U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks elaborated last Wednesday on her earlier announcement that the Pentagon will spend a large part of its budget on a new program called Replicator — a project to develop and manufacture thousands of small, smart and cheap drones within two years. Hicks said these new devices would be aimed primarily at China, calling China “our main strategic competitor today” and noted that Beijing “has spent the last 20 years building a modern military carefully crafted to blunt the operational advantages we’ve enjoyed for decades.”
China’s massive military buildup has made it increasingly capable of invading Taiwan while making it increasingly hard for Taiwan’s allies to intervene militarily. Hicks said the Replicator program is designed “to help us overcome the PRC’s advantage in mass,” indicating that with mass she means the sheer mass of “more ships, more missiles, more forces” that China is currently building. A recent U.S. Navy report indicated that in terms of naval vessels alone, China is slowly outbuilding the U.S. and has developed a shipbuilding capacity that is 232 times greater than that of the U.S.
Hicks said the idea would be to build aerial, surface, submarine and even space-capable drones that would be able to work individually or in swarms to gather data and eliminate enemy assets without risking expensive U.S. systems. These drones would be designed to be relatively inexpensive and to be produced in large quantities, which would drive the cost per unit down even more. She added that, “Replicator is not a new program of record. We’re not creating a new bureaucracy. And we will not be asking for new money in FY24. Not all problems need new money; we are problem-solvers and we intend to self-solve.” Hicks said that the program will simply use existing funding to focus on systems that are “small, smart, cheap and many.”
The deputy defense secretary said that the program would be “the latest effort to overcome the production valley of death,” alluding to the fact that too many of the Pentagon’s recent projects to develop cutting-edge weapons like high-tech fighters, warships and underwater drones have delivered systems that are way over budget and in some cases saw only limited deployment.
So, it seems that Replicator is one of the Pentagon’s most realistic attempts to stem the tide of “budget ballooning” that has hampered the U.S.’s ability to develop new technologies and keep up with China in terms of numbers of warships and other platforms deployed.
Writing in 19FortyFive, James Holmes, a senior military analyst at the U.S. Naval War College, pointed out that the program is an admission that China outmatches the U.S. around Taiwan and that it would take time for the U.S. to deploy its large and sophisticated war platforms if China does attack Taiwan. Holmes noted that cheap and numerous Replicator drones would help the U.S. to enact a “cumulative” response while it moves its expensive and high-tech platforms into position. In other words, the cheap drones would be able to work with long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles to slow down and blunt the PLA’s forces, thereby buying time to bring the full force of the U.S. military into play.
Holmes added that the use of such drones would depend largely on whether the U.S. can get permission from countries that control the islands of the first island chain, such as Japan and the Philippines, to launch the drones from these islands, especially from islands closest to Taiwan and China. This would mean the U.S. would need permission to pre-position troops on these islands if an invasion of Taiwan seems imminent. Holmes said there is therefore a strong diplomacy component to the successful deployment of Replicator drones.
The Ukraine conflict has proven the effectiveness of a range of different types of cheap drones. These usually feature small cameras that relay their video feeds to their controllers and command centers — which is why they’re called First Person View (FPV) drones. One common type being used in Ukraine is the factory-made “kamikaze” FPV drone that features two sets of four moveable canards that each look like an “X-wing.” Ukraine has also seen the use of larger Iranian-made non-FPV delta-wing kamikaze drones, small FPV quadcopters adapted to drop mortars or detonate taped-on warheads on impact, loitering FPV kamikaze boats and lately even loitering remote-controlled torpedoes.
A Taiwanese company actually developed a large FPV quadcopter called the Revolver 860 that is more than 1.3 meters wide and uses a revolving mechanism to drop eight 60 millimeter grenades during one flight of up to 40 minutes and a range of up to 20 kilometers. Media reports indicated that 800 of these were sent to Poland in August last year and that these ended up being used in Ukraine, but since then nothing has been reported about the effect these have had on the battleground. Ukraine’s military displayed a similarly sized “bomber drone” in December. It was also reported in December that a wide variety of these large bomber drones were being tested in Ukraine.
In particular, the use of small factory-made “X-wing” kamikaze drones in the Ukraine has shown how effective such systems can be, and how desperately the U.S. needs the Replicator program to improve the cost-effectiveness and lethality of its small drones.
Small X-wing, loitering kamikaze drones
Russia’s Lancet kamikaze drone has proven to be one of the deadliest aerial drones in the Ukraine conflict. The biggest reason for this is because it is a custom-built anti-tank drone as opposed to other small FPV kamikaze drones that are usually crudely retro-fitted with external warheads that they were not designed to carry. The Lancet and other portable attack drones like Israel’s Uvision Hero systems typically look like an angular tube with one X-wing near the front and one near the back. The front of the tube features a warhead and a camera on a small rotating pod, while the rear features a small propeller that is usually powered by an electric engine fed by a battery. The U.S.’s Switchblade 300 attack drone is very similar, but is very compact and features more traditional wings that pop out when the device is launched out of its cylindrical container.
These X-wing drones are designed to be controlled by a human via a hand controller that features a display screen which shows everything the drone’s sophisticated camera can see. This extremely useful video feed is fed directly to the hand controller via an on-board radio system, and the feed can also be shared with battlefield commanders via satellite links and dedicated surveillance drones.
X-wing drones come in different sizes and with different warheads. Some warheads are designed to attack troop formations by exploding above the formations and spreading shrapnel over a large area. Others, like the Lancet 3, have shaped-charge warheads and are designed to fly into steel armor where they can burn a hole through steel as thick as 20 centimeters before expending the rest of their energy inside the armored vehicle. The Lancet has been credited with a number of tank kills and is especially useful at destroying artillery pieces out in the open.
One of the more effective defenses against the anti-tank version of the Lancet drone is to hide the tank or artillery piece under strong camouflage nets or steel cages. These are usually sufficient to trap lighter attack drones and keep them from detonating, or force them to detonate too far from the steel structure to do any real damage to the system.
Another defense against the Lancet and most other drones is to use a radio disruptor, called a jammer, that cuts the radio link between the drone and its human controller. This causes the drone’s video feed to distort while also blocking the user’s control inputs and causing the drone to fall out of the sky. Ukraine has been putting such “jammers” on some of their tanks to protect against anti-tank Lancet drones. One problem with this is that these jamming devices pump out 50 watts of radio signal, which announces the tank’s presence to anyone capable of listening. If an enemy force is capable of detecting and geolocating the jammers, it can count the number of tanks and other fighting vehicles fielding them, and know their positions. And if the enemy knows your position, they can target you with accurate artillery fire.
The engineers who will be designing Replicator drones will be looking at ways to use artificial intelligence or autonomous direction-finding in these drones so they would be able to find their way out of a jamming zone if they do get caught in one and lose contact with their controllers.
The Hero-120 system manufactured by Israel’s Uvision can fly for up to an hour to reach targets as far away as 60 kilometers. Like the Lancet, it can drop down to detonate its warhead on enemy targets, but unlike the Lancet, which is a one-way system, it can return to sender to be recharged for reuse. This ability to be reused is significant, as it frees the user to launch the drone as a pure Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) platform that can return home without the need to attack something before it runs out of battery power.
In Part 2 on Friday, we’ll look at how the excessive cost and limited effectiveness in Ukraine has led the U.S.’s Switchblade X-wing kamikaze drone to be canceled — and how that illustrates the need for the Replicator program to deliver on its promises.