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US DepSec Kathleen Hicks launches Replicator Initiative to speed-up defence innovation

“Those words — warfighter, deliver, speed, and scale — are at the core of how Secretary Austin and I have sought to drive innovation throughout the Defense Department, especially in this enduring era of strategic competition with the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC),” US Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks told the US National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in Washington, DC.

“While DoD always has an imperative to innovate, there’s no mistaking why that imperative has taken on more urgency in recent years,” she said, launching the Pentagon’s new Replicator Initiative.

“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 said.

“Since we need to break through barriers and catalyze change with urgency, we’ve set a big goal for Replicator: to field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.”

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people. Before Russia invaded Ukraine again in February, they seemed to have that advantage too,” she added.

The United States will counter a potential adversary’s mass by leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains. These are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times.

“We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat,” said Deputy Secretary Hicks. “With smart people, smart concepts, and smart technology, our military will be more nimble, with uplift and urgency from the commercial sector.

These capabilities aren’t just lower-cost. they can be produced closer to the tactical edge, she said. They can be used consistent with the principles of mission command, where the lowest-possible echelons are empowered to innovate and succeed in battle. And they can serve as resilient, distributed systems, even if bandwidth is limited, intermittent, degraded or denied.

To galvanize the full weight and leadership attention of the Department of Defense, so that everyone does their part, and to make sure it achieves the right commercial uplift and integration that Replicator will need, the Secretary has tasked Deputy Secretary Hicks to personally oversee it, together with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They’ll be supported by the Director of DIU, who will help bring the full power of DoD’s innovation ecosystem to bear.

These capabilities will be developed and fielded with a responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems, where the US DoD has been a world leader for over a decade. Consistent with the US’s National Defense Strategy and Joint Warfighting Concept, it will employ attritable autonomous capabilities in ways that play to the enduring advantages of the United States – its people.

“These systems will empower our warfighters, not overpower or undercut their abilities,” she said. “In this respect, all-domain, attritable autonomous systems will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems. Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD.”

The US will still need and acquire platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few, Deputy Secretary Hicks added. But Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of US military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many.

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