U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Aug. 28 announced a bold new initiative called Replicator aimed at overcoming China’s numerical advantage in drones. Replicator involves producing vast numbers of low-cost, smart combat drones. This marks a radical new approach for an organization notoriously addicted to “exquisite” systems – extremely expensive, highly capable jets, ships, and missiles. The project will require a real shift of culture.
“Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many,” Hicks said during a keynote speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference in Washington.
Breaking the “Law”
Hicks tipped a hat to Ukraine’s success at rapidly developing a variety of small, cheap drones. Racing drones have been turned into tank killers, longer-range drones destroy military aircraft on the runway, and sea drones have struck Russian warships and damaged the Kerch Bridge. The racing drones cost just a few hundred dollars, compared to tens of thousands of dollars for a conventional anti-tank weapon. The naval drones cost a fraction of the price of an anti-ship missile.
Ukraine plans to acquire 200,000 drones this year (presumably small commercial types, for the most part), and naval drones are now entering mass production. Drones have allowed Ukraine to meet Russia’s superior numbers with a mass of precision weapons, and even to take the war to Moscow. Hicks wants to see the U.S. make similarly rapid strides.
The war in Ukraine has opened many eyes to what drones can do, and clearly U.S. planners are salivating over the idea of outmatching China with Replicator drones. But there is a cultural problem. The Pentagon has long pursued an approach of technological excellence, aiming to give the warfighter the best possible kit, even at high prices. Inevitably this has led to staggeringly expensive hardware. In 1984 Norman Augustine, who had worked both sides of the fence as CEO of Lockheed Martin and Under Secretary of the Army, coined a set of cynical “laws” about procurement. Law XVI predicted that because of exponential cost growth, by 2054 the military would only be able to buy one plane — a dangerously accurate prediction given actual military aircraft cost growth. The biggest challenge will be overcoming the cost spiral that always seems to overtake the Pentagon’s good intentions.
This pattern can be seen in drones, which are inexpensive in the commercial world. When military requirements are added, the costs quickly stack up. The Ukrainian military uses quadcopters made by U.S. company Skydio that cost around $1,000. The US military has acquired the Skydio RQ-28A, which is similar but has additional features including a thermal imager for night operations and software that interfaces seamlessly with military systems. At about $20,000 per drone, the cost increase is rather steep.
It gets more expensive still. The Short Range Reconnaissance requirement calls for nighttime obstacle avoidance, advanced autonomy, military-grade (M-Code) GPS, and greater flight time. The U.S. Army has not selected a model yet (an upgraded Skydio is in contention) but expects to pay around $120,000 per drone. That’s assuming the project sticks to the plan. In practice, many military procurement projects go way over budget.
Swarm of USTs
Hicks repeatedly used the word “attritable” to describe the Replicator drones. This means they are cheap enough to lose without concern. Experience shows that small drones generally experience a high loss rate. When they sell at sports-car prices, operators are reluctant to put them into danger.
The U.S. Navy has experienced similar cost growth. The LOCUST program aimed to deliver swarms of small loitering munitions to overwhelm air defenses, with the whole swarm costing less than a single traditional missile — perhaps $15,000 per drone. (LOCUST stands for Low-Cost Unmanned Swarming Technology.) But things changed, and LOCUST steadily morphed into a project called Goalkeeper budgeted at $270,000 per drone, suggesting that the “Low-Cost” part has not survived, and the number of drones in a swarm will be much smaller.
At least one Navy project is aimed squarely at tackling spiraling costs. MASS, or Manufacturing of Autonomous Systems at Scale, uses 3D printing and digital design tools to create low-cost drones in large numbers. The project will be able to turn out drones optimized for different purposes, for example maximizing speed, endurance, stealth, or payload, all from the same production line.
According to budget documents, MASS will manufacture drones “as far forward/afloat as possible,“ suggesting production will take place on board Navy ships. This matches Hicks’ statement that Replicator drones “can be produced closer to the tactical edge.” MASS seems to fit the bill, with the target of rapidly making tens of thousands of drones. But while Goalkeeper has a budget of around a billion dollars and is about producing hardware right now, MASS is very much in the R&D stage, with a budget of $8 million in the current financial year and no guarantee that an operational system will ever be developed.
The Herculean Task Ahead
Hicks’ goal is “to field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.” She will oversee the project personally, together with the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And she sounds determined.
“When the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency, and depth of focus, we can get it done,” Hicks said.
Compared to the hundreds of thousands of drones that Ukraine is acquiring, this might not seem ambitious. But for a system geared to working with much longer development times and much greater budgets, it will be a Herculean task. The companies that make good profits from multi-million-dollar systems will find slim pickings in small, low-cost drones. Replicator will not generate new aircraft factories and has little obvious political appeal. Worse, if successful, it could threaten existing programs. Replicator will be born into a hostile world long before it gets to the battlefield. Whatever its technical merits, Replicator will need all of Hicks’ backing to survive.
In the background there is also China, the adversary Replicator is intended to outmatch. China already makes most of the small drones used in Ukraine by both sides in that conflict, and the country has a mature drone industry. One Chinese company, DJI, makes an estimated 6 million drones per year and controls most of the global market. China might not sit back and wait for the U.S. to develop Replicator. Beijing might come up with its own ideas on large-scale combat drone production.
David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years’ experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones.
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