US Pentagon's 'Replicator' will churn out thousands of drones

Announced at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies conference in Washington, the "Replicator" could be the future of US asset production.
Christopher McFadden
Drone swarms appear to be on the cards for U.S. armed forces.

Northrop Grumman 

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has just unveiled its plan to mass produce autonomous weapons, like drones, to counter China's rapid militarization, the Drive reports. Called "Replicator," the new program will see the US focus on developing and churning out "thousands" of "small, smart, cheap, and many" combat units. The initiative aims to use AI-powered uncrewed systems to counter China's armed forces while harnessing US innovation.

"Thousands of battle droids"

Seemingly inspired by the Battle Droids from Star War's prequels, the "Replicator" program was announced yesterday (28th of August) by US Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies conference in Washington. At the conference, Hicks quickly pointed out that the biggest perceived threat from China to the United States is its military forces "mass." Or, in other words, the number of ships, aircraft, and personnel the nation can field. She also highlighted China's growing competence in anti-access or area-denial capabilities.

“Even when we mobilize our economy and manufacturing base, rarely have America’s war-winning strategies relied solely on matching an adversary, ship for ship or shot for shot,” Hicks said. “After all, we don’t use our people as cannon fodder like some competitors do," she said. This is where "Replicator" is intended to continue and build upon the US ability to “outmatch adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing, and outmaneuvering them; we augment manufacturing and mobilization with our real comparative advantage, which is the innovation and spirit of our people," as Hicks explained.

Compared to existing US military systems procurement, "Replicator" would make production “less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and [they] can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times. We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat," explained Hicks.

The use of the term "attritable" is also interesting, the Drive explains, as it appears to suggest that the Pentagon is becoming comfortable with potential losses of assets during missions. Especially if they are unmanned. The Air Force uses "affordable mass" instead of "attritable" to avoid implying a willingness to lose systems in operational scenarios. In the case of "Replicator," it is currently impossible to estimate platform costs. However, key considerations include affordability, quick development cycles, and mass production.

A huge deterrent

In terms of autonomous systems, Hicks said that "Replicator" will be “developed and fielded in line with our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems, where the DoD has been a world leader for over a decade.” Hicks noted that the "attritable" concept not only reduces expenses but it also has the major advantage of enabling the manufacturing of systems in closer proximity to the tactical edge.

It is currently unknown what types of systems "Replicator" will produce and what missions they will undertake. However, it should be noted that these autonomous systems are not intended to replace existing systems immediately. Rather, they signal a long-term change in how the Pentagon approaches war preparation and execution, as emphasized by Hicks.