Pentagon’s new AI drone initiative seeks ‘game-changing shift’ to global defense

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on Wednesday touted a new initiative designed to create thousands of weapons systems powered by artificial intelligence, saying it will mark a “game-changing shift” in defense and security as Washington looks to curtail China’s growing influence across the world.

Hicks said the new initiative, called Replicator, is part of a concentrated push at the Pentagon to accelerate cultural and technological change and gain a “military advantage faster” over competitors.

“Now is the time to scale with systems that are harder to plan for, harder to hit and harder to beat,” she said at a Defense News conference in Arlington, Va., adding that autonomous weapons “can help a determined defender stop a larger aggressor from achieving its objectives, put fewer people in the line of fire and be made shielded and upgraded at the speed war fighters need without long maintenance.”

Hicks first announced Replicator last week at a separate defense conference, saying the Pentagon would work closely with the defense industry to field thousands of autonomous weapons and security systems across all domains in 18-24 months.

While the U.S. has already deployed some autonomous systems — vehicles, aircraft or drones that operate without a human — Replicator would mark a significant step toward developing many more of them.

According to Hicks, these units would be “small, smart, cheap, and many.” She tasked the audience to imagine self-operating, AI-powered systems “flying at all sorts of altitudes doing a range of missions,” with some of them potentially even solar-powered.

Replicator is not a new program and will not seek out additional funding or personnel, Hicks said, but will instead use existing program funding and government employees to accelerate production and delivery.

She explained the Replicator initiative is a major commitment across the entire Defense Department, from military commanders to Pentagon offices.

“Make no mistake,” Hicks said Wednesday, “Replicator signals from the top that we are embarking on audacious change fast, using the means we have to face an urgent challenge — and we intend to meet it with the courage to bet big.”

Hicks is overseeing the initiative along with Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Christopher Grady and Doug Beck, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, in a newly formed steering group.

The global development of autonomous weapons systems, which some refer to as “killer robots,” has drawn scrutiny from human rights groups, which argue they should not be used in combat without a human operator.

The Pentagon’s guidelines on autonomous systems says there will be “appropriate levels of human judgment” before any use of force. Hicks said the U.S. will maintain its ethical standards for autonomous weapons and that “integrating autonomy into weapons systems is nothing new” for the military.

“We know how to do it responsibly,” she said. “Our policy for autonomy and weapons systems is clear and well-established. There is always a human responsible for the use of force, full stop.”

Tags AI Arlington autonomous systems Defense Department defenseproduction Kathleen Hicks Kathleen Hicks Replicator robots Virginia