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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Replicator: How America Plans to Take on the China Military Challenge

J-20 stealth fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
J-20 stealth fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks set defense commentators aflutter last month when she announced “Replicator,” an initiative meant to field “small, smart, cheap” uncrewed, autonomous aerial, surface, and subsurface vehicles by the thousand within the next two years—all without asking Congress for additional taxpayer dollars.

The goal: to offset China’s advantages in numbers on the cheap and in a hurry. I applaud the theory. It’s distributed warfare carried to the nth degree. 

Now show me. 

Why Replicator Is Important 

It’s doubtful the initiative’s overseers named the initiative for this reason, but calling it Replicator should constantly rebuke them not to short-circuit the scientific method in their haste to start stamping out drones. Replication is the soul of the scientific method. Philosopher of science Karl Popper attested to the importance of repetition. Repeating an experiment and garnering the same results each time cannot elevate a hypothesis to a universal law, observes Popper—there is no such thing as settled science—but it’s about as close as we can come in this fallen world. 

Because it’s impossible to prove a hypothesis for all time, Popper insists that experimenters make their best effort to “falsify,” or disprove it. If they do their utmost yet repeatedly fail to falsify a proposition, then the proposition stands—provisionally—unless and until disproof does come along. Then they amend it until it defies falsification, or they discard it. Fortunately, fielding uncrewed aircraft and ships and getting them to work together for operational and tactical effect is an engineering problem. If you can reduce a hypothesis to engineering, build a prototype, and test it in the field, and if it works as predicted over and over again, it has withstood falsification. 

Rigor is at a premium during testing.  

Weapon systems are hypotheses. That being the case, scientific-technical personnel should make sincere, determined efforts to falsify the concepts underlying Replicator, not to mention the hardware’s real-world performance. Maybe the family of drones will function as designed, maybe it will need revising, or maybe the initiative will be a bust. Best to find out now. That’s why Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer, the “father of Aegis,” made build a little, test a little, learn a lot his credo. Meyer lived the scientific method. The Aegis combat system remains the gold standard of naval warfare forty years hence, affirming his wisdom. 

The scientific ethos—the skeptical mindset—propounded by Meyer and Popper must permeate all phases of weapons development, manufacturing, and operations. If realistic field trials have already vindicated the craft envisioned by Replicator—and it’s hard to tell from outside the classified realm—then by all means start mass-producing them. If not, it would be foolhardy to rush untried systems into production. 

It may sound like I’m harping a lot about a little, but the past two decades are littered with instances when someone conceived a brilliant idea, transformed the idea into gadgetry, and ordered the gadget into serial production without adequate vetting. The littoral combat ship, Zumwalt-class destroyer, Ford-class aircraft carrier, and F-35 joint strike fighter testify to the perils of undue haste in scientific-technical pursuits. 

Let’s not repeat the folly of past R&D endeavors such as these. There are no shortcuts. 

But suppose things turn out well and Replicator works as advertised. Will swarms of unmanned planes, ships, and subs exert decisive impact on Pacific battlegrounds of the future? Here again, skepticism represents the proper attitude. Tactics, operational concepts, and war plans are hypotheses as surely as the implements used to execute them. They are theories positing cause and effect: if I do X, Y, and Z, my actions will yield tactical, operational, or strategic effects A, B, and C that advance my warfighting cause. 

Admiral J. C. Wylie would look askance at claims that Replicator is a war-winner. Wylie pays tribute to “cumulative” operations, meaning masses of tactical actions unrelated to one another in time or space. They happen all over the map and are unchoreographed with one another. 

Undersea warfare is a classic genre of cumulative operations. During World War II the U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force fanned out across the Western Pacific to raid Japanese shipping, mercantile shipping in particular. One attack on Japanese ships bore no relation to another transpiring elsewhere on the nautical chart. By its nature no individual action could bring about decisive effects. Sinking a single freighter or oiler makes little difference to a foe’s overall war effort. Add up the results of a bunch of small-scale encounters, though, and the cumulative effects can debilitate an enemy over time—contributing to final victory. Pacific submarines sank over 1,100 Japanese vessels of all types during World War II. They dealt a slow-motion but devastating blow against a maritime empire reliant on shipping to connect dispersed islands and continental territories. 

Hence the label cumulative. The aggregate damage wrought by scattershot attacks can help grind down an antagonist over time. For Wylie cumulative operations amount to a difference-maker in a closely matched struggle, improving prospects for the war effort’s “sequential” component. They are indecisive in themselves. Sequential operations do lead from one tactical action to the next. Heavy forces pound away at the opponent repeatedly and in sequence until a triumph is in hand. It’s easier to overcome a foe wearied by cumulative operations. 

Drone warfare looks strikingly cumulative in character. It’s an adjunct to main battle forces prosecuting sequential operations, not a war-winning capability in its own right. This is not a knock against Replicator, just a caution against hype. U.S. and allied forces will need time in a Pacific war. A short war portends a Chinese victory. Cumulative uncrewed operations could help balk People’s Liberation Army operations for a time, taking aim at amphibious shipping and the warplanes and warships that guard it. Delay would grant heavy forces—carrier and amphibious task forces, surface action groups, and the like, along with their U.S. Air Force comrades—time to gather in the region, amass combat power at the scene of action, and flip the script on China. 

Judging from his writings, Wylie would pronounce the cumulative effort invaluable but indecisive. And to her credit, Kathleen Hicks went out of her way not to oversell Replicator: “America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few.” Indeed. Much as during World War II, cumulative operations will postpone defeat while the exquisite arm of the joint force girds for a sequential counteroffensive. 

If Replicator lives up to its billing. 

It’s worth pointing out that Pentagon chieftains, though not in so many words, are shaping a strategy vis-à-vis China that hews to the classic pattern for active defense. They have tacitly—and correctly—admitted that the U.S. joint force and its regional partners will be weaker than China’s military on day one of a conflict. The combatant that’s weaker at the outset of war tends to deploy cumulative measures because that’s what it can do while working up for a sequential campaign that delivers victory. 

Start cumulative, go sequential. 

And lastly, Replicator refocuses attention, if any reminder is needed, on the all-important alliance dimension of Pacific deterrence and warfare. Operating from Guam or other bases on American soil, U.S. forces could never stage superior military might at likely scenes of action in the South China Sea, East China Sea, or Taiwan Strait, making themselves the stronger pugilist in battle. They’re too far away. There is no drone exemption to the tyranny of distance. To get within drone range of these battlegrounds, U.S. forces must either secure access to bases near them, chiefly along the first island chain, or they must risk precious crewed assets to transport drones close to their hunting grounds, which could defeat the purpose of Replicator. That host governments would grant access, however, is not a foregone conclusion. 

So there’s a diplomatic component to Replicator to go along with strategy, operations, and force design. Best to approach the allies now. 

Corn, popped. 

About the Author and Their Expertise 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is also on staff as a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”