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The Pentagon late last month laid out what officials are calling the “Replicator” plan, an initiative to develop and deploy thousands of AI-based autonomous systems around the world to counteract the growing military prowess of China.

Later today, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who first spoke about Replicator last week, is expected to being filling in some of the details behind the plan that is expected to cost well into hundreds of millions of dollars.

During her talk last week at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference, Hicks said the idea is to counter China’s massive military buildup (the country now has more naval ships than the United States) through thousands of autonomous systems, like drones, over the next 18 to 24 months.

She said the United States will “out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing and out-maneuvering them.”

Vast Array of Drones and Other Systems

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal today, Hicks will speak at a conference hosted by Defense News in Virginia to build on the comments she made last week. The plan calls for deploying a fleet of “air-, land- and sea-based artificial-intelligence systems that are intended to be ‘small, smart, cheap,’” according to the newspaper.

The initiative, in part, is a recognition that the bureaucracy within the Department of Defense (DoD) moves too slowly in approving and funding advanced weaponry and systems to keep up with the rapid military buildup underway within the People’s Republic of China (RCP). Using an array of autonomous systems is a way of getting around the myriad hurdles within the Pentagon.

“We’re not at war,” Hicks told the WSJ. “We are not seeking to be at war, but we have to be able to get this department to move with that same kind of urgency because the PRC isn’t waiting.”

China has risen over the past decade or more to become the United States’ chief economic and military rival, and disagreements over such issues as technology, human rights, the status of Taiwan and, more recently, the PRC’s growing closeness with Russia have only increased the tension between the two countries.

The DoD in a report last year identified the “People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the only competitor with the intent and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order. … The PRC’s strategy entails a determined effort to amass and harness all elements of its national power to place the PRC in a ‘leading position’ in an enduring competition between systems. … The PRC represents the most consequential and systemic challenge to U.S. national security and the free and open international system.”

Enter ‘Replicator’

The Replicator initiative echoes back to the U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59 from 2021 to shore up a presence in the Middle East after the DoD redeployed some naval warships to the Asia-Pacific region. In their place, the Navy deployed autonomous drones – some capable of floating at sea for as long as six months, according to the WSJ – that can send back data like detailed images to military officials.

Hicks is expected to talk about Replicator as a significantly larger version of that.

“Imagine distributed pods of self-propelled [autonomous] systems afloat, powered by the sun and other virtually limitless resources, packed with sensors aplenty, enough to give us new, reliable sources of information in near-real-time,” Hicks is expected to say, according to the news organization.

In addition, the new operation will include “autonomous ground-based systems to provide logistics, space-based autonomous systems that would be so numerous they would be difficult for an adversary to destroy and autonomous systems that could defend against incoming missiles,” the WSJ wrote.

The AI Race is On

Using AI-based autonomous systems is not new to the Pentagon, which has used such technologies to assist troops and other military fighters in tracking and engaging adversaries. That said, Replicator will be a significant expansion of such systems in the DoD’s arsenal.

The Pentagon is pulling together a list of initial investments that it will present by the end of the year, Hick’s told the WSJ, adding that “overall, we’re going to deliver the thousands.” Money for the initiative will come from existing funds. The news site said in its latest budget request, the DoD is asking for $1.8 million for AI for fiscal year 2024.

Unsurprisingly, the United States isn’t the only one in the global competition to be looking at AI and autonomous systems. According to the DoD’s 2022 report, the Pentagon noted that China sees the development of AI and autonomous technologies as central to its concept of future warfare and that the country is increasing the number of “autonomous and teaming systems” it has on hand.