Field Replicator 1.0 Now

By George Galdorisi

One of the most talked about Department of Defense programs in 2024 was Replicator.

Viewed as a capability that could impossibly complicate China’s attempt to invade Taiwan, this concept was unveiled by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks where she noted: “Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap and many.”[1]

A Department of Defense website captured the essence of Deputy Defense Secretary Hicks August 2023 announcement of the Replicator program this way:

As China focuses on the sheer mass of its military, the U.S. will “out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing and out-maneuvering them.”

Under the strategy, coined by Hicks as the Replicator initiative, the Defense Department will field thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next 18 to 24 months.

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people.”

Through the initiative, the U.S. will augment its manufacturing and mobilization capabilities “with our real comparative advantage, which is the innovation and spirit of our people.”

Even when mobilizing the U.S. economy and manufacturing base, rarely has the U.S. relied solely on its ability to match adversaries’ scale alone.

“To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art — just as America has before — leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire and can be changed, updated or improved with substantially shorter lead times.”[2]

Citing this address by DEPSECDEF Hicks, one defense analyst noted:

The Pentagon is betting that by fielding thousands of attritable autonomous systems across domains in fewer than two years, the United States can overcome China’s advantage of mass in manpower, ships, aircraft and missiles, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in a Monday speech.

Speaking at a National Defense Industrial Association event, she said that using the Replicator Initiative “we’ll counter the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit and harder to beat.”

“All-Domain, Attritable Autonomous (ADA2) systems will overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems. Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD,” said Hicks.[3]

DEPSECDEF Hicks emphasized that the goal of Replicator is to: “Field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.”[4]

Hicks assigned DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to spearhead this effort and noted that DIU would use this timeline to find mature systems to instantiate Replicator.[5]

She described the organizing impulse for Replicator: To overcome China’s advantage of mass.[6]

To this end, defense officials indicate that they intend to award contracts for Replicator during this timeframe.[7]

Later that month, as the de facto executive agent for Replicator, DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit posted an explanation of the program on its website:

The Replicator initiative is a specific example of how the Department will accelerate delivery of innovation to the warfighter at speed and scale through senior leader focus on a specific operational challenge to remove systemic roadblocks. This initiative is purposefully designed to overcome challenges faced by commercial partners inside and outside the Department, ensuring the Department can organize its demand signal and communicate that to the commercial sector in order to ultimately acquire ‘ready to scale’ capabilities.

The first iteration of Replicator (Replicator 1), announced in August 2023, will deliver all-domain attritable autonomous systems (ADA2) to warfighters at a scale of multiple thousands, across multiple warfighting domains, within 18-24 months, or by August 2025. The DoD is creating a new “state of the art” with the use of ADA2 systems, which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times. Successive iterations of Replicator will apply lessons learned to address additional capability gaps beyond ADA2 systems.[8]

In one of her speeches regarding Replicator, in January 2024 DEPSECDEF Hicks made clear where funding for Replicator would come from:

Replicator is not a new program of record. We’re not creating a new bureaucracy. And we will not be asking for new money in FY24. Not all problems need new money; we are problem-solvers, and we intend to self-solve. So, Replicator will use existing funding, existing programming lines, and existing authorities to accelerate production and delivery at scale — by exerting leadership focus and attention on a singular operational challenge and maturing solutions, because that’s what ultimately delivers.

Continuance of existing funding levels for DoD is a necessary but not sufficient condition for both Replicator and the Navy, yet neither can count on those levels remaining steady. DoD faces not just competing governmental priorities, but also diverging political tectonic plates. Better for uniformed leaders to recognize the divide and work within it where they can. Here, both the Navy and Replicator can aid their case by delivering results for less cost at speed over the next twelve months.[9]

While the Replicator initiative considers unmanned systems in all domains, for a mission such as the defense of Taiwan, unmanned surface vehicles will have a prominent role.

Here is how two naval analysts explained the solicitation issued by the Department of Defense in a January 30, 2024 article in USNI News:

The U.S. military has taken the next step in building thousands of lethal sea-borne attack drones that could be key to deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

On Monday, the Defense Innovation Unit put out a solicitation for companies to submit pitches for small, unmanned surface vehicles that could tie into the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, a defense official confirmed to USNI News on Tuesday.

