Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks recently selected a small number of capabilities that will be prioritized for the initial tranche of her Replicator unmanned systems initiative, and the Pentagon is preparing acquisition strategies for specific platforms that could fit the bill, DefenseScoop has learned.
Hicks announced Replicator in August, and the military services have proposed systems for consideration. In late November, she told reporters during a Defense Writers Group meeting that she would “select the candidates” in the weeks following.
“Replicator remains on plan, with DSD having made key capability selections in December. We will brief congressional committees of jurisdiction in January on selected capabilities and associated funding strategies, consistent with standard practice,” Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told DefenseScoop on Thursday.
“She selected capabilities — not particular systems,” Pahon clarified.
“She did not select specific systems” like a particular kamikaze drone made by a particular drone maker, he explained. “Instead of [picking a specific weapon] … it would be like loitering munitions would be like a category — I’m not saying that’s one of them. I’m just trying to illustrate for you” how the selection process is unfolding, he told DefenseScoop.
Hicks made her capability choices shortly before the Christmas holiday.
The stated goal of Replicator is to deliver thousands of relatively low-cost, “attritable” systems by August 2025 to help the department counter China’s military buildup.
“Eventually, specific systems have to be picked,” Pahon said. “Our next step is engaging with our congressional committees of jurisdiction. The department is preparing acquisition strategies for specific systems that meet those [selected] capabilities in the timelines required by Replicator. And we’ll work with private sector partners whose systems are part of the acquisition strategies to accelerate production and fielding at scale … [Hicks] identified capabilities, and now we’re currently evaluating the specific systems that would meet those capabilities.”
Pahon declined to identify the capability categories that Hicks picked for the initial tranche or disclose how many were chosen.
The Department of Defense is keeping many details about Replicator close to the vest. Hicks has suggested the department will be cagey in terms of what it shares publicly because it doesn’t want to reveal its cards to adversaries such as China.
“I would not necessarily say the candidates will be announced. We’re being very careful, as you know, about the way in which we talk about Replicator. Our goal here is an operational goal, which is in addition to the acquisition cycle, 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. So, we will be very clear and transparent with Congress. I’ve talked to Congress in classified sessions on this. But how we choose to speak about it, in terms of the particular programs or projects that we’ll be accelerating through Replicator, is to be determined,” she told reporters in November.
On Thursday, a DOD official speaking on condition of anonymity, told DefenseScoop that Hicks selected “a handful” of capabilities for the initial tranche, but the official also declined to identify them.
Replicator isn’t a program of record with its own line of funding, but rather an effort to accelerate the acquisition and fielding of technologies that are already in the works.
However, the fiscal 2025 DOD budget request, which is expected to be delivered to Congress in the coming months, may include new investments specifically aimed at boosting programs under the Replicator initiative, including potentially a second tranche of systems.
Lawmakers are expected to return from recess next week, and the Pentagon is gearing up to brief them soon on Hicks’ recent capability selections.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, suggested he had concerns about the initiative but he’s warming to it.
“The idea of Replicator is very exciting to me. Like, thousands of attritable autonomous systems creating dilemmas for the [People’s Liberation Army] in an effort led by the [deputy secretary of defense] that’s going to field capability in 18 to 24 months, is a cool idea and … I want to make it work,” he said during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December.
“I think the concerns about Replicator when it was announced … were that it was — the initial speech didn’t have a plan behind it. But we’ve admittedly gotten some of the details of the planning since then,” he added.
He noted that he was initially concerned that money could be diverted from other high-priority needs for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, such as critical munitions and long-range fires.
“That was my initial sort of hesitation … The first thing we should do is replicate a bunch of the things we know we need in Indo-Pacom now and surge them west of the international dateline … Let’s replicate those, get those to maximum production rates, and we can also layer this [Replicator effort] on top of it. But I think the conversations I’ve had since my initial concerns with the [deputy secretary] and with [Defense Innovation Unit Director] Doug Beck … have given me hope,” he said.
If the commander of Indo-Pacom and the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet “tell me that they can use these things and fight with them, okay, that’s exciting. And I think we can all get on the same page. But it’s gonna require Congress and the Pentagon working together to actually meet that very ambitious Replicator timeline,” Gallagher added.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a reference to a particular weapon system that falls under a capability category that could hypothetically be chosen for the Replicator initiative. The reference was meant to illustrate the fact that the Pentagon has not yet picked specific systems. However, it has been removed to avoid confusion for readers or any unintended suggestion that Defense Department leaders have a preference for that particular system.