Pentagon Will Spend $1B on First Round of Replicator Drones

March 11, 2024 8:30 PM
An unmanned surface vehicle (USV) made by Saronic Technologies conducts testing of an autonomous over-the-horizon solution conceived by student researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) during a Navy exercise off the coast of California in 2023. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON ­– The Defense Department’s early effort to build a fleet of small, unmanned craft designed to stymie a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will cost about $1 billion, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said on Monday.
Announced last year, the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative is an effort to quickly field swarms of unmanned systems to solve military problems faced by U.S. combatant commanders. The first, Replicator 1, tackles the problem of how to slow or defeat an amphibious invasion of Taiwan with massed lethal surface drones and overhead loitering munitions, USNI News has reported.

Split over funding periods, the Pentagon has earmarked about $1 billion so far to fund the first round of the Replicator initiative in two parts. The first $500 million will be part of either a reprogramming request or a late addition to the Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations bill that is set to go to conference later this month. The second $500 million is included in the FY 2025 budget, but the line item was not immediately apparent, Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord told reporters on Monday.

The loose total for the first iteration comes as the Pentagon is shifting its unmanned systems focus to swarming, attritable drones that can deliver in the near term and serve as a test bed for autonomy, rather than more complex legacy unmanned programs, Hicks told reporters on Monday.

“This is a pathfinder. It’s largely about reducing barriers inside our system in a process that the Vice Chairman and I run. But obviously, there are dollars associated with getting the actual thousands on the 18-to-24-month timeline out the door,” she said.
“It is my fervent view that follow-on to that is a significant investment potential that is not about Replicator, that is about what the services are going to be able to do on autonomy once we’re able to lower those barriers through that initial investment.”

In January, Hicks and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Chris Grady selected the first tranche of Replicator vehicles as part of the effort, the Defense Innovation Unit told USNI News at last month’s West 2024 conference.

“There is likely some frustration that that hasn’t been publicly announced,” said Capt. Alex Campbell, DIU’s maritime director.
“Please understand that that is very deliberate. There is a very important but frankly, critical conceal and reveal strategy.”

Along with the mass of unmanned systems, DIU is also creating the software that will allow the lethal surface and aerial vehicles to swarm, find threats autonomously and then allow a human being to make the ultimate decision to strike a target.

Last month, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Sam Paparo said the Navy will stand up a new squadron for small unmanned vessels in May.

“This is not a contractor-owned, contractor-operated capability, but this is [a] uniformed capability that we’ll be able to own [and] operate unmanned capabilities that can be employed within particular spaces,” Paparo said.

PACFLEET has been experimenting with a concept known as “hellscape” that dovetails with the Replicator 1 goals of suppressing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The upcoming Integrated Battle Problem 24.1 in May will test some of the underlying concepts of small swarming unmanned surface vessels, USNI News previously reported.

The ultimate goal of the program is to shift the most dangerous and destructive functions of a complex operation, like repelling an invasion of Taiwan, from manned ships and submarines to unmanned and lethal machines.

“A principled highly effective concept of operations of sea denial, with unmanned undersea vessels, with smart undersea capabilities, with surface capabilities and aerial capabilities is the ability to meet some of the principles … which is don’t send a human being to do something dangerous that a machine can do better, faster, and more cheaply,” Paparo said during his keynote at West 2024.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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