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Hicks Underscores U.S. Innovation in Unveiling Strategy to Counter China's Military Buildup

Ingenuity and innovation remain at the heart of the U.S. military's strategic advantage as it confronts the pressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said today as she unveiled the Defense Department's initiative aimed at directly countering the People's Republic of China's rapid buildup of its armed forces.

A person speaks from behind a lectern in front of a large screen.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks speaks during the 2023 National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in Washington, Aug. 28, 2023.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders
VIRIN: 230828-D-XI929-1004Y

Hicks said as China focuses on the sheer mass of its military, the U.S. will "out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing and out-maneuvering them." 

Under the strategy, coined 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 revealed the strategy during her remarks 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 U.S. 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.  

A vessel transits in open water.
Docking and Resupply Demo
A vessel conducts an autonomous docking and resupply demonstration during an Unmanned Surface Vessel capabilities demonstration at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Oct. 26, 2022.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Terry Stennett
VIRIN: 221026-M-VV832-1128Y

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."  

"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 said. 

A vessel is moored to a pier.
Sea Hunter
The unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter is moored to a pier at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, during Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 23.2, Aug. 14, 2023.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Monford
VIRIN: 230814-N-GZ228-1076Y

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

Under Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, defense leaders have deemed the PRC to be the United States' "pacing challenge." 

The 2022 National Defense Strategy underscores the PRC's efforts to expand and modernize "nearly every aspect" of the People's Liberation Army as it aims to offset U.S. military advantages in the Indo-Pacific and, increasingly, around the globe. 

Navy Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, further highlighted the PRC's military buildup during his remarks at Wednesday's conference. 

"They have focused very clearly on delivering a force capable to take on the United States," Aquilino said.  

"We ought to look at the Chinese to understand truly where they are and what they're doing: the largest military buildup since World War II, both in conventional forces and in strategic nuclear [forces]," he said. 

Aquilino said while the buildup is concerning, the U.S. focus on competing with the PRC is critical.  

"The Deputy's words on the delivery of outcomes with speed is encouraging," he said.  

Hicks said during her remarks that the replicator initiative is focused not only on production, but on the whole-of-department approach to innovation and the ability to quickly field technology.  

"[W]hen the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency and depth of focus, we can get it done," she said. "That's what America does. 

"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, 2035, 2049 and beyond," Hicks said.

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