The Department of Defense (DoD) wants to roll out thousands of inexpensive autonomous systems to counter China’s military mass, a top Pentagon official said.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Replicator initiative on Monday at the NDIA Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference. According to Hicks, the goal of the initiative is for DoD to field “multiple thousands” of systems within the next 18 to 24 months.

The driving force behind the Pentagon’s new initiative is China’s military advantage, which Hicks characterized as “more ships, more missiles, more people.” To counter China’s mass, the U.S. also must use mass, “but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat,” Hicks said.

“Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many,” Hicks said.

Autonomous weapons have the potential to counter China’s numerical advantages in ships, missiles, and troops in a rapidly narrowing window. The Pentagon has already invested in “attritable autonomous systems,” such as self-piloting ships and uncrewed aircraft. According to Hicks, these systems have proven to be lower-cost alternatives to manned platforms and can be produced “closer to the tactical edge.”

“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, to win if we’re forced to fight,” Hicks said.

Through the initiative, the U.S. will augment its manufacturing and mobilization capabilities “with our real comparative advantage, which is the innovation and spirit of our people,” Hicks said.

Hicks also acknowledged that scaling is the problem Replicator will most directly try to solve. She explained that within the innovation ecosystem, there are solutions in place that could be advantageous, but said the scaling piece is the one that still feels quite elusive – especially for emerging technologies.

“It’s not without risk; we’ve got to take a big bet here, but what’s leadership without big bets and making something happen?” she said. “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.”

In addition, Hicks explained that the initiative is focused not only on production but on the 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, adding that effort requires galvanizing the “full weight and leadership attention of the [DoD] so that everyone does their part, and to make sure we get the right commercial uplift and integration that Replicator will need.”

Hicks, alongside the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will oversee the initiative. They will also work with the director of the Defense Innovation Unit, “who will help us bring the full power of DoD’s innovation ecosystem to bear.”

Hicks did not provide any specific platforms that might be produced under the program. In the coming weeks, the Pentagon will provide additional details on the Replicator project, but the DoD will be limited in what it shares, Hicks explained, citing the desire for the Pentagon not to tip off Beijing to its plans.

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