The Pentagon plans to field thousands of drones and other high-tech military equipment within the next two years as the United States military turns to “autonomous systems” to counter China’s numerical edge in terms of personnel and weaponry, a senior defence official said.
US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told a military technology conference in Washington, DC on Monday that the “imperative to innovate” was crucial at a time of strategic competition with China, a rival who Hick described as being very different to the “relatively slow and lumbering” competitors the US faced during the Cold War.
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While US forces were engaged in fighting for 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, “the PRC [People’s Republic of China] worked with focus and determination to build a modern military, carefully crafting it to blunt the operational advantages we’ve enjoyed for decades”, Hicks said in a speech.
In a candid address that highlighted Washington’s view of the military threat posed by China and its ability to out-scale the US military, Hicks said the US maintained an advantage owing to its ability “to imagine, create and master the future character of warfare”.
Beijing’s main military advantage is “mass: more ships, more missiles, more people”, she said.
“We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat,” she said, referring to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
The US goal is “to field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months”, Hicks said.
Deploying “autonomous systems in all domains” will be less expensive and “put fewer people in the line of fire”, she said.
“We must ensure the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’ – and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond,” she added.
In a periodic assessment of US defence needs and priorities, the Pentagon in October declared China a “pacing challenge” and said that an urgent strengthening of deterrence against Beijing was necessary. The National Defense Strategy said China would remain the US’s most “consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades”.
The release of the strategy assessment came just weeks after the White House issued a National Security Strategy, which also described China as a major challenger that had “both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it”.
Washington is particularly concerned by China’s ability and intent to “refashion the Indo-Pacific region” amid its claims in the South China Sea and it promise to unite independent and democratically-ruled Taiwan with mainland China – by force, if necessary.