DoD to Deploy Thousands of Low Cost Autonomous Systems Under Replicator Program

DoD to Deploy Thousands of Low Cost Autonomous Systems Under Replicator Program

During her recent remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s (NDIA) Emerging Technologies for Defense conference, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks outlined the agency’s new “Replicator” initiative. Under the new Replicator initiative, over the next 18 to 24 months, the Defense Department will deploy thousands of low cost autonomous systems across multiple domains.

DoD officials are limiting the amount of information they will release around technology or platform specifics for Replicator. Hicks did confirm however that Replicator has been established to counter the rapid buildup of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) armed forces, weapons and new technologies.

A U.S. Army Origin autonomous weapons system uses a tethered unmanned aerial system to help soldiers perform reconnaissance of an area during last year’s Project Convergence 22 experimentation. (Image: U.S. Army Spc. Jaaron Tolley)

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

What is the actual plan of action to make the deployment of thousands of low cost autonomous systems over the next two years a reality? What type of autonomous systems will the agency be developing, acquiring and deploying across air, land and sea operations?

In her speech officially rolling out the Replicator initiative, Hicks did not specify any specific unmanned air, land or sea vehicle or technology. DoD also has not released a program overview detailing the actual technology or platforms that will fulfill their desire for rapidly developing and deploying low cost autonomy. Instead, Hicks emphasized the focus of Replicator will be on getting as many low cost small autonomous systems deployed as fast as possible during the next two years.

“All-domain, attritable autonomous systems will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems. Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD,” Hicks said, referencing China. “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.” While the Replicator program outlined by Hicks is certainly possible to achieve based on recent industry advancements with new autonomous technologies, rapidly deploying thousands of cheap autonomous systems is an ambitious goal for an agency that has struggled to rapidly deploy anything in recent years.

On an annual basis, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) does an assessment of DoD’s progress in acquiring and deploying major weapons acquisition programs. In 2023, the assessment showed that DoD is going in the opposite direction of the Replicator program’s focus, with new technologies being deployed slower at higher costs. “Over half of the 26 major defense acquisition programs GAO assessed that had yet to deliver operational capability reported new delays. Net costs for the 32 major defense acquisition programs that GAO assessed both this year and last year increased by $37 billion,” GAO writes in the 259-page report.

The GAO researchers attribute most of the delays and cost growth to supplier disruptions, software development delays, and quality control deficiencies. Several of the autonomous and unmanned systems or vehicles being developed for procurement by DoD have also been large and expensive, also going in the opposite direction of Replicator’s goal by growing in cost.

In one of the images released by DoD in its coverage of Hicks’ rollout of the Replicator program, a vessel conducts an autonomous docking and resupply demonstration during an Unmanned Surface Vessel capabilities demonstration at Marine Corps Base Hawaii last year. (Image: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Terry Stennett)

One such program is Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray, which is being developed as an aircraft carrier-based aerial refueling drone that also provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability for the U.S. Navy. During a September 2021 flight test, Navy officials overseeing the acquisition of the MQ-25 said they would consider options to address issues with the engine’s inlet shape that could lead to engine damage during flight. Delivery of test aircraft, including the first production representative aircraft was also delayed by Boeing from third quarter fiscal year 2022 to first quarter fiscal year 2024 due to “postponed supplier deliveries, as well as quality issues, such as improperly applied coating to parts,” according to the report.

Another acquisition program involving autonomous technology assessed by GAO’s report is the Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV), being developed as an uncrewed undersea vehicle capable of carrying and deploying various payload types. The Navy began developing XLUUV in fiscal year 2017 under a contract with Boeing and Huntington Ingalls Industries. In a video showing the XLUUV released by Boeing in July 2023, the company notes that it features “full, advanced autonomy” that “allows the vehicle to operate for months at a time in open, congested and contested waters with little-to-no human intervention.”

GAO’s report however shows that Boeing originally planned to deliver the first XLUUV by December 2020, with at sea testing to begin in the summer of 2022. Progress on at sea testing for the XLUUV is currently unknown, and the report notes that deliveries of the vehicles are now planned to occur between March and August 2024. The total cost of the XLUUV program now stands at $242 million or 64 percent over its original 2016 cost estimate, further demonstrating DoD’s struggles to rapidly deploy new technologies at lower costs.

