Pentagon Vows to Move Quickly to Buy More Drones, Citing China Threat

by Pelican Press
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The Pentagon announced on Monday that it would buy thousands of unmanned drones and other autonomous devices over the next two years, adding that it had been far too slow to embrace new technology that is “small, smart, cheap” and that could bolster the U.S. military as it prepares for possible future conflict with China.

The commitment came from Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary. She said in a speech at a gathering of military contractors that the Pentagon would soon change how it buys the kind of autonomous devices that the Ukrainian military has used over the past 18 months to help defend against the Russian invasion.

The Pentagon, Ms. Hicks conceded, is “too risk averse” as “our system was built for the industrial age, not the information age, let alone the age of A.I.,” referring to artificial intelligence and citing criticism she has raised or heard from others.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” she said, according to a transcript of her prepared remarks before the National Defense Industrial Association in Washington. “I agree with almost all of this. As one of the world’s largest organizations, it’s often hard to see ourselves clearly, and get out of our own way. So I’m far from satisfied that everything is working as it should.”

China, Ms. Hicks said, is effectively forcing the Pentagon to confront its risk-averse bureaucracy, which has slowed innovation. In recent years, she said, China has expanded its military — investing in planes, ships, missile systems and other weapons — to “blunt the operational advantages we’ve enjoyed for decades.”

The response from the Pentagon, she said, must be to invest more money in less expensive, easier to build, more expendable weapons that can quickly be acquired. Those include the kinds of small drones that carry bombs and loiter in the air until they find a target, or that can gather images and other intelligence, sharing it with other autonomous drones that carry out an attack.

Ms. Hicks promised that within 18 to 24 months the Pentagon would buy thousands of these autonomous systems for “multiple domains,” meaning likely in the air, on land and at sea by the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines.

“We’ll counter the P.L.A.’s mass with mass of our own,” she said in her speech, referring to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military. “But ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat.”

The speech is part of a continuing chorus of remarks by senior military officials focused on what they see as the rising threat of China, particularly a concern that it may move in the coming years to invade Taiwan, which could result in a direct confrontation with the United States.

The Pentagon gave few details on Monday on what steps it would take to deliver on its promise to buy “multiple thousands” of such “autonomous systems” in the coming 24 months, other than providing one of its typical code names for the new project, which it is calling the “Replicator Initiative.”

A Defense Department spokesman also declined, after the speech, to provide specifics on where the money would come from, how much the project would cost and what particular types of weapons and autonomous surveillance equipment the government would buy.

But the spokesman, in response to questions, said the money for this effort would come from the existing military budget, adding that details would be coming in the weeks ahead.

One challenge has been the Pentagon’s contracting system, which typically takes years to identify a need and allocate funding to buy weapons, and in particular complicated systems like fighter jets and ships. The Defense Department says it can no longer afford that delay as technological change accelerates.

Contractors that make these kinds of small, inexpensive autonomous drones — which cost thousands of dollars instead of the tens of millions of dollars of traditional large-scale drones like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator used in Iraq and Afghanistan — said they welcomed the announcement but were waiting for details.

Blake Resnick, the chief executive of Brinc Drones, called the current contracting process “really painful.” His company has sold thousands of drones to emergency response providers but only several dozen to the Pentagon.

“This is definitely the future of warfare,” he said of these small drones.

But Mr. Resnick added that the Pentagon’s commitment to buy “multiple thousands” might not have much of an impact. Ukraine alone has been losing 10,000 drones a month in its war with Russia, according to a recent estimate.

The Pentagon has previously tried to speed up the acquisition of new technology, including with the creation of the Defense Innovation Unit in 2015.

Raj Shah, a former Air Force pilot who served as the director of the Defense Innovation Unit for two years, said Congress and the Pentagon had not shifted enough money from more expensive manned platforms like ships and planes to buy large numbers of cheaper unmanned devices.

“Until you put some money behind it, it is just noise,” he said.

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