The US military has initiated a program to develop “drone swarm” technology in preparation for a potential conflict with China, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. During a National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) conference in Washington, DC, Hicks outlined the Replicator weapons program, aiming to deploy thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) simultaneously on land, sea, and air. The program seeks to counter China’s advantage in numbers and enhance the US military’s operational capabilities against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Hicks emphasized the need for the US military to adopt platforms that are “small, smart, cheap, and many,” unlike the current systems that are “large, exquisite, expensive, and few.” She acknowledged China’s superior mass in terms of ships, missiles, and personnel and stressed the importance of innovative weapons systems to overcome this advantage. The Replicator program aims to field multiple thousands of UAVs across various domains within the next two years.
Although Hicks provided limited details about the initiative, Admiral John Aquilino, who leads the US Indo-Pacific Command, stated that the drones would be instrumental in a future conflict with China. He envisioned using the drones to strike a large number of targets spread over a wide area, emphasizing the importance of having an asymmetric advantage. Aquilino also mentioned a program named “Assault Breaker II,” developed in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to collect and integrate targeting data for an entire theater more efficiently.
Earlier this year, the US, UK, and Australian militaries conducted a joint demonstration of AI-powered drone systems in a capabilities trial. These drones, deployed as a collaborative swarm, were designed to detect and track military targets. Although the exact role of artificial intelligence in the Replicator program is unclear, the three allies have shown an increased focus on countering China in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative reflects their commitment to developing and deploying new military capabilities to address the growing Chinese threat.
In summary, the US military’s Replicator program aims to develop drone swarm technology to counter China’s numerical advantage. By deploying thousands of UAVs simultaneously on land, sea, and air, the US hopes to enhance its operational capabilities and overcome China’s mass advantage. The program aligns with the military’s shift towards smaller, cost-effective platforms. The US, UK, and Australia have also demonstrated their commitment to countering China through joint AI-powered drone trials. While the exact role of artificial intelligence in the Replicator program remains unclear, it is evident that the US military is actively working to develop innovative weapons systems to maintain its operational advantage in the Indo-Pacific theater.