The Pentagon plans to field thousands of air, sea and possibly land-based drones in 2025 in an overwhelming display of US might intended to offset China’s numeric superiority in weapons systems, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.
(Bloomberg) — The Pentagon plans to field thousands of air, sea and possibly land-based drones in 2025 in an overwhelming display of US might intended to offset China’s numeric superiority in weapons systems, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.
Hicks, the Defense Department’s No. 2 official, said in prepared remarks Wednesday to a defense industry gathering that the “Replicator” drone program “will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many.”
“Our goal is always to deter, because competition does not mean conflict,” she said, adding that the program is aimed at ensuring that China’s leadership “wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’ — and not just today, but every day, now and for the foreseeable future.”
She said the push for a new generation of relatively inexpensive pilotless weapons or systems won’t require new funding in the coming fiscal year and that “we still need the full complement of U.S. capabilities we’ve invested in to remain combat-credible.”
Drones are playing an increasing role in defense operations, including in the current war in Ukraine, in part because of the sheer numbers that can be deployed. Hicks said the goal for Replicator is to deploy unmanned systems that can be lost in combat “at a scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.”
‘Flocks of Systems’
“Imagine flocks of systems, flying at all sorts of altitudes, doing a range of missions, building on what we’ve seen in Ukraine,” Hicks said. “They could be deployed by larger aircraft, launched by troops on land or sea, or take off themselves,” she said.
Or, she said, “imagine distributed pods of self-propelled 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 the Defense Department, known for programs that consume billions of dollars and years of planning, won’t create a new bureaucracy for Replicator “and we will not be asking for new money” in fiscal 2024.
Left unanswered at this point are whether Replicator systems will undergo realistic operational testing to demonstrate their combat effectiveness, the networks and data links that would operate and connect the systems, their respective ranges and what US forces would operate them. Also unanswered is the acquisition strategy and defense supply chain management that would underpin the effort.
Also among key questions: their capability to evade Chinese air defenses.
In written answers about the new initiative, the Defense Department said that “Replicator is not just focused on airborne systems for either intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or strike.” It cited as an example “substantial experimentation on distributed maritime domain awareness using uncrewed surface vessels,” the statement.
The Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group under Hicks will lead the Replicator effort in coordination with the military services, and along with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit determine what efforts “are ripe enough to scale,” she said.
The Pentagon statement highlighted two existing programs as “great examples” to be “considered for acceleration”: the Navy’s Persian Gulf Task Force 59, a fleet of drones that is already in operation monitoring commercial shipping traffic and Iranian vessels, and the Air Force’s “Collaborative Combat Aircraft,” which was announced this year but hasn’t been publicly detailed.
As for funding the new Replicator effort, the Pentagon said “department leadership will work with the services and, either through existing funding or by finding sources within poorly performing programs,” to reprogram.
Hicks suggested the limits of public disclosure of the new drone initiative, saying, “Some things, we will only reveal at a time, place, and manner of our choosing.”
(Updates with Pentagon details under ‘Persian Gulf’ subheadline)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.