JUST IN: Defense Department Selecting Initial Replicator Candidates in Coming Weeks
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Defense Department will soon make the selection of the first tranche of “candidates” for the Replicator initiative, which seeks to accelerate the development, procurement and fielding of thousands of attritable, autonomous systems in all domains, the deputy secretary of defense said.
Speaking to reporters Nov. 21, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the department will be cagey about releasing details of what vendors or platforms it selects to move forward in the Replicator initiative, which she announced in August. During the announcement, she put an 18-to-24-month timeline on delivering thousands of autonomous platforms.
“We're being very careful … about the way in which we talk about Replicator,” she said. “Our goal here is an operational goal, which is in addition to the acquisition side goal. And that operational goal is to create dilemmas for China, and any other competitor, who might look at this approach and try to undermine it.”
The department will be clear and transparent with Congress at a classified level, she said, but the department has yet to determine how much information it will release to the public.
Hicks said Replicator will involve platforms in all domains — air, land and sea — and will spread across the services and the department. Currently, Naval Forces Central Command’s Task Force 59, which has been conducting experiments with autonomous surface and subsurface vessels, is the best example of how the department can pull together technologists, users and the intel community to move through a development, security and operations, rapid, iterative process to deliver on Replicator.
Getting the desired capabilities of having large swarms of autonomous vehicles that can create dilemmas for adversaries is a matter of getting the right hardware, but the bigger piece is software, she said.
“So much of this ... is about software,” she said. “The advantage of some software is it iterates much faster than that traditional program that we're used to, which is platform centric.”
She likened physical platforms to a bus, and the software rides on or controls the bus.
“So, software development is key to this, and that is where I think … we have an opportunity to burn down risk by putting a lot of focus and energy on integration of systems, survivability of systems — to the extent that they need to as attritable systems, but survivable enough not to be jammed, for instance. We're learning a lot.
“The Ukrainians are showing a lot of how that rapid iteration is happening, and how much you have to adjust [tactics, techniques and procedures] as you go,” she continued. “It's not all about the technology and the initiatives that we'll push through.”
The systems and platforms will have to “ride alongside” the growth of concepts of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures, she said. “And that's where things like Task Force 59 — not the only place we're doing it — where we can bring all that together and move quickly through experimentation and exercise to fielding is so important to how we're going to get there in that 24-month timeframe.”
“With Replicator, our goal really is in this initiative to get to scale fast,” she said. “We have multiple valleys of death in the department — one of the most vexing is scaling production. And we also know we have a challenge with the commercial sector really looking at DoD as a strong and capable partner that can work within the two-year appropriations process, not just wait every two years to make major new investments.”
Because there are numerous projects and program across the department and services working on attritable autonomy, “it was a good first area to go after through Replicator, which is about replicating for production and replicating the process we're using to drive change,” she said.
The department is looking at ways it can “burn down risk” in terms of the requirements process, the manufacturing process or software design, she said, adding that she or the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs “can sit on top of all that and say, ‘Take that barrier away, take this barrier away.’”
The department has already demonstrated success in that fashion through Competitive Advantage Pathfinders, “and we've shown we can shave years off programs by just taking the bureaucracy out — again being problem solvers, solving our own problems. That's what we're doing with Replicator.”
Unlike the Air Force’s larger and more expensive Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, Replicator will focus on smaller, less expensive platforms, Hicks said.
“We would expect that we're talking about something like less than .5 percent of the defense budget,” she said, noting the focus is on impact on the battlefield in the near term.
Given the Defense Department is operating under a continuing resolution, it is still operating on 2023 funding and authorities, but the department has what it needs for now to keep Replicator moving, Hicks said.
“We already have opportunity … with alternative acquisition strategies in the middle-tier acquisition as an example, software acquisition pathways — we've already been granted authorities that move us away from that singular approach,” she said.
Replicator is moving forward akin to the approach the department took with efforts like counter-IED efforts during the war in Iraq, she noted. “There were times we have done this before — a more systematic, senior-level focus, which is what can help change that system on how do we remove barriers beyond just the resourcing piece? The resourcing piece is also important to make sure things make it across the valley of death.”
The question is whether existing projects that can support Replicator are facing barriers “that could inhibit their ability to deliver quickly,” she said. “Or put another way, are there opportunities to pull them left or increase their scale? That could be new additive manufacturing approaches — you could think of a lot of things that help us burn down risk.”
Teams in the department are looking for those opportunities to pull things to the left, she said. “That's what the teams are looking at now, which programs are ripe for intervention to help them? If there are healthy programs — even if they are attritable, autonomous programs, and they look good to go — we are not touching them through Replicator, they're just going to move as planned.”
Even though the department can continue working on existing projects with existing funding, there is only so far it can go without 2024 authorities and funding, Hicks said.
“I've said this a number of times that we have a responsibility to build trust with Congress to get done what we want to get done on initiatives like Replicator, but the truth of the matter is trust is a two-way street,” she said. “And we are really being challenged to trust that our partners in Congress can get done what they need to do for us to achieve those ends.
“And that's true on the supplemental, where we need support from Congress — and there is strong bipartisan support, I really want to stress — to make sure that we can help Ukraine,” she said. “We know China is watching that. And it matters what we do here as a nation, and how that strong bipartisan support in Congress manifests in terms of support for a partner like Ukraine, we know also, we have support for Israel in that supplemental.”
The department has learned how to get by under continuing resolutions, she said, “but it's with significant consequence. We estimate we've lost probably a total of about four years’ worth of progress on our modernization efforts in the in the decade, really 11 years, that we've been dealing with [continuing resolutions] — that has a cost. You can't buy back the time, you just can't.”