Pentagon requests $300 million for secret drone programme

The Switchblade 600 tactical missile system (Image credit: AeroVironment)
The Switchblade 600 tactical missile system (Image credit: AeroVironment)

The U.S. Department of Defense submitted a classified request to Congress last week, to redirect $300 million of approved funding from other budgets to its Replicator programme.

The programme aims to enable the military to field thousands of autonomous drones across multiple domains. Replicator was announced last August by Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks, as one of the measures the Pentagon is taking to counter China’s drone capabilities.

Replicator aims to scale up the military’s drone capabilities dramatically, in particular the numbers of drones available to operations, in a programme focused on matching the relatively high volume of unmanned systems that the People’s Liberation Army is able to draw on. In the process, Replicator must find ways to mass produce drones quickly and cost-effectively.

In response to congressional concerns voiced last year about how Replicator would be funded, Deputy Defense Secretary has already intimated that the programme would be run out of existing approved funding during 2024. However, even the reprogramming of funding must be approved by the four US Congress defence committees.

Funding is not the only concern that has been voiced about Replicator. The DoD initial announced last year prompted a report from the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) entitled: “Can it Work? Outside Perspectives on DoD’s Replicator Program.”

The primary finding of the AUVSI report is that the U.S. may currently lack the domestic industrial base to meet the goals of Replicator. It cited pace, scaling production levels as two of the key challenges.

The U.S. military, of course, operates some of the most sophisticated and effective drones in the world, across air, land and sea. However, the focus of Replicator is to mass produce smaller, cheaper drones. In Hicks’s words the vision is for “small, smart, cheap, and many”, and to fill a substantial gap in capability by August 2025.

The timing of the funding request, more than five months into that two-year timeframe, seems to cast doubt over whether the Pentagon is able to move quite that fast.

by Carrington Malin