Replicator Initiative Continues Unmanned System Development

By Becky Leggieri   •
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Aaron Duerk

We will modernize the systems that design and build the Joint Force, with a focus on innovation and rapid adjustment to new strategic demands.

National Defense Strategy,
October 2022

Unmanned, autonomous, self-piloted, uncrewed. Once thought to be the nomenclature of future battlefields, machines operating without humans is here. Mission expansion from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to logistics and transportation to armed autonomous aircraft has spread throughout the joint force, with research and development efforts moving to testing and production of new generations of technology. President Biden’s FY25 Defense Budget includes $2.4 billion for unmanned aircraft systems and the Department of Defense’s leadership has signed up for more.

In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the start of the Replicator initiative, to counter China’s advantage of mass – overwhelming numbers concentrating military strength. Replicator’s first goal is to field “attritable autonomous systems at a scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.” The second goal is to bridge the “valley of death” in the DOD acquisition process —to help programs survive the transition from the science and technology stage to programs of record and advanced development—and deliver what’s needed by warfighters, especially in INDOPACOM as fast as possible.

To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art—just as America has before— 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.

“The Urgency to Innovate” Deputy Defense Secretary Hicks,
August 28, 2023

Hicks defined Replicator as a process for scaling production and then using the process to change the rick calculus for identified programs at a November 23, 2023 media roundtable. Acquisition programs experience an intervention through Replicator to remove barriers related to speed and/or scale. Programs meeting INDOPACOM requirements are the highest priority. When asked about resourcing, she said, “Less than 0.5 percent” of the overall budget, but not to think in terms of budget, use the amount of funding for systems once processing through Replicator.

No funding was requested in FY24. This is not a program of record within the department and, if there is a dedicated budget line, it is classified. However, Hicks publicly stated an anticipated dollar amount of $500 million for FY24 and $500 million in FY25 in an answer to a question about Replicator during a FY25 budget briefing on March 11, 2024. There is no dedicated funding line for Replicator in the FY24 Joint Explanatory Statement for the final FY24 appropriations bill, only statement language citing “The agreement includes more than $200 million in support of the Department of Defense’s Replicator’s initiative.” The Department is using a figure of “approximately $300 million.” There are press reports of a $300 million classified reprograming to cover the difference between what was appropriated in FY24 and what was desired. Defense Comptroller Mike McCord, said the FY25

$500 million funding request is classified, and has stated reprogrammings would be used to bring the FY24 total to $500 million of dedicated funding. The DOD organization spearheading the effort is the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which does not have Replicator identified in DIU’s $109.6 million FY25 budget request for Research, Development, Evaluation and Testing.

Approximately eight months later, on May 6, 2024, the Deputy Defense Secretary announced Replicator’s first tranche of capabilities. They are uncrewed surface vehicles (USV), uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and counter-uncrewed aerial systems (c-UAS) of various sizes and payloads from several traditional and non-traditional vendors. The first system identified is the Army’s Switchblade-600, a drone used in the Ukraine war and capable of executing loitering munitions, produced by AeroVironment. Maritime USVs are sought through the “…Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary (PRIME) Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO). The CSO process allows U.S. and international companies to pitch technologies to the Department in a fast- track process for a prototype contract.” The CSO is a DIU contract vehicle. Classified capabilities in the maritime domain and counter-UAS are also included in this first tranche.

The next day, May 7th, DIU Director Doug Beck, called for more funding for Replicator 2.0, as well as increasing the speed of the process.


Prior to the first tranche announcement, DIU’s naval portfolio director, Captain Alex Campbell, spoke on a panel at West 2024 about Replicator on February 14, 2024. Campbell said there is a deliberate “conceal and reveal” approach to the selections for a system to go through the Replicator process and indicates the first tranche includes some type of software enabling the edge collaborative autonomy or automated target software Campbell addresses tranche two opportunities as not only platforms and hardware but a focus on software as well. He also said Replicator 2.0 will not focus on all-domain attritable autonomy.

Related to Replicator efforts, Campbell also addressed projects between DIU and the Navy with unmanned underwater and surface vehicles. Also, the Navy has established the Disruptive Capabilities Office (DCO). The DCO will be the Department of the Navy’s connection to Replicator as it identifies and matures critical unmanned capabilities for a future hybrid fleet.


The Army was a winner for the first tranche with the selection of Switchblade. Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, speaking on a panel at the Reagan Institute’s National Security Innovation Base Summit, said the funding for the first year would be a reprogramming approach. The Army will also nominate a program for tranche two. Bush avoided specifics as he spoke on March 20, 2024, about 6 weeks before the Switchblade selection by OSD.


The Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) is not part of Replicator, but has similar goals to deliver at least 1,000 CCAs, prioritizing cost-effective scalability. However, the Air Force has a dedicated funding line for these unmanned aircraft intended to fly with manned aircraft—two unmanned to one jet. The funding exists within the Next Generation Air Dominance program.

On April 24, 2024, the Air Force announced their selection of Anduril and General Atomics from a pool of five companies competing to build production-representative CCA vehicles and conduct test-flights. There is vendor pool of more than 20 companies to compete for future efforts.

Chart I. Source: DOD


Replicator, even without a dedicated funding line, still carries a $1 billion price tag, resourced with reprogrammings and appropriations of $200 million for the first $500 million in FY24. For a “disruptive” effort, the first public selection is a program already in the defense ecosystem within the Army, requiring a reprogramming; an action the department is quite familiar with, especially in the past with Joint Urgent Operational Needs regularly funded with reprogrammings during the twenty plus years of the Global War on Terror. And the program is reportedly moving rapidly. Last week Hicks said “The delivery of Replicator systems to the warfighter began earlier this month. This shows that warfighter-centric innovation is not only possible; it’s producing real results.” Just don’t ask which systems are being delivered—that’s classified.

The focus of the program is procurement of systems but there is little information about how these thousands of vehicles will be supported. Such support is usually covered by Operation and Maintenance appropriations. The network backbone to support the hundreds to thousands of sensors transmitting data, as well as the interoperability needed to fight jointly and with allies and partners is still a work in progress. Additional costs may be incurred for data storage, retrieval, analysis and mapping of area of operations. The logistical considerations for the fueling, maintenance and storage of thousands of unmanned vehicles in the INDOPACOM theater will be challenging. Pushing programs through the system may turn out to be the easiest part of resourcing INDOPACOM. Employing the fruits of that labor may be the hard part.