US plans to ‘field thousands of autonomous systems’ to counter China’s rapid arms buildup

US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced a government initiative aimed at directly countering the People’s Republic of China’s rapid buildup of its armed forces, says a Department of Defense (DoD) news report.

Hicks said as China focuses on the sheer mass of its military, the US will “out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing and out-maneuvering them.” Under the strategy, described by Hicks as the replicator initiative, the Defense Department will field thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next 18 to 24 months.

Hicks was speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in Washington. “Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass,” she said. “More ships. More missiles. More people.” She 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.” Even when mobilizing the U.S. economy and manufacturing base, rarely has the US relied solely on its ability to match adversaries’ scale alone, Hicks 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,” she said. In doing so, Hicks said, the U.S. will counter the PRC’s buildup, with “mass of our own,” that will be more difficult for adversaries to plan for and beat. “With smart people, smart concepts and smart technology, our military will be more nimble, with uplift and urgency from the commercial sector,” she said.

The Defense Department has long invested in autonomous systems – including self-piloting ships and no-crew aircraft. Hicks said those systems have proven to be lower cost alternatives to manned platforms and can be produced “closer to the tactical edge.”  

Attritable capabilities refer to platforms that are unmanned and built affordably, allowing commanders to tolerate a higher degree of risk in employing them.

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