China’s most important asset in potential war with the United States is “mass,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks: “More ships. More missiles. More people.”
To counter that advantage, the Defense Department will launch an initiative called Replicator to create cheap drones across the air, sea, and land in the “multiple thousands” within the next two years.
Cheap drones, of the type Ukraine has deployed to great effect against Russia, can be produced close to the battlefield at much lower cost than typical Defense Department weapons.
“They are compatible with the principles of Mission Command, which empowers lower-level personnel to be innovative and successful in combat. And they can serve as resilient, distributed systems, even if bandwidth is limited, intermittent, degraded, or denied,” Hicks said at the NDIA conference in Washington, D.C.
The drones also get at the main challenge the U.S. military would face in the Pacific in a fight with China: too many targets across a massive geographic space.
How many targets does that mean? “Here’s a metric for me: 1,000 targets for 24 hours,” Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at the conference.
Aquilino said his command has been working with DARPA on how to collect and integrate targeting data across the entire theater far faster than is typically done today, via a program called Assault Breaker II. “The components in INDOPACOM have been experimenting now for the last five to 10 years with many of those unmanned capabilities. These will give us an asymmetrical advantage. So operational concepts that we are working through are going to help amplify our advantages in this theater…there’s a term, hellscape, that we use.”
Different services and research arms within the Pentagon have been researching swarming technologies for years. The new initiative is more focused on accelerating the deployment and development of these technologies. As such, it will rely heavily on commercial technology. The Defense Innