The Replicator Project: In Search of a Con-Ops and a Manufacturing Base


By Robbin Laird

In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks announced a new “replicator” project or initiative.

As she said in her speech:

“At DoD, we’ve already been investing in attritable autonomous systems — across the military services, DIU, the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the combatant commands themselves — and in multiple domains: self-piloting ships, uncrewed aircraft, and more.

“It’s clear they aren’t just lower-cost. They can be produced closer to the tactical edge. They can be used consistent with our principles of mission command, where we empower the lowest-possible echelons to innovate and succeed in battle. And they can serve as resilient, distributed systems, even if bandwidth is limited, intermittent, degraded or denied.

“So now is the time to take all-domain, attritable autonomy to the next level: to produce and deliver capabilities to warfighters at the volume and velocity required to deter aggression, or win if we’re forced to fight.

“Since we need to break through barriers and catalyze change with urgency, we’ve set a big goal for Replicator: to field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.

“And the ‘replication’ won’t just be happening from a production standpoint. We’ll also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve this goal, so we can scale what’s relevant in the future again and again and again.

“Easier said than done? You bet. But we’re gonna to do it.”

But to “do it,” and provide a credible military capability, one needs to evolve con-ops, not just buy stuff.

And this is a major question: how does the military operate across the spectrum of warfare using new autonomous systems?

Remember, the UAVs used largely to date are remotely piloted systems and the U.S. Navy has experimented but not deployed such systems.

As I wrote earlier: “The new generation autonomous UAVs or the new smaller maritime autonomous systems do not have to be designed to be integrated with the combat systems of the extant manned fleet. That misses the point.

“As Commodore Kavanagh of the Royal Australian Navy has put it: “They don’t replace platforms; they complement the integrated force. They are complimentary to that force in that they interface rather than being fully integrated with the current force elements.”

“Second, they are part of a kill web, not an integrated kill chain. They can create a combat cluster rather than part of an integrated task force. You give them specific missions and they perform what that limited mission might be. Their job is fully focused on a specific mission thread not replacing a multi-mission manned system.

“Put another way, you change the con-ops of the fleet from a task force manned scoped fleet designed for multi-mission operations to one in which manned fleet assets have at their disposal clusters of autonomous systems to which one can delegate a specific mission which the manned assets does now not have to perform.

“This is not manned-unmanned teaming – this is delegation of a mission to a wolfpack of smaller autonomous vessels.”

It is not simply buying a lot of cool stuff, it is buying systems available now that the military uses now to support an evolving concept of operations.

And added to this challenge is the absence of a credible manufacturing model.

The “last supper” of Secretary Perry left a small number of primes in control of the defense industrial base.

Added to this, the supply chain atrophied during COVID and now is under pressure to provide for foreign allies, not just the U.S. military.

Se where is a credible manufacturing model that would empower a much wider production base to provide for the U.S. military without going through the archaic Pentagon acquisition system?

To be clear: it is not about simply having a vision — it is about significant change in military con-ops and the so-called defense industrial base. I say so-called because much of the production base relevant to a replicator initiative isn’t in the defense sector at all.

Featured Photo: Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks participates in a fireside chat with Editor of Defense News Marjorie Censer during the 7th annual Defense News Conference at the Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City, Va., Sept. 5, 2023. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)

Note: A crucial question facing the U.S. is the defense industrial base and its limitations..

In an article by Greg Ip published in The Wall Street Journal on December 6, 2023, the author highlighted the challenge as follows:

“It isn’t just defense; the entire U.S. manufacturing base shrank as labor-intensive production migrated to East Asia. There are fewer suppliers, factories, shipyards and, most important, workers available to meet the rising demand.

“True, civilian and military capacity aren’t perfect substitutes; defense products often require specialized systems and skills. That makes the shortfall even more severe. It could take three to five years to train a welder to work on a submarine, said Ronald O’Rourke, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

“Echoing the quality problems U.S. manufacturers of semiconductors, autos and airliners have experienced, defense manufacturers suffer from endemic cost overruns and delays. On average, a new lead ship costs 40% more than the Navy first estimates, the CBO says. Delivery times for submarines have grown to nine years from six.”

And the WSJ recently posted a video which highlights the autonomous system build problem.