flaw.” Still, she projected confidence that “when the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency and depth of focus, we can get it done. That's what America does.”
Replicator intends to leverage teamwork between the Defense Department and the private sector, including commercial, non-traditional and traditional defense companies alike, as well as collaboration and integration with partners, she said.
Hicks said the initiative's greatest challenge within its timeline will be scaling the production.
“That's the area we're going after with Replicator,” she added. “As we looked at that innovation ecosystem, we think we've got some solutions in place … but the scaling piece is the one that still feels quite elusive — scaling for emerging technology.”
The scaling challenge is a focus of Replicator, she said. “How do we get those multiple thousands produced, in the hands of the warfighters, in 18 to 24 months? We obviously have done our homework; we know we can do it.
“It doesn't mean it's without risk. And we got to take a big bet here, but what's leadership without big bets and making something happen?” she said.
“Let's be clear, we all know the challenges and we all know the stakes. This is not about understanding the problems or a lack of leadership focus or insufficient resources,” Hicks said.
“This is about systematically tackling the highest barriers to enabling and unleashing the potential of U.S. and partner innovations, some in DoD or labs or elsewhere in government, but most of all outside of it. That means we must first see the whole of the defense innovation ecosystem to lower the myriad barriers that get in our way, and then must do the hard government work of removing those most damaging innovation obstacles, which is exactly what we've been doing.”
Hicks said she wanted to be clear that there will be no “mission accomplished” banner rolled out when it comes to innovation.
“Because we are in a persistent generational competition for advantage in which we cannot take military superiority for granted,” she said. “We must ensure the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression and concludes today is not the day.”