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Transforming Tomorrow's Defense: The Replicator Initiative Unveiled by DOD Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks
The U.S. military is aiming to excel in future technology by harnessing autonomous weapon systems for superior strategic planning and tactical maneuvers against adversaries.
In an August 29th speech, the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense, Kathleen Hicks, announced the U.S. military would implement the Replicator initiative within the next 18 to 24 months in response to China’s immense military. Where volume and velocity are key, the proper military response may be found in autonomous weapons.
While drones are already being used in the war in Ukraine, the Pentagon is turning its sights on what they believe is a much more pressing issue, China and in particular, conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. Hicks said the Replicator initiative could put pressure on Beijing.
Hicks explained, “Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass.”
The Replicator initiative comprises thousands of autonomous weapon systems capable of executing intricate military tasks devoid of human involvement. From clearing minefields to engaging in long-range surveillance, AI offers a level of flexibility and adaptability that can greatly benefit military operations. This includes autonomous drones, uncrewed aircraft, self-piloting ships, and more.
"More ships. More missiles. More people."
Not only are autonomous drones, specifically, cost-effective but they are capable of running different missions without needing to be independently configured. The use of AI technology on the battlefield seeks to enhance the U.S.’s ability to locate and respond to threats in record time.
“…Rarely have America’s war-winning strategies relied solely on matching an adversary ship-for-ship and shot-for-shot. After all, we don’t use our people as cannon fodder like some competitors do,” Hicks said.
One of the primary advantages of AI-powered weapon systems lies in their precision and accuracy. These systems are equipped to process vast amounts of data in real time, making split-second targeting decisions that minimize the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Gone are the days of indiscriminate bombardments; AI enables a surgical approach to warfare that significantly reduces unintended harm.
The Deputy Secretary of Defense stated that the advantage the U.S. has over adversaries is seen in both “innovation and [the] spirit of our people.”
“This is about systematically tackling the highest barriers to enabling and unleashing the potential of U.S. and partner innovations — some in DoD or our labs or elsewhere in government, but most of all outside of it,” Hicks said.
The mass of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be countered with a mass of our own, Hicks declared. “…Ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat. With smart people, smart concepts, and smart technology, our military will be more nimble, with uplift and urgency from the commercial sector.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks concluded Monday’s speech by saying:
“We must ensure the PRC 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.
Innovation is vital to how we do that.
We are not taking our foot off the gas, and in fact we’re accelerating.
Our goal is always to deter, because competition does not mean conflict. Still, we must have combat credibility to win if we must fight.
With that comes a solemn obligation: to ensure our warfighters are ready, trained, and equipped for whatever may come. Including if the worst comes.”
According to The Drive, wargame simulations run last Summer by the U.S. Air Force’s Warfighting Integration Capability Office (AFWIC) have shown that “swarms of relatively low-cost networked drones with high degrees of autonomy” would give the U.S. an advantage over China’s numbers.
In the above video from May 2022, Senior international affairs and defense researcher for RAND Corp. and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development under the Obama administration, David Ochmenek said:
“For many, many years this country’s been on a vector of increasingly sophisticated, expensive platforms in ever-smaller numbers, and we’ve seen the inventory of combat aircraft in the Air Force decrease because of this ineluctable trend of increasing cost per platform. That had a strong rationale when we had technical and operational superiority over our adversaries and when in fact we were very concerned about attrition. The advent of autonomy means that we have the opportunity now to flood the battlespace essentially with inexpensive platforms that can do the jobs that human beings have in the past done and done them actually more robustly than manned concepts."
High-ranking military leaders from 27 countries gathered in mid-August for the 2023 Chiefs of Defense Conference, where General Xu Qiling, the deputy chief of staff in the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission, and Chair of the NATO Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, were both in attendance. The conference has a history spanning over two decades, and this year's Indo-Pacific Chiefs of Defence Conference in Fiji marks its 25th annual gathering.
In a similar vein, a defense conference held in Singapore over the Summer saw no significant progress in discussions between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and China's Defense Minister Li Shangfu. According to Reuters, despite their initial handshake, China turned down the U.S.’s offer to meet during the June conference.
“A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that since 2021 China had declined or not responded to more than a dozen requests to talk with the Pentagon and nearly 10 working-level engagement requests,” Reuters reported.
Last Fall Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explained in unclassified documents released by the Pentagon of the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review that stated that while Russia is seen as an “acute threat,” the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses more of a “pacing challenge” to the United States, calling it a “growing multi-domain threat.”
Numerous issues arise regarding the ethical deployment of autonomous weaponry, however. Central among these concerns is the extent of autonomy vested in these machines, which continues to be a prominent ethical issue. This also prompts inquiries about responsibility when artificial intelligence assumes pivotal decision-making roles. Furthermore, it is imperative to address vulnerabilities to cyberattacks and hacking to proactively deter potential misuse.
"These capabilities will be developed and fielded in line with our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems,” Hicks said.
Kris Osborn, President of Warrior Maven: Center for Military Modernization, spoke with Deputy Commander Army Futures Command William Nelson discussing the ethical use of the Army’s Multifunction-Utility Logistics Equipment (MULE) vehicle back in 2009.
The Pentagon was quite deliberate about making sure the doctrine was rock-solid about ‘human-in-the-loop’. There was this conversation about the human-machine interface, that as fast and as amazing as AI can be, there are elements of human cognition and decision-making that you just can’t replicate so you really kind of merge the two, right?”
Osborn asks Nelson, “Is there a place for out-of-the-loop AI where there can be some kind of automotive use of force for defensive purposes to save lives and then secondly, what do we do if a potential adversary doesn’t have the ethical concerns that the Pentagon does? Essentially, one would think you might need to be preparing to face an army of robots in the future.”
“We are a value-based military and will remain so,” Nelson replied. “There’s a lot of discussion today and it’s needed. The ethical use of AI is a hot topic, and I think between the ethical use of it and policy, those are quickly trying to catch up to where the technology is today. And I think through experimentation we’ll find where that tipping point is in terms of autonomy are needed, are acceptable in the future battlefield and that would certainly be incorporated into the doctrine.”
“I fully believe we will look differently, we will fight differently. To what degree it’ll be fully autonomous, again, it just varies,” Nelson said.
The U.S. military shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to autonomous weapons systems. The U.S. Air Force is requesting $5.8 billion in federal funding over the next 5 years to develop a fleet of XQ-58A Valkyrie AI-enabled aircraft, which cost $3 million each. This must be approved by Congress.