ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS

Indo-Pacific Focus Provides Hint Into Replicator Shopping List

1/5/2024
By Josh Luckenbaugh
XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial vehicle

Air Force photo

The Defense Department’s Replicator initiative is aiming to acquire thousands of attritable, autonomous systems within the next two years to counter China’s military mass. The Pentagon has revealed few details about what types of systems it wants for the initiative, but the department’s focus on the Indo-Pacific could be a clue into what robots do or do not fit the bill.

Since September, the newly-established Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group — co-chaired by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — as well as the supporting Defense Innovation Working Group, have been focused on three distinct steps concerning Replicator, according to a Defense Innovation Unit release: working with Indo-Pacific Command to understand warfighter needs and pinpoint mission areas for all-domain attritable autonomy to address; surveying existing all-domain attritable autonomy capabilities that are already underway across the services and nominating systems that can best support the previously-identified mission sets; and evaluating those systems against a set of criteria to identify which ones Replicator will accelerate first.

Aditi Kumar, the Defense Innovation Unit’s deputy director for strategy, policy and national security partnerships, said during a recent media roundtable the criteria for Replicator includes autonomy, attritability — which she defined as “the cost of the system relative to alternatives that would help us meet that same mission need” — scalability and resiliency “to achieve their mission in a denied environment.” These criteria “will not change across the tranches,” she said.

These criteria echo Hicks’ similarly broad but more succinct description of the desired systems when she announced the Replicator initiative at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in August: “small, smart, cheap and many.”

The Defense Department is looking at systems “in all domains,” Hicks said at a recent Defense Writers Group event. The initial Replicator tranche will be focused on capabilities that “can move the needle for particularly” Indo-Pacific Command in the next two years, she added.

Space Force Maj. Michael O’Connor, a Department of the Air Force fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said while the initiative is keeping its options open to robots in any domain, certain systems will be more effective than others in the Indo-Pacific, adding that his views were his own and did not represent those of the government.

The Defense Department must consider the robots as platforms themselves — “they need to be able to get close enough to a potential fight to make a difference” — as well as the payloads they will carry — “a drone in and of itself can only do so much,” O’Connor said during a recent discussion on Replicator hosted by CSET.

For any mission, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or electronic warfare, a robot must have enough payload capacity “to get the job done” — and “the more power each of those payloads consumes, the shorter the legs, the shorter the range” one will have, he said. And having the necessary range is particularly challenging in the Indo-Pacific given its vast ocean expanses.

In the Indo-Pacific, operators face a tough task maintaining a “minimum distance — the nearest piece of land or a ship you watch” a robot from, O’Connor said. Whereas in Ukraine, “the fight is maybe 10 kilometers away [and] you’re going to have a line of sight to your drone, you may need to be able to do things more autonomously in the Indo-Pacific because the fight may be so far away, or the electronic environment may be so contested, that you just cannot control your drone with a direct line of sight — you can’t do [a first-person view] drone.”

And if you have thousands — or even hundreds — of robots, “it’s hard to find 100 pilots and put them all in one place,” he said, adding that groups such as the Air Force’s Task Force 99 and the Navy’s Task Force 59 are conducting research and development on operating many unmanned systems all at once and doing the command and control to use them effectively, which is an important factor.

“So, can you do the command and control? Do you have the payloads to accomplish what you want in your mission, and then can you get into the fight when you need to?” he continued. “Those are a bunch of the knobs you can turn … most of them are technically solvable, it’s just you have to figure out where on that cost/size performance curve you want to be.”

The Defense Department could buy thousands of small quadcopters, for example, “but they’re not likely to be able to cross the distances involved in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “You can buy … larger platforms” like the 30-foot-long XQ-58 Valkyrie, “but then you’re going to be challenged on cost.

“So, in between there’s likely a sweet spot that you can buy mid-range drones if we’re talking aerial vehicles — likely things with wings — and then you have a similar situation with maritime [robots],” he said. “You’ve got small, you’ve got big — the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.”

The use cases for ground-based robots in the Indo-Pacific are limited, he added. While they could assist with aerial logistics, even those missions “are going to be challenging given the water involved and the distances in the Indo-Pacific.

“I could be wrong here, but it’ll really depend on what the mission requirements are and what the creativity of industry can deliver,” he said. “And because … we want to do this in 18 to 24 months, it has to be what is ready now, or very, very, very, very soon.” ND

Topics: Defense Department

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