DoD Replicator Low Cost Autonomy Initiative is Not a New Program of Record, Hicks Says

(Image: Chesky/Adobe Stock)

During an appearance at a Defense News conference last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks provided more details about the new Replicator initiative and its focus on accelerating the deployment of “all-domain attritable autonomous systems (ADA2).” While the goals of the Replicator program made major headlines amid its rollout, Hicks stressed that it is not a new program of record and will not require new funding in the Department of Defense's (DoD) fiscal year 2024 budget.

In her unveiling of the Replicator initiative during an Aug. 28 appearance  at a National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) conference, Hicks said that the Replicator initiative's launch is a response to the People's Republic of China's rapid buildup of its armed forces. Under the strategy, coined by Hicks as the Replicator initiative, DoD will field thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next 18 to 24 months. A key goal of the Replicator initiative is the speedy deployment of autonomous systems that are inexpensive.

How will DoD achieve this ambitious 18-month goal and what type of low cost autonomy will be deployed? Hicks did not provide specific platforms, but detailed more insights about the type of technology Replicator will deploy over the time period she outlined during her follow up speech last week.

"Imagine distributed pods of self-propelled ADA2 systems afloat, powered by the sun and other virtually-limitless resources, packed with sensors aplenty, enough to give us new, reliable sources of information in near-real-time," Hicks said. "Imagine fleets of ground-based ADA2 systems delivering novel logistics support, scouting ahead to keep troops safe, or securing DoD infrastructure. Imagine constellations of ADA2 systems on orbit, flung into space scores at a time, numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all."

Hicks also referenced some of the existing demonstrations and programs occurring across different DoD branches as examples of the type of autonomous systems the agency will focus on deploying under Replicator. These include the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Task Force 59's operation of uncrewed sail drones and wave gilders. Task Force 59 was first launched by the U.S. Navy in September 2021 tasked with combining manned with unmanned systems and artificial intelligence for maritime operations in the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT).

Another example is the Northern Edge exercise’s demonstrations of new autonomous technologies. Sponsored by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and led by Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, the Northern Edge exercise is an annual demonstration held in Alaska that integrates land, air, sea, space and cyberspace domains for joint, interagency and multinational training.

Replicator will begin with all-domain, "attritable" autonomy to help overcome China's advantage in mass: more ships, more missiles, more forces. These capabilities "can help a determined defender stop a larger aggressor from achieving its objectives, put fewer people in the line of fire, and be made, fielded, and upgraded at the speed warfighters need without long maintenance tails," Hicks said.

Examples of these capabilities are autonomous ships and uncrewed aircraft.

"Remember, these aren't ships or aircraft that we'll be using for the next 30-to-50 years. ADA2 systems are things we might use for 3-to-5 years, before we move on to the next thing — as we must, given a dynamic, fast-moving adversary and the pace of innovation. We can never take our military superiority for granted," Hicks said.

In space this will mean ADA2 systems in orbit "flung into space scores at a time, numbering so many that it becomes impossible to eliminate or degrade them all," Hicks said. "Imagine flocks of ADA2 systems flying at all sorts of altitudes, doing a range of missions, building on what we've seen in Ukraine. They could be deployed by larger aircraft, launched by troops on land or sea, or take off themselves."

The Replicator initiative will be led by the “Deputy's Innovation Steering Group,” a new group co-chaired by Hicks and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Every key DoD stakeholder will have a seat at the table: combatant commanders; military departments, service secretaries and service chiefs; and OSD component heads.

“And for the next 18 months, we'll be laser-focused on achieving this singular goal for ADA2 systems — plus, determining our next 18-month goal after that — again, to replicate the process with another operational challenge,” Hicks said. “This doesn't require a joint program office, or reshuffling deck chairs in any other way. Because the military services and other parts of DoD have already been leading in the development of ADA2 systems. Many such innovations emerged organically. And several were funded in our most recent defense budget.”