US Defense Department To Deploy Thousands Of Fully-Autonomous, AI-Controlled Units By 2025

Zinger Key Points
  • The units will be deployed in land, sea, air and space and will serve several functions, but will not include weapons.
  • No new budget will be solicited by the DoD for the development of the technology.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pursuing a new initiative to develop a fleet of autonomous, unmanned air, water, space and land vehicles that would use artificial intelligence to perform diverse defense tasks.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks gave new details of the Pentagon's "Replicator" project in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

The project is expected to produce thousands of fully autonomous units ready within 18 to 24 months. Hicks described them as "small, smart, cheap and many."

Hicks made it clear that the defense department needs to speed up the development of AI-powered military instruments to compete with China's fast innovation in the field.

"Conflict with the [People's Republic of China] is neither imminent nor inevitable," she said.

"The PRC has spent the last 20 years building a modern military carefully crafted to blunt the operational advantages we've enjoyed for decades," Hicks added.

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A Growing Track In AI: Hicks has been keen on AI technology since being confirmed for her role in 2021. One of her first actions on the job was launching the AI and Data Acceleration initiative, which aimed to develop the data architecture necessary to develop AI systems that can be trusted for military operations.

"DOD’s operators must come to trust the outputs of AI systems; its commanders must come to trust the legal, ethical and moral foundations of explainable AI; and the American people must come to trust the values DOD has integrated into each of its applications," Hicks said in 2021.

In 2022, the defense department set up the Chief Digital and AI Office to, among other things, "enable the development of digital and AI-enabled solutions across the Department."

In the past year, the office's data scientists have been collaborating with military commanders to develop AI solutions that can improve the efficiency of military operations.

The latest step in the Pentagon's AI race is a plan to develop an array of autonomous AI systems that would cover land, air, space and sea. The development would initially entail spending up to several hundred million dollars.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Defense's budget for artificial intelligence in 2024 amounts to $1.8 billion.

ADA2 Systems: Replicator, a military drone program, will use existing funding and bureaucracy, Hicks said, adding that the project needs a cultural shift to go along with the technological change. No new authorities will be created in its development, and the department will "not be asking for new money in FY24."

The tools created will be driven by "what warfighters need now," and "that is ready enough to scale." 

The units are being called ADA2 systems, which stands for "all-domain attritable autonomy." For the time being, there are no plans to equip ADA2 systems with lethal weapons.

"There are many applications for ADA2 systems beyond delivering weapons effects. There is always a human responsible for the use of force. Full stop," said Hicks, before sharing possible use scenarios the DOD envisions for the developing technology.

  • At sea: Distributed floating pods of self-propelled ADA2 systems, "powered by the sun and other virtually-limited resources, packed with sensors of plenty," giving new information in real time.
  • On the ground: Fleets of ADA2 systems delivering novel logistics support, "scouting ahead to keep troops safe or securing DoD infrastructure."
  • In space: Constellations of ADA2 systems in orbit, flung into space scores at the time, "numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or to degrade them all."
  • In the air: Flocks of ADA2 systems flying at all sorts of altitudes, doing a range of missions. These can be deployed by larger aircrafts, launched by troops from land or sea, or capable of autonomous takeoff.

Regardless of the announcement, the defense sector had a negative day in Wall Street. Hicks mentioned that the DoD will be working with undisclosed industry partners in the development of ADA2 systems.

  • Shares from Lockheed Martin Corp LMT, the largest contractor for the defense department, dropped 4.7% on Wednesday after the company announced a cut in its delivery outlook for F-35 jets, and delayed deliveries for TR-3 jets.
  • Airplane maker and defense supplier Boeing Co BA dropped 2.0% on Wednesday.
  • Stealth bomber maker Northrop Grumman Corp NOC fell 1.7%
  • The iShares US Aerospace & Defense ETF ITA was down 1.2%.
  • The SPDR S&P Aerospace & Defense ETF XAR dropped 0.42%.

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Image: A Mavic Pro drone by Ian Usher on Unsplash.

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Posted In: NewsPoliticsMarketsTechGeneralartificial intelligenceChinaDepartment of DefenseKathleen Hicks
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