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Hicks Discusses Replicator Initiative

The United States military must capitalize on the country's greatest asset – the unparalleled innovation of its people, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said yesterday.

Hicks spoke at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia, and outlined the steps the department must take to innovate and field new capabilities that will continue U.S. dominance in military affairs. 

Two people sit in chairs on a stage.
Defense News Conference
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks talks with Defense News Editor Marjorie Censer during the 7th annual Defense News Conference in Arlington, Va., Sept. 5, 2023.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza
VIRIN: 230906-D-PM193-1237Y

She spoke about the department's new "replicator" initiative and what it could mean to fielding new technologies, new capabilities and new concepts to the military. 

She also addressed the need for speed in innovation. This has been a constant in the Defense Department since Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III arrived in January 2021. "We've never wavered from our ultimate objective, which is delivering safe and reliable, combat-credible capabilities at speed and scale to America's warfighters, so that they can deter aggression and win if they are called to fight," she said. 

This effort has taken some time as DOD examined the innovation ecosystem to eliminate roadblocks and smooth processes, Hicks said. DOD is also "incentivizing more joint experimentation and concept development," she added. 

This alone helps bridge the "valley of death" between developing an idea and deploying a capability. The department is also accelerating software acquisition and procurement of innovative technologies. 

The urgency behind this comes from the competition with China. "The PRC [People's Republic of China] has spent the last 20 years building a modern military carefully crafted to blunt the operational advantages we've enjoyed for decades," she said. "But the one advantage that they can never blunt, steal, or copy — because it's embedded in our people — is American ingenuity: our ability to innovate, change the game and, in the military sphere, to imagine, create and master the future character of warfare." 

The replicator initiative will help overcome the production valley of death. "Replicator is not a new program of record," Hicks said. "We're not creating a new bureaucracy, and we will not be asking for new money in [fiscal 2024]. Not all problems need new money; we are problem-solvers, and we intend to self-solve." 

The initiative will use "existing funding, existing programming lines, and existing authorities to accelerate production and delivery at scale — by exerting leadership focus and attention on a singular operational challenge and maturing solutions because that's what ultimately delivers," she said. "This is about driving culture change just as much as technology change — and about replicating best practice just as much as products, so we can gain military advantage faster." 

Replicator will begin with all-domain, "attritable" autonomy to help overcome China's advantage in mass: more ships, more missiles, more forces. These capabilities "can help a determined defender stop a larger aggressor from achieving its objectives, put fewer people in the line of fire, and be made, fielded, and upgraded at the speed warfighters need without long maintenance tails," Hicks said. 

Examples of these capabilities are self-piloting ships and uncrewed aircraft. "Now is the time to scale with systems that are harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat than those of potential competitors," she said. 

"We've set a big goal for replicator: to field attritable, autonomous systems at a scale of multiple thousands [and] in multiple domains within the next 18-to-24 months," Hicks said. "The 'replication' isn't just about production. We also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve that goal, so we can scale whatever is most efficient, effective and relevant in the future, again and again." 

Hicks discussed the possibilities of all-domain, attritable autonomy. "Imagine distributed pods of self-propelled ADA2 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," she said. "Imagine fleets of ground-based ADA2 systems delivering novel logistics support, scouting ahead to keep troops safe or securing DOD infrastructure." 

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Brief Update
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, second from the left, Sen. Mazie Hirono, second from the right, Rep. Ed Case, left, receive a briefing during a tour of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, Hawaii, July 7, 2023.
Photo By: Justice Vanatta, Navy
VIRIN: 230707-N-EL904-2007Y

In space this will mean ADA2 systems in orbit "flung into space scores at a time, numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all," Hicks said. "Imagine flocks of ADA2 systems flying at all sorts of altitudes, doing a range of missions, building on what we've seen in Ukraine. They could be deployed by larger aircraft, launched by troops on land or sea, or take off themselves." 

These systems will create new capabilities and call for new concepts and new ways to fight, she said. "That's what 'small, smart, cheap, and many' can do," Hicks said. "Make no mistake: Replicator signals from the top that we are embarking on audacious change fast using the means we have. We face an urgent challenge, and we intend to meet it with the courage to bet big."

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