The US Department of Defense will field thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) within the next two years to counter China’s growing military capabilities.
Speaking at an emerging technologies conference in Washington DC, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks admitted that Beijing holds a numerical edge in personnel and weaponry.
She said that to stay ahead of its greatest competitor, the US should develop state-of-the-art autonomous systems for use in all domains.
The initiative, dubbed Replicator, will see the country scale up its manufacturing while utilizing a “comprehensive” and “warfighting-centric” approach to innovation.
“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 emphasized.
Hicks said she will personally oversee the Replicator program, and the Defense Innovation Steering Group will serve as its “driving engine.”
One Major Problem
The Pentagon said autonomous systems for defense purposes are less expensive and will keep soldiers away from direct fire.
They can also be changed, updated, or improved in substantially shorter periods than other weaponry.
However, Hicks noted that the greatest challenge the Replicator program could face is scaling up production.
“The scaling piece is the one that still feels quite elusive – scaling for emerging technology,” she said. “How do we get those multiple thousands produced, in the hands of the warfighters, in 18 to 24 months?”
Despite the problem, she is optimistic about the program’s outcome.
“We obviously have done our homework; we know we can do it,” she said. “[But] 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?”
A Warning to China
In last year’s assessment of US defense needs and priorities, the Pentagon declared China a “pacing challenge” that needs an urgent solution.
The Asian military superpower is also seen as the most “consequential strategic competitor” to Washington in the coming decades.
With the new Replicator program, Hicks is hoping that Beijing will reconsider its aggressive stance.
“We must ensure the [Chinese] 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, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond,” she remarked.