The Defense Department is making progress in becoming more agile, and leaders are driving change, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told the Defense Writers' Group today.
She said programs like the "replicator" initiative are the future for the department. The idea is to speed programs from basic research to fielded, military capabilities. Replicator will begin with all-domain, "attritable" autonomy to help overcome China's advantage in mass. China has more ships, more missiles and more forces than the United States. Replicator will focus on fielding thousands of self-piloting ships and uncrewed aircraft within the next two years.
DOD officials often talk about the "Valley of Death" for ideas and capabilities. After research and tests, the capabilities hit the valley of death and often never get fielded.
Replicator is an example of what the department must do on a large scale to stay ahead of potential threats like those emanating from China and Russia. These new capabilities require new doctrines and new uses and new cultures — really — to operate. And the U.S. military is positioned to capitalize on this and move forward.
Hicks said DOD would be further along the road to modernization and change if it weren't for the problems caused by Congress passing continuing resolutions rather than military appropriations.
Defense officials work hard to build trust with Congress, Hicks said. "But … trust is a two-way street," she said. "And we are really being challenged to trust that our partners in Congress can get done what they need to do for us to achieve those ends."
Hicks said this is true with the request for a supplemental appropriation to fund aid to Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific expenditures. Hicks said there is strong bipartisan support for this.
The department is also facing the continuing resolution challenge, she said. Congress is unable to agree on appropriations for the fiscal 2024 budget and has passed continuing resolutions that fund the government at the fiscal 2023 level. "We've gotten used to getting by CR to CR, but it's with significant consequences," she said. "We estimate we've lost probably a total of about four years' worth of progress on our modernization efforts. In the … nearly 11 years that we've been dealing with CRs, that is a cost you can't buy back; you just can't buy back time."
The CRs stop new programs from beginning. They halt advanced procurement for shipbuilding and much, much more.
Even with these problems, Hicks said innovative work is happening in the department. "I think there has been phenomenal work that's happened across the department," Hicks said. "One of the great things about our defense system is that innovation happens all across it."
The innovation continues, as does innovation in America's commercial sector. "All of that should improve our agility, but to tap into that we have to be able to have predictable, reliable and appropriately strategically driven resources, and we have to be able to have the leadership in place," she said. "All of that really impacts our ability to meet our potential."
Hicks said strong U.S. alliances and partnerships are key. "We need to leverage that alliance structure that both is so valuable an asymmetric advantage for the United States and something we know the Chinese are very worried about," she said. "We have made incredible progress there. I don't think anyone could look at the U.S.-Philippine defense relationship a couple of years ago and have expected us to achieve the kinds of agreements that we now have — the ability to bring South Korea and Japan together with the United States."
The Australia-United Kingdom-United States defense agreement, the growing relationship with India and the centrality of U.S. ties to the nations of Southeast Asia show there is "lots of really positive momentum and real gains there," Hicks said.
Leadership is important in continuing this process, Hicks said. There has to be consistency in the message to those pushing these processes, programs and strategies forward.