‘Small, Smart, Cheap, and Many’: DOD to Build Up Thousands of Autonomous Systems

The department revealed the U.S. plan to produce ‘multiple thousands’ of cheap, attritable drones and other systems to counter China.

DOD autonomous drones

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks addresses attendees of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, August 29. [Courtesy: Air Force Technical Sergeant Jack Sanders]

The U.S. Department of Defense wants to make one thing clear: Our drones will blot out the sun.

Feeling threatened by China’s buildup of military might, DOD officials hope to gain the upper hand by producing “multiple thousands” of cheap, autonomous drones and other systems, the department said Monday.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference in Washington, D.C., revealed the U.S. plan to mass-manufacture inexpensive, self-piloting systems over the next two years in a bid to keep pace with the Eastern superpower.

The goal of the program, which Hicks coined the Replicator Initiative, is to “outmatch” China with droves of cutting-edge technology that can be quickly and easily replaced. These systems could be deployed in minutes and would be attritable, meaning they could be lost or shot down with little impact to U.S. military capabilities. This makes them ideal for high-risk operations.

“We're going to create a new state of the art…leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains—which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times,” Hicks said.

Hicks will personally oversee the Replicator program alongside Navy Admiral Christopher W. Grady, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Doug Beck, director of the DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit, will also support the initiative. The buildup will span the next 18 to 24 months.

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome the [People’s Republic of China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass," Hicks said. "More ships. More missiles. More people.”

The initiative is focused on keeping production costs low. But it will also emphasize a “whole-of-department approach” to innovation and the ability to quickly roll out the new tech. While the primary goal is to match China’s capabilities, the systems will be deployed across multiple domains.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has the world’s largest Navy with more than 340 ships and submarines, according to recent DOD data. The country’s military also boasts over 1 million ground force personnel and more than 2,800 aircraft, about 2,200 of which are combat aircraft. Defense leaders have characterized it as the U.S.’s biggest “pacing challenge.”

“We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat,” Hicks said.

Hicks noted the private sector, including commercial, nontraditional, and traditional defense companies, will have a large role to play in Replicator. For now, though, it’s unclear which systems will be covered by the program. She said more details will emerge in the coming weeks.

William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, on Monday told reporters the systems would be distinct from the more expensive, nonattritable Collaborative Combat Aircraft used by the Air Force. LaPlante added, however, that Replicator systems could be “very complementary” to those aircraft.

The DOD has requested $1.8 billion worth of artificial intelligence investments for its 2024 defense spending bill. It said Replicator will pull those investments together.

Eric Pahon, a spokesman for Hicks, shared more details, telling Defense News the program is funded by “a reorganization of largely existing funds, and expected to cost in the range of the hundreds of millions.”

Hicks made clear the initiative won’t cut into DOD efforts to produce larger aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy or the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. Rather, it will build on what the U.S. has already developed.

“To be clear, America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few,” Hicks said. “But Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many.”

How the Systems Could Be Used

Defense officials in recent months have been sounding the alarm on China as the country bolsters its military strength. Military personnel stationed in the region fear the worst.

“We ought to look at the Chinese to understand truly where they are and what they're doing: the largest military buildup since World War II, both in conventional forces and in strategic nuclear [forces]," said Navy Admiral John C. Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Aquilino called Hicks’ comments Monday “encouraging,” noting as many as 1,000 drones could be deployed in just 24 hours. That could be a preview of routine U.S. military capabilities in the coming years.

The DOD has long invested in systems such as self-sailing ships and crewless aircraft. Hicks said these have proven to be lower-cost alternatives to manned systems, with the added advantage that they can be produced closer to the “tactical edge,” so to speak.

The department uses drones of all shapes, sizes, and functions, covering land, air, and sea. According to its website, it operates more than 11,000 of them, mainly to support training, surveillance, and the testing of tactics and equipment. The smallest is the RQ-11B Raven, which weighs just over 4 pounds and can fly up to 6.2 sm (5.4 nm). Already, the aircraft have logged millions of flight hours worldwide.

The U.S. also sends the occasional shipment of drones to Ukraine to combat the Russian offensive. Per the U.K.’s Royal United Service Institute, a defense and security think tank, Ukrainian forces lose some 10,000 drones every month. Replicator could take the sting out of those losses by providing an influx of ready-to-fly aircraft.

Until we learn what kinds of systems are backed by the program, it’s difficult to say exactly how they’ll be used. But the DOD has proposed pairing drones with larger Next Generation Air Dominance fighters to give pilots small fleets of autonomous aircraft. The buildup of thousands of small autonomous systems would certainly aid that effort.

In November, the department released the Autonomous Multi-domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms (AMASS) concept, which could present another use case. The program would allow officers to command and control several different autonomous drone swarms at once—in essence, a swarm of swarms. Cheap, mass-produced drones could serve as the pipeline.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear to share the DOD’s enthusiasm for autonomous systems. On June 22, the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would create a massive nest egg to fund the technologies the DOD describes in Replicator.

The provision, first proposed by former Defense Innovation Unit director Mike Brown in 2022, would set aside a $1 billion “hedge portfolio” to develop low-cost drones and satellites, AI capabilities, and agile communication.

The DOD declined comment to FLYING.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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