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Pentagon to field thousands of autonomous systems soon, official says

Kathleen Hicks. (State Department photo/Released)
August 31, 2023

In an effort to counter China’s military buildup, the Pentagon is planning to purchase thousands of affordable, autonomous systems to field “across multiple domains within the next 18 to 24 months.”

During remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in Washington, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks introduced the “replicator initiative,” which is designed to “out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing and out-maneuvering them.”

“To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art — just as America has before — leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire and can be changed, updated or improved with substantially shorter lead times,” she said.

The Defense Department already invests in autonomous systems, including self-piloting ships and crewless aircraft, but Hicks said the initiative will take autonomy “to the next level.”

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“So now is the time to take all-domain, attritable autonomy to the next level: to produce and deliver capabilities to warfighters at the volume and velocity required to deter aggression, or win if we’re forced to fight,” she said.

According to Defense Department News, “attritable” capabilities are unmanned and affordable platforms, allowing commanders to employ them in higher-risk scenarios.

The initiative stems from military leaders’ belief the United States faces a “pacing challenge” with China.

“They have focused very clearly on delivering a force capable to take on the United States,” said Navy Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

“We ought to look at the Chinese to understand truly where they are and what they’re doing: the largest military buildup since World War II, both in conventional forces and in strategic nuclear [forces],” he added.

Hicks noted that the initiative includes production and a “whole-of-department approach to innovation and the ability to quickly field technology.”

“[W]hen the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency and depth of focus, we can get it done,” she said. “That’s what America does.

“We must ensure the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression and concludes, ‘today is not the day’ — and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, 2035, 2049 and beyond,” Hicks added.