As it takes stock of potential unmanned systems that could be fielded for the Pentagon’s ambitious Replicator initiative, the Defense Innovation Unit is planning to host a technology summit in the coming months to offer industry more details about the effort.
“We will plan to host that in early 2024, where we’re bringing in our partners here to think through what capabilities are critical to this and how we build some of the common architecture pieces and other enabling pieces to deliver a capability that, over the long term, the department can benefit from,” Aditi Kumar, DIU’s director of strategy, policy and international partnerships, told reporters Thursday.
The summit will be hosted in the Washington, D.C. area, where industry can learn about upcoming opportunities for Replicator and participate in workshops on how dual-use commercial technology can be used for military applications, according to a DIU press release.
The announcement comes as the Defense Department prepares to select the first tranche of platforms that will be fielded under the Replicator initiative by the end of the month. The effort was first announced by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in August, noting the overall goal was to rapidly deliver thousands of drones to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as a way to counter China’s growing military.
Replicator isn’t a program of record but instead an effort to fast-track technology development and field the unmanned systems in tranches sometime in the February-August 2025 timeframe. The Pentagon is targeting existing systems in the near term and, eventually, plans to create on-ramps for newer systems and capabilities that fill capability and scaling gaps.
A Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group co-chaired by Hicks and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady is spearheading the initiative. DIU Director Doug Beck is leading a separate Defense Innovation Working Group, which is gathering intel on warfighter needs from military leaders and making recommendations to the Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group.
“The first thing that we did … was to define those warfighter needs very, very crisply,” Kumar said. “And in doing that, we’ve worked very closely with Indopacom to define exactly what the operational needs are in theater so that everything that we’re delivering associated with this first instantiation is relevant to the warfighter.”
Despite it being a high-profile initiative, Hicks and others around the Defense Department have repeatedly dodged specific questions about Replicator — including which systems they will field, implementation plans and anticipated costs — as to not tip off adversaries about its elements.
Kumar did share the selection criteria DIU has been following as it determines what systems will be a good fit for Replicator. Along with meeting the operational needs of warfighters, those include a platform’s autonomy, attributability, scalability and resilience, she explained.
The first tranche of Replicator drones are likely to be systems that are technologically mature and have already been validated in operational environments, Kumar noted. DIU is also identifying other candidates that could be fielded in subsequent phases but need a bit more development work done, she added.
“We need to go through some and accelerate the analysis behind the system. We need to test it in a lab or in an operational environment. We need to talk to manufacturers about the scalability of that system,” Kumar said. “And so as we answer those questions, those systems will start getting wrapped into the successive batches.”
In addition, DIU is working on supporting efforts that will enable Replicator systems in the long term.
“We need to have a concept of operations that will support the capabilities. We need to think about the experimentation that needs to go into it, the validation in an operational environment — of individual capabilities, of group capabilities [and] of how they will work together,” Kumar said. “There are a lot of downstream implications of delivering these systems.”
DIU has plans to begin posting solicitations for future Replicator tranches on its website this month, with the first one focusing on capabilities “related to uncrewed aerial systems not currently on contract,” a DIU press release said.
Kumar said that going forward, the solicitations process will be leveraged to bring in new entrants that will help fill other gaps — whether it be lack of systems for a specific domain area, the enabling infrastructure or very specific capabilities.
Beck also noted during the roundtable that overall, Replicator will include unmanned systems produced by a variety of companies — from large traditional defense contractors to smaller, non-traditional commercial companies.
“I want to make sure that there’s not a there’s not a false dichotomy that set up between things that would be kind of ready now or for a little bit further down the track versus things that would come later as a new entrant, because we’re leveraging the best of all that capability,” Beck said.