DIU’s PRIME – Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary – will buy drones in bulk to respond to a Navy operational need for small autonomous attack craft capable of intercepting enemy vessels at high speeds.

“This is their effort to try to get some new kinetic, lethal USV[s] fielded that can be employed probably in a western Pacific context – maybe the Strait of Taiwan,” naval analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News on Tuesday.

“They want to go out to the commercial world and say, ‘Alright, what do you got in terms of kinetic, lethal USVs that can be produced at scale’.”

The Navy has been quietly experimenting in the Pacific with a lethal drone concept called “hellscape” that would disrupt an amphibious invasion of Taiwan with a combination of loitering munitions and lethal attack drones. The lethal and autonomous mass would throw off a synchronized invasion, sow confusion and chaos in the strait and buy time for the U.S. and Taiwan to bring more forces, USNI News reported last year. The program was inspired in part by the low-cost lethal surface drones developed by Ukraine and built with off-the-shelf components, USNI News understands.

The PRIME USVs are a departure from the large and medium USV demonstrators currently deployed by the Navy with a lower endurance and a range of 500 to 1000 nautical miles.

The requirement calls for the drones to autonomously transit through contested areas, loiter in assigned areas, detect surface threats and then sprint to at least 35 knots to intercept enemy vessels. The drone should also be capable of working with others in groups to “execute complex autonomous behaviors that adapt to the dynamic, evasive movements of the pursued vessel,” according to the solicitation.

Though not explicitly stated in the solicitation, the nature of the small USVs sprint and intercept phases is akin to a suicide surface attack drone, such as those seen in Ukraine.[10]

It is important to note that the speed of “35 knots” that was called out in the PRIME solicitation, will very likely be inadequate to intercept enemy vessels.   Most warships can make, or at least approach, this speed.

Therefore, a Replicator 1.0 built to a 35-knot specification will likely be inadequate to do the job. In various exercises, experiments and demonstrations, most recently in Task Force 59 operations, the U.S. Navy has evaluated unmanned surface vehicles that have demonstrated a proven capability of performing at speeds in excess of 50-knots.

DEPSECDEF Hicks was forthright in noting that fielding Replicator would not be without significant challenges, noting:

To be clear, America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few. But Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many. So now is the time to take all-domain, attritable autonomy to the next level to produce and deliver capabilities to warfighters at the volume and velocity required to deter aggression, to win if we’re forced to fight. Scaling is the problem Replicator will most directly try to solve.

We’ve looked at that innovation ecosystem and we think we’ve got some solutions in place across many of those pain points, but the scaling piece is the one that still feels quite elusive — scaling for emerging technology. And that’s where we’re really going to go after with Replicator: How do we get those multiple thousands produced in the hands of warfighters in 18 to 24 months?[11]

Details of what systems would comprise the Replicator portfolio have been slow to emerge.

DEDSECDEF Hicks partially answered both questions with a statement in May 2024, saying that the first items in Replicator’s shopping cart would include AeroVironment’s Switchblade-600 loitering munition, a batch of uncrewed surface vehicles and another unspecified set of counter-drone systems.[12]

Beyond these limited specifics, The Pentagon has been coy about what systems will be a part of the program. The officials behind it say that’s deliberate. Replicator is focused on countering China, and they don’t want to tell the Chinese military what to prepare for.[13]

One way to overcome the challenges of fielding Replicator would be to focus on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, especially on those unmanned surface vehicles that have been evaluated during numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. This approach would be in line with Defense Innovation Unit’s solicitation for “Small, unmanned, autonomous surface vehicle interceptors for the Navy.”[14]

As the Department of Defense seeks to acquire the many systems, subsystems and command and control capabilities to field Replicator, it may be time to field “Replicator 1.0” today.

In late 2023, U.S. Fifth Fleet and CTF-59 equipped a MARTAC Inc. T38 Devil Ray with a portable six-round launcher loaded with Switchblade 300s, (which the U.S. military officially calls the Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System (LMAMS)). This effort was successful with multiple on-target hits.

