Pentagon Commits To Replicator Project
Some Critics Express Skepticism
WASHINGTON (AP) — Earlier this month, the Pentagon committed to deploying thousands of attritable, autonomous systems across multiple domains in the next two years as part of a new initiative aimed at better competing against China. The commitment was part of a drone initiative that was launched in August.
On September 14, political commentators for The Wall Street Journal critiqued the new Raptor program, stating that, in their view, it would not be a substitute for the bigger Navy.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced the program, known as Replicator, during her speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies conference.
Hicks stated that Replicator would "galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many."
The program will be overseen by Hicks and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady, with support from Doug Beck, director of the Defense Innovation Unit. Additional details will be released in the coming weeks.
The Replicator program is based on two key assumptions. First, that China's advantage lies in its mass, such as more ships, missiles, and people. Hicks argues that the United States' best response is to innovate rather than try to match China pound for pound.
Second, the program believes that attritable, autonomous systems represent the right form of innovation. Hicks pointed to the war in Ukraine, where cheap commercial drones have proven essential for reconnaissance, targeting, and attacks. She also noted Russia's similar mass usage before its invasion last February.
Although Replicator acknowledges China as the primary focus, Hicks emphasized that this moment represents a "generational challenge to American society." She stated that the United States would counter the People's Liberation Army's mass with its own mass, which would be harder to plan for, hit, and beat.
However, Hicks also highlighted that the Pentagon would continue to prioritize its core systems, stating that "America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few." Replicator aims to accelerate recent investments in the Department of Defense's autonomous systems.
The Replicator program aligns with calls from former Defense Innovation Unit director Mike Brown to leverage commercial innovation for delivering capability at scale. House appropriators have backed this approach, allocating $1 billion in their fiscal 2025 defense spending bill to establish a DIU-managed hedge portfolio.
The portfolio includes low-cost drones, agile communication and computing modes, and AI capabilities.
Replicator seeks to consolidate the Department of Defense's existing investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and further scale production. The department requested $1.8 billion for AI in fiscal year 2024 and was overseeing over 685 related projects as of 2021.
According to Eric Pahon, a spokesperson for Hicks, Replicator is a reorganization of existing funds and is expected to cost in the range of hundreds of millions.
Hicks acknowledged that Replicator adds to a long line of Defense Department innovation programs. However, she emphasized that this initiative is different, stating, "We know we can do it. It doesn't mean it's without risk. We've got to take a big bet here."