Year Ahead – The U.S. DoD Replicator Initiative and the Acquisition Process for Autonomous Weapons

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| Jan 9, 2024

Replicator

On August 28, 2023, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Replicator Initiative (Replicator), which is “aimed at directly countering the People’s Republic of China’s [PRC] rapid buildup of its armed forces.” Under this initiative, the Department of Defense (DoD) “will field attritable autonomous systems at a scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months.” It will feature “a first tranche of systems” which “meet the strategic needs in INDOPACOM” ready between February and August of 2025.

While aimed at the PRC, Replicator attempts to leverage lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict. One of those lessons was the high volume of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) expended. In May 2023, the Royal United Services Institute released a report that Ukraine was losing 10,000 UAS per month.

Replicator is not a one-time project. As Ms Hicks explained, “[t]he ‘replication’ isn’t just about production. We also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve that goal, so we can scale whatever is most efficient, effective and relevant in the future, again and again.”

To achieve its goal, Replicator “will help overcome the production valley of deathdescribed by two commentators as

Sound[ing] like a place where vultures wheel in the hot desert air over the carcasses of the technologies that couldn’t make it across. It’s an apt metaphor, but the valley of death is not a place. It’s a condition.

The metaphor is applied to a wide range of products, including both incremental improvements and disruptive innovations, in many industrial and public settings. As a major developer and user of new technologies, DOD suffers greatly from the valley of death. In acquisition, the valley of death is often an unintended byproduct of an aging acquisition system that wasn’t built for the speed of modern innovation.

What it means, generally, when a program is lost in the valley of death is that the program was abandoned for at least one of four primary reasons: financial, technical, doctrinal or organizational culture.

On December 1, 2023, DoD announced Replicator was “making significant progress in accelerating the delivery of innovative capabilities to the warfighter.” Included in this progress were plans to post initial solicitations in December “likely [] for new uncrewed aerial systems capabilities not currently under contract.” But following a mid-December meeting involving “nine leaders from tech companies and several high-ranking DoD officials including Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks” Politico ran a story on Replicator with the headline “‘Disorganized and confusing’: Lawmakers, industry rip Pentagon plans for drones.”

2024 will tell us something about Replicator and thus also about DoD’s acquisition process for autonomous weapons in a couple of different areas including: Replicator Communication; Replicator Funding; and Replicator Success. Each of these areas includes one or more “what to watch for” issues so that by the end of 2024 (if not sooner), Replicator’s “trajectory” in seeking to overcome the production valley of death should be well established.

Replicator Communication                                                                                                                                       

From the outset, Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks has made public announcements about Replicator while also acknowledging “[w]e’re going to be cagey in terms of what we want to share.” The cageyness is understandable, as Hicks has explained “[o]ur 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.”

In October, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Cyber, Innovative Technologies and Information Systems Subcommittee, said during a hearing that Congress and industry “are still left without any details on Replicator, what is necessary to make it successful, whether it is feasible and what counter-effects it seeks to offer to counter Chinese military capabilities.”

The balancing of public disclosure and operational security was reflected in a November news story headline and byline: “Pentagon to choose first ‘Replicator’ drone candidates by mid-December – The chosen candidate drones will not be publicly announced once the selection is formally completed, presumably for national security.”

Similarly, in December 2023, after the meeting referenced above, “Defense News spoke with seven of the industry executives in attendance.  Most said they arrived looking for more detail on Replicator. Instead, Pentagon officials wanted more details from them.”

DoD (and others) have pushed back at the reporting of the mid-December meeting and Replicator criticism. As one DoD official said, “Replicator is all about change, and building new muscle that the nation requires us to build. If the processes were all already in place, and if this was easy, we would not have to do it.”

To that end, DoD is hosting a “Replicator Technology Summit,” in Washington D.C. in “early 2024.” It will be interesting to see how early “early 2024” proves to be and if there is appreciable change to the industry reaction, at least as reported in December 2023.

Replicator Funding                                                                                                                                        

Between DoD, Congress, and industry there appear to be different views about the role and importance of standalone Replicator funding. When Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks announced Replicator she said that DoD would “not be asking for new money in FY24.”  Replicator was to “pool already funded programs from the military services” and Hicks stressed that “[n]ot all problems need new money.” (In terms of pooling programs, in December 2023, the Army announced it had nominated three systems for Replicator).

In November, Ms Hicks indicated that DoD may need separate Replicator funding for FY25, that a budget request was being drafted, and that DoD would “add funds as needed in there, or maybe the services have already put the funds there.”

This approach appears at odds with Representative Gallagher, who purportedly expressed the view that “the only way this can work is for Congress to provide flexible funding that goes beyond a single year. That gives the tech industry the confidence to plan and invest, knowing that the funding will be in place for the long haul.” According to Rep. Gallagher, “[i]n the simplest terms, what the Pentagon can do is pick winners and losers in this space, put their thumb on the scale, have a multibillion-dollar program in procurement . . . involving a non-traditional company leveraging AI and autonomous systems, and I don’t think we have that right now.”

Watch for whether there is Replicator funding in the White House’s FY25 budget request. And if so, how much is requested and under what terms/conditions?

Replicator Success

When Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks introduced Replicator in August, she spoke of multiple thousands of attritable autonomous systems in multiple domains. But by late November, the bar seemed lower, at least to one commentator who claimed that “[i]t’s technically a success at the end of the 18 to 24 months if the DoD has at least 2,000 autonomous, attritable, relatively cheap systems.”

Watch for indications of how many systems in how many domains equals success. We may not know the answer in 2024 given the early end of the Replicator fielding window is not until February 2025. But look for any indications of the meaning of “multiple thousands” in “multiple domains.” For example, the first solicitation is to be for uncrewed aerial systems. DoD had announced that a solicitation would be posted in December, but as of December 19th, Defense News reported that posting had not yet occurred. When is the first solicitation posted? When are the first responsive systems selected? Moving into 2024, look for the presence (or absence) of similar DoD announcements about Replicator solicitations and selection for uncrewed maritime and ground systems.

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Chris Jenks is the Senior Law of War Advisor to The Judge Advocate General of the United States Army in the Pentagon. He is also a Professor of Law affiliated with the SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas, Texas.

 

 

Photo credit: U.S. Army, Maj. Jason Elmore