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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks' Remarks: "Unpacking the Replicator Initiative" at the Defense News Conference (As Delivered)

Thank you very much to Mike [Gruss] for that great introduction, and good afternoon to all of you who are here today. I hope you enjoy your meal. I'm your lunchtime speaker.  

Last week I gave a speech, you all may know, about our need to innovate with urgency in this enduring age of strategic competition with the PRC. And there I described, in some detail, much of what we have been doing to enable and unleash the potential of U.S. and partner innovators.

I don't want to repeat all of that — for one thing, this is the Defense News conference, so I'm assuming you would probably like to hear something new. And so I'm going to talk a little bit in a minute about our DoD Replicator initiative, which I announced in that speech, that I know you've heard a little bit about from speakers today. 

But because it's important for the context of that, to understand our approach to innovating for warfighter advantage, I wanted to reiterate some of the things that I mentioned from last week. 


So, top of the list, from day one, Secretary Austin and I have been focused on the urgency to innovate. And over the past two-and-a-half years, we've taken a comprehensive, iterative, warfighter-centric approach — recognizing that we face an accumulation of challenges. There is no silver bullet when it comes to innovation. 

Along the way, 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.

And we've been doing quite a lot: Mapping and debugging DoD's innovation ecosystem. Rapidly iterating and investing to be a data-driven and AI-empowered military now. Incentivizing more joint experimentation and concept development. Extending bridges and express lanes over the so-called valley of death; of course, there are many valleys of death. Accelerating software acquisition and procurement of innovative technologies. And so much more. 

Why the urgency? Because our main strategic competitor today, the PRC, has spent the last 20 years building a modern military carefully crafted to blunt the operational advantages we've enjoyed for decades.

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. 

We have a stronger starting position, as a free and open society of imaginative inventors, doers, and problem-solvers. 

We don't seek to crush or control innovation, or make it toe the party line. Instead our goal is to seed, spark, and stoke the flames of innovation — and, in DoD, better adopt innovations wherever they can add the most military value. 

Our ability to deliver innovation at scale is not a pipe dream. For those wondering, "how is this possible?" — it's possible because we've done it before. And the Secretary and I know we can do it again. 

In World War II, captains of commercial industry helped out-build the Axis powers.

In the Cold War, we offset the Soviets' numerical advantages in Europe by pioneering and integrating technologies to strike targets with pinpoint accuracy. 

In the Gulf War, we used stealth aircraft and GPS to breathtaking effect.

In the post-9/11 wars, we sprinted to counter the scourge of roadside bombs with Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, blast gauges, and more.

For Afghanistan alone, we fielded 8,000 all-terrain MRAPs in 16 months, with procurement, production, and process innovations. 

All those innovations, past and present, happened because the right ingredients came together at the right moment: An operational need. Technology ripe enough to scale in time to matter for the warfighter. An atmosphere where you can take a chance on something big. And leaders at all levels relentlessly focused on results. 

We have one of those moments right now, and we're going to seize it.


Last week, I announced our Replicator initiative — the latest effort to overcome the production valley of death, beginning with accelerating the scaling of all-domain attritable autonomous systems.

First, let's be crystal clear: Replicator is not a new program of record. We're not creating a new bureaucracy. And we will not be asking for new money in FY24. Not all problems need new money; we are problem-solvers, and we intend to self-solve.

So, Replicator 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. 

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.

With Replicator, we're beginning with all-domain, attritable autonomy, or ADA2, to help us overcome the PRC's advantage in mass: more ships, more missiles, more forces.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine again last February, they had that advantage too. Yet we've seen in Ukraine what low-cost, attritable systems can do — not to mention other commercial technologies. 

They 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.

At DoD, we've already been investing in attritable autonomous systems — across the military services, DIU, the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the combatant commands themselves — and in multiple domains: self-piloting ships, uncrewed aircraft, and more. 

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.

And we'll do so while remaining steadfast to our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems, where DoD has been a world leader for over a decade. 

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 a scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months. 

And as I said last week, the ‘replication' isn't just about production. We'll also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve that goal, so we can scale whatever's most efficient, effective, and relevant in the future, again and again.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. But we're going to do it. 

All-domain, attritable autonomous systems will help overcome the PRC challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems. Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD.

Of course, we still need the full complement of U.S. capabilities that we've invested in to remain combat-credible today and into the future. But Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many. 


Now, since we've announced Replicator, we've heard some questions. You've probably heard some today. So I came today with some answers.

Question #1: "Does 18-to-24 months reflect new intelligence about the PRC's timelines?" 

The answer: Not at all. We set this timeline because we have an opportunity now, for a game-changing shift that we have long pursued. 

We've said before that conflict with the PRC is neither imminent nor inevitable; that remains our assessment. Deterrence, including across the Taiwan Strait, is real and strong, and we're doing more than ever to keep it that way. 

Next question, #2: Some have asked, "how will DoD accomplish its goals for Replicator? If you're not asking for new money, how are you paying for it?"

As I said last week, we will leverage the Deputy's Innovation Steering Group — brand new — which the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I co-chair. Every key DoD stakeholder will have a seat at the table: combatant commanders; military departments, service secretaries and service chiefs; and OSD component heads.

And for the next 18 months, we'll be laser-focused on achieving this singular goal for ADA2 systems — plus, determining our next 18-month goal after that — again, to replicate the process with another operational challenge.

This doesn't require a joint program office, or reshuffling deck chairs in any other way. Because the military services and other parts of DoD have already been leading in the development of ADA2 systems. Many such innovations emerged organically. And several were funded in our most recent defense budget.

