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Report: US military to create huge autonomous drone swarms to counter China

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The United States will produce thousand-strong drone swarms within two years to counter the military might of China, the Department of Defense has announced.

Kathleen Hicks, the Deputy Defense Secretary, said the US’s new Replicator programme will produce drones at a “scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains” in an attempt to “overcome [China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass”.

In a speech to a military conference in Washington DC, Ms Hicks outlined the threats faced by the US from China, which she said now had the ability to “imagine, create and master the future character of warfare”.

While China was “relatively slow and lumbering” during the Cold War, it has since developed a military to “blunt the operational advantages we’ve enjoyed for decades”, she argued.

The Replicator programme will have the ability to deploy thousands of drones at a time across land, sea and air, in a move Ms Hicks said would “empower our warfighters, not overpower or undercut their abilities”.

Drones: the future of warfare

The announcement comes in response to the use of custom-built and homemade military drones on the battlefield in Ukraine, where they have been used by both Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces to conduct reconnaissance and drop explosives on enemy fighters.

Drones range widely in their cost and capabilities, and were first used by Israel in the Yom Kippur War against an alliance of Arab states.

Their adoption by the United States, especially in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has raised ethical questions about US troops firing on enemy targets from thousands of miles away.

On Monday, Ms Hicks said the new drone swarms would be deployed “in line with our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems”.

“We must ensure the PRC [Chinese] leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’,” she said.

“Not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.”

Successful tests of “drone swarms” have also been carried out by the British Army, and military bosses say they will now be developed to carry out “precision strike capability”, where a large number of drones operate together to destroy a target.

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