The Department of Defense’s (DoD) new initiative to create thousands of inexpensive autonomous systems will be a game-changer as the U.S. continues to combat China’s growing influence across the world and military mass, a top DoD official said today.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks explained that the new initiative – dubbed Replicator – is the DoD’s push to accelerate technological innovation and gain a military advantage over adversaries.

“Now is the time to scale with systems that are harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat,” she said today at a DefenseNews Conference.

She explained that autonomous weapons “can help a determined defender stop a larger aggressor from achieving its objectives, put fewer people in the line of fire, and be made shielded and upgraded at the speed warfighters need without long maintenance.”

The Pentagon has already invested in “attritable autonomous systems,” such as self-piloting ships and uncrewed aircraft. But the Replicator project would push the department to develop many more, Hicks said.

Current DoD guidelines on autonomous systems direct for “appropriate levels of human judgment” before any use of force. Hicks said the U.S. will maintain its ethical standards for autonomous weapons and emphasized that “integrating autonomy into weapons systems is nothing new” for the military.

“We know how to do it responsibly,” she said. “Our policy for autonomy and weapons systems is clear and well-established. There is always a human responsible for the use of force, full stop.”

Hicks unveiled the Replicator initiative last week, explaining that the Pentagon would work closely with the defense industry to field thousands of autonomous weapons and security systems across all domains in 18-24 months.

Unlike other DoD initiatives, Replicator will not need new money or additional personnel to get off the ground. Instead, the program will pool already funded programs from the military services, Hicks explained. Defense Innovation Unit Director Doug Beck, she said, is already canvassing the services for programs to bring forward.

However, whether the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy can move so nimbly remains to be seen. Hicks acknowledged that “there are concerns” about whether the industry can meet the ambitious two-year timeline without a new program of record.

“We are worried about proving out with all parties that the department can actually lead itself [and] does not get mired in red tape,” said Hicks.

Hicks also acknowledged that many might be skeptical of this approach and wonder how the new initiative could promise lasting innovation without establishing a program of record.

She argued that the Replicator is a major commitment across the DoD and its leaders, “that commitment from DoD leadership will compensate,” she said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.