Pentagon Plans Sea Drone Fleet for Possible China War

The Pentagon is embarking on a $1 billion program to build an armada of remote-controlled killer sea drones.

The effort is the first phase of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Replicator Initiative to build thousands of autonomous war-ready vehicles as tools to “deter conflict and, if deterrence fails, to fight and win the war,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said last month.

The announcement comes amid concerns in Washington, D.C., over a potential future attack against Taiwan by China, which the DoD considers a “pacing challenge.” The U.S. is the self-ruled island’s main arms supplier, but it maintains a longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” to keep China guessing on whether Washington would commit American forces to Taiwan’s defense.

Hicks said Monday that the department will ask lawmakers to allocate $500 million for Replicator this fiscal year, possibly as a reprogramming request, and another half billion dollars in the budget the DoD has submitted for fiscal year 2025, U.S. Naval Institute News reported.

In addition to the sea-skimming drones, the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit is working on software to enable swarms of surface and airborne drones to seek out targets on their own, with the decision to attack resting with human coordinators.

Newsweek reached out to the DoD with a written request for comment.

Chinese military buildup and exercises around Taiwan are nearing the point at which they could “execute a profound military operation” with little notice, Admiral Samuel Paparo, whom the Senate recently confirmed as the next chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said last month.

He said China‘s rapidly expanding capabilities are a call to action for Washington and that the capacity to field a large number of unmanned aircraft in waters where the People’s Liberation Army has an offensive and sensory edge will be key to potentially defending Taiwan in a future conflict.

A sailor and civilian technicians monitor an unmanned surface vehicle after it was launched from Military Sealift Command’s expeditionary sea base, USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams, into the Chesapeake Bay on September 14, 2019. The Pentagon…

Bill Mesta/U.S. Navy

China considers Taiwan a rogue province and has pledged to someday bring it into the fold—through force if necessary—though the Chinese Communist Party government in Beijing has never ruled there.

Taiwan aims to develop its own fleet of naval drones with an eye toward countering an amphibious assault across the 90-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

Local media reported earlier this month that state-owned weapons developer National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) has been contracted to produce prototype sea drones, with plans to assess over 200 units.

The plan is part of Taipei’s strategy to leverage asymmetric warfare—military operations using cost-effective and highly mobile platforms and tactics—to enhance its defensive posture against threats from its more powerful neighbor.

Taiwan aims to replicate the successes of Ukraine, which has used unmanned surface vehicles against the Russian fleet. The program seeks to develop two models, each designed for stealth and equipped with explosive payloads for anti-landing operations and surprise attacks.

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Micah McCartney