Hicks directly addressed such issues in her outlining of the program during her appearance at the NDIA conference.

In another image released by DoD in covering the rollout of the Replicator program, the unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter is moored to a pier at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, during Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 23.2, on August 14, 2023. (Image: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Monford)

“Now, if you’re a cynic — or just a realist — if you’re thinking, ‘c’mon Deputy! This is the Pentagon you’re talking about! You’re too slow!’ — I do not blame you,” Hicks said. “Because I’m deeply, personally familiar with almost every maddening flaw in our system. But I also know that when the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency, and depth of focus, we can get it done.”

And while GAO’s annual weapons assessment has numerous examples of DoD’s struggle to deploy new technologies quickly, the agency has been taking every strategic and administrative action it can to change that and prepare for the type of acquisition and deployment sought by Replicator. As Hicks oversees the operation of the Replicator program over the next 24 months, some of the new autonomous systems that are deployed will inevitably need to be capable of collecting, storing and sharing data from sensors at the tactical edge with warfighters. Over the last two years, the DoD’s AI and Data Acceleration initiative (ADA) has deployed data scientists to every combatant command in the agency, where they’re integrating data across applications, systems, and users. DoD has also awarded “four Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability contracts to leading-edge commercial cloud providers, to ensure we have computing, storage, network infrastructure, and advanced data analytics to scale on demand,” according to Hicks.

The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) will also play a major role in ensuring the Pentagon has the ability to transition autonomous technology breakthroughs from the commercial arena to the battlefield. In May, Doug Beck, a Navy Reserve Captain, gave up his role as the Vice President of Apple to become the new Director of DIU, reporting directly to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Beck made an appearance at the same NDIA conference where Hicks rolled out the Replicator program in August. During a question and answer session with the media, he explained how he wants to take DIU’s mission of accelerating the adoption of commercial technology throughout the military to the next level. One way DIU is doing this is by embedding its personnel directly into every combatant command across the DoD. “There was a time where, a bit, disruptors of the team was what was needed, because we just had to finally break through and change the way we were thinking about certain things,” Beck said. ““Now what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to be disruptors on the team, and that’s about disruption at scale, which is more like the kind of world that I just came from.”

Just a few days after Hicks rolled out the Replicator program, Shield AI completed an autonomous teaming demonstration featuring three V-BAT Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). This accomplishment was the final milestone of an AFWERX autonomy effort under their Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) program and collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab’s Sensors Directorate. (Image: Shield AI)

DIU has also reorganized its National Security Innovation Network, which is responsible for transitioning engineers from universities and commercial industry to DoD, so that the program now directly reports to Beck.

In May, DIU announced updates on a partnership with the U.S. Army that has Replicator potential. The partnership, called the Ground Vehicle Autonomous Pathways project, is tasked with prototyping software for the navigation of uncrewed vehicles by fusing data from multiple sensors to allow for teleoperation of unmanned ground vehicles. The project will also provide a technical pipeline to continue rapid development and deployment of autonomous features as they become commercially-available.

DIU received responses from 33 potential applicants for the program, and a panel of DoD subject matter experts used their new Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) down-select process to select five companies as awardees, including Applied Intuition Inc., Kodiak Robotics, Neya Systems, Robotic Research Autonomous Industries and Scale AI. DIU went from opening the solicitation to industry in December 2022, to selecting the five awardees in May. Those are the types of programs that could help accelerate the deployment of low cost autonomy for Replicator, although Hicks is seeking even speedier developments over the next 24 months.

“To galvanize the full weight and leadership attention of the Department of Defense, so that everyone does their part, and to make sure we get the right commercial uplift and integration that Replicator will need, the Secretary has asked me to personally oversee it, together with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Hicks said. “And we’ll be supported by the Director of DIU, who will help us bring the full power of DoD’s innovation ecosystem to bear.”

This article was written by Woodrow Bellamy III, Senior Editor, Aerospace & Defense Technology.