More recently, MARTAC Inc. has fielded a new unmanned surface vehicle, the MUSKIE M18, designed to be a revolutionary maritime attack drone. The MUSKIE M18 is an attritable, low-cost, Autonomous USV with the speed and payload capacity to provide an asymmetric advantage in modern naval engagements. Here is how one naval analyst described this new craft:

Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC), recently unveiled the latest product in its portfolio, the MUSKIE M18 (M18).  The M18 is an 18 foot (5.5m) low-cost, attritable system for use on either multi-mission or one-way missions.  The M18 configuration is designed as a high-performance, monohull vehicle capable of burst speeds of 50+ kts, open ocean cruising ranges up to 500 nautical miles, and a payload capacity up to 1000 pounds (450 kg).

Recently procured by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), the M18 was designed and developed from concept to empower operators to execute missions accommodating a variety of payloads, kinetics and kill systems in a low-cost platform that allows for broad acquisition and adoption of an asymmetric capability against conventional naval assets. M18s have MARTAC’s base autonomy stack where they can be operated by a remote operator or fully autonomously with supervisory operator intervention at any time during the mission.

Recent developments in the Black Sea have demonstrated the transformative nature of modern naval engagement with the introduction of swarming unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).   The use of high-performance small USVs’ demonstrates the capability to create an asymmetric advantage against conventional naval defenses. Swarms of these systems in coordinated attacks can make them elusive targets and provide an unpredictable deterrence to naval engagement.   MARTAC’s M18 can act as USVs or ASVs depending on mission requirements.[15]

The Navy and Marine Corps are planning an ambitious schedule of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations in 2024 and beyond, and fielding MARTAC USVs armed with Switchblade 300s and MUSKIE M18s in numbers during these events would instantiate a Replicator 1.0 high-speed and high-performance capability and would provide a clear proof-of-concept for Replicator and would likely accelerate fielding of these systems.

Featured Photo: Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany Chase)

[1] Noah Robertson, “Pentagon Unveils ‘Replicator’ Drone Program to Compete with China,” Defense News, August 28, 2023.

[2] Joseph Clark (DoD News), “Hicks Underscores U.S. Innovation in Unveiling Strategy to Counter China’s Military Buildup,” Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Program Website, August 28, 2023.

[3] John Grady, “DEPSECDEF Hicks: DoD Wants Thousands of Drones to Counter China’s Military Mass Advantage,” USNI News, August 28, 2023.

[4] Alex Plitsas, “The Pentagon’s Replicator Effort to Counter China is the Right Call,” Defense News, August 31, 2023.

[5] Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone, “Navy Will Stand Up Lethal Drone Unit Later this Year, First Replicator USVs Picked,” USNI News, February 14, 2024.

[6] Tony Bertuca, “DoD Reveals New Initiative to Rapidly Produce Autonomous Weapon Systems,’” Inside the Navy, September 4, 2023.

[7] Tony Bertuca, “DoD Officials ‘Cagey’ But Still Talking up Replicator as the Next ‘Big Bet,’” Inside the Navy, September 4, 2023.

[8] Defense Innovation Unit, “Replicator,” Defense Innovation Unit Website.

[9] Bill Rivers, “Replicator will Sink or Swim with the US Navy in 2024​,” Center for Maritime Strategy, January 18, 2024.

[10] Sam LaGrone and Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “Pentagon Puts Out Call for Swarming Attack Drones That Could Blunt a Taiwan Invasion,” USNI News, January 30, 2024.

[11] Daniel Pereira, “Two Fronts in the Future of Drone Warfare,” OODA Loop, August 29, 2023.

[12] Noah Robertson, “Pentagon Outlines Systems, Funding for First Batch of Replicator,” Defense News, May 6, 2024.

[13] Noah Robertson and Courtney Albon, “Replicator Drones Already Being Delivered, Pentagon Says,” Defense News, May 23, 2024.

[14] Georgina DiNardo, “DIU Seeks Autonomous Surface Vehicle Prototype in Line with Replicator,” Inside the Navy, February 5, 2024.

[15] Naval News Staff, “First Images of American Black Sea-Style Maritime Attack Drone,” Naval News, April 5, 2024.