Replicator | Pentagon unveils UAV program to compete with China
Defence Redefined
Published on 30/08/2023 at 17:23

The Pentagon committed on Monday to developing thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next two years as part of a new initiative to compete with China.

The program, dubbed Replicator, was announced by Deputy Defence Secretary, Kathleen Hicks, speaking at the National Defence Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies conference.

The Replicator will galvanize the too-slow progress of US military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many, Hicks said, adding that further details will be released in the coming weeks.

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The Replicator rests on two assumptions. The first is that China’s core advantage is mass – more ships, more missiles, more people – and that the United States’ best response is to innovate, rather than match that pound for pound.

The second is that autonomous systems are the right form of innovation. Hicks pointed to the war in Ukraine, in which cheap, often commercial drones have proven indispensable on the battlefield for reconnaissance, targeting and attack missions. Russia too, she said, appeared to have a similar mass before launching its invasion last February.

However, this program is squarely focused on China, which Hicks called a generational challenge to American society. 

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Even so, Hicks noted the Pentagon will remain focused on its core systems. The USA still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few. Instead, the Replicator is particularly focused on accelerating DoD’s recent investments in autonomous systems.

The Replicator’s goal of fielding small UAVs in high numbers and on a rapid timeline resonates with calls to the Pentagon to better leverage commercial innovation to deliver capability at scale, an approach known as “hedge strategy”.

House members have backed that idea in their 2025 defence spending bill. The legislation would allocate $1 billion toward establishing a hedge portfolio made up of low-cost drones, agile communication and computing modes, and AI capabilities.

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The Department of Defence requested $1.8 billion for artificial intelligence (AII) for fiscal year 2024, while it was overseeing more than 685 related projects as of 2021. The Replicator is intended to pull those investments together and further scale production, Hicks said.

With the new Replicator program, Hicks hopes Beijing will reconsider its aggressive stance.

Also read: Phoenix Ghost | Pentagon reveals secretive new drone the US Air Force is giving to Ukraine




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