ARLINGTON, Va. — Under a new strategy to counter China’s military buildup, the Pentagon is advocating the use of low-cost autonomous platforms that can be mass produced and deployed at sea, on land, in the air and in space. 

“This is about driving culture change just as much as technology change — so we can gain military advantage faster,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, said Sept. 6 at the DefenseNews annual conference. 

Hicks discussed DoD’s plan to field thousands of autonomous systems across all domains within the next 18 to 24 months. China’s advantage is “mass,” said Hicks. DoD will continue to invest in its traditional platforms but will counter with “mass of our own,” or large numbers of autonomous systems. 

DoD would field fleets of tiny drones and swarms of satellites that would be inexpensive to replace. 

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

The strategy is to “leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many,” Hicks said. 

Proliferated constellations

Smart satellites that use AI to navigate, track and image objects are not a new technology. Hicks noted that DoD has already embraced the concept of proliferated constellations of large numbers of low-cost satellites. But the next step would be producing them in larger numbers.

The same idea applies to aerial, maritime and ground autonomous systems, she said. 

“We’ve already seen the adoption of systems that are small, smart, cheap, and many. And we’re seeing it in space, hundreds of miles above our heads,” Hicks said. 

“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. 

The U.S. military’s Space Development Agency is building a government-owned proliferated constellation. DoD is also a major customer of Starlink, SpaceX’s massive internet in space. Hicks said these new commercial systems are helping the United States maintain an edge over China in the space race.

“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,” she said.

Because of the growth of commercial space, Hicks said, “the space race is now a space chase. And as DoD invests even more, America’s lead will only grow.”

Attacking or disrupting a large network of satellites would be “a wasted effort, and a highly escalatory one at that. Not even worth contemplating, let alone trying,” she said.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...