Our task through this initiative is bringing leadership across the department around that DISG table to help ensure those ripe enough to scale actually do get scaled, by elevating and accelerating what we do and cutting red tape, so they're delivered to warfighters in 18-to-24 months. And DIU's Doug Beck will directly assist me and the Vice Chairman in driving forward progress, helping to catalyze that whole DoD innovation ecosystem.

And let me give a particular shout-out to two leaders who've helped us lead the way: Under Secretary Heidi Shyu, who helped move us down the path through the original Innovation Steering Group. And Under Secretary Bill LaPlante, who has been leading our Competitive Advantage Pathfinders work that has, well, been a pathfinder for this effort.

OK, question #3: "What types of platforms and missions will you look at?"

Our selection process will be driven by what warfighters need now, what is ready enough to scale, and where our attention and authorities — especially mine and the Vice Chairman's — can get the job done. 

Let me give you a window into 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.

Imagine fleets of ground-based ADA2 systems delivering novel logistics support, scouting ahead to keep troops safe, or securing DoD infrastructure.

Imagine constellations of ADA2 systems on orbit, flung into space scores at a time, numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all. 

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.

Bigger-picture, ADA2 systems let us think and act differently in doing things we've always done. Recall in Ukraine, a Patriot battery intercepted a Russian hypersonic missile; that's how traditional platforms do missile defense — and it's an incredible accomplishment, underscoring why we need them. 

Elsewhere, ADA2 systems might counter missiles differently — perhaps like active protection systems on a tank, or other types of countermeasures. 

And those are just a handful of the use cases for ADA2 systems. 

Here's what might really surprise some of you — you don't need much imagination for what I just described, because in several instances, we've already seen the adoption of systems that are small, smart, cheap, and many.

We're seeing it in CENTCOM, where Task Force 59 has been operating a range of uncrewed vehicles — Saildrones, Wave Gliders, and so on — for experimentation and more.

We're seeing it in INDOPACOM, where work is furiously ongoing with a variety of capabilities recently tested in Northern Edge and other exercises.
And we're seeing it in space, hundreds of miles above our heads. 

For a long time, you could count our space capabilities by the handful. Satellites the size of school buses, that took decades to build and to buy, years to launch. 

But now that's not all we use. More and more, we're also leveraging proliferated constellations of smaller, resilient, lower-cost satellites. Some are launched almost weekly, with dozens of payloads deployed each time.

America's dynamic commercial space companies made this possible. They're also why, since 2018, the United States has outpaced the PRC's growth in space launches and satellites by 2-to-12 times. So the space race is now a space chase. And as DoD invests even more, America's lead will only grow.

We're now approaching a future where the web of satellites we can draw upon is so great, that attacking or disrupting them would be futile — a wasted effort, and a highly escalatory one at that. Not even worth contemplating, let alone trying.

That's what ‘small, smart, cheap, and many' can do. And Replicator will help us accelerate the scaling of ADA2 systems in even more domains.

As for more details, we will be deliberate about what we share publicly — though we will be working with industry, Congress, and allies and partners in everything that we do. And some things, we will only reveal at a time and place and manner of our choosing. 

I know that isn't easy. Engineers want to take pride in their work. CEOs want to share good news with investors. People in government want credit for their good ideas. And all that will come in time if we succeed. But not today. 

Remember, these aren't ships or aircraft that we'll be using for the next 30-to-50 years. ADA2 systems are things we might use for 3-to-5 years, before we move on to the next thing — as we must, given a dynamic, fast-moving adversary and the pace of innovation. We can never take our military superiority for granted. 

Now, I know some people are wondering if ADA2 means weapon systems. 

That's a serious question, to be sure. They are not synonymous. There are many applications for ADA2 systems beyond delivering weapons effects.

But don't forget that integrating autonomy into weapon systems is nothing new for DoD. We know how to do it responsibly. In fact, we've done it so far for decades, from AEGIS destroyers to ship- and ground-based Phalanx defense systems. And we've continually gotten better at it.

Our policy for autonomy in weapon systems is clear and well-established: there is always a human responsible for the use of force. Full stop. Anything we do through this initiative, or any other, must and will adhere to that policy. 

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.

That's the paradox of military innovation: to deliver on our no-fail mission in defending the nation, we must be willing to take risks, to try things that might not succeed as we'd hoped. But that's what leadership is: it's saying "follow me," and holding yourself accountable to get there.


Now as I said last week, you won't see the Secretary or me rolling out a "mission accomplished" banner when it comes to innovation. Not because we're afraid of succeeding, but because we know that America is in a persistent, generational challenge for advantage with our pacing challenger.

I also said that we're measuring success on our ability to deliver outcomes. And so we don't expect history to judge us by the speeches we make, or the dollars in our budget. 

Instead, we'll be judged by whether we achieve the goal we've set: delivering capabilities to warfighters at speed and scale. Because that's what really matters.

Our goal always is to deter, because competition does not mean conflict. 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, now and for the foreseeable future. 

But we also must be ready if aggression comes. And that readiness focus and energy extends not just to the force, but also to all of us. We never want to find ourselves in a situation where, in the words of Secretary Bob Gates, "the troops are at war, but the Pentagon is not." 

So from the Pentagon, to Congress, to industry and beyond — we must be bold, we must be determined, and we must move with urgency and unity of purpose, to ensure we can maintain the peace and have our troops ready for whatever may come.

Because that's what's required in this era of strategic competition with the PRC.

Replicator aside, if we can achieve that — then the risk will have been worth it.

Thank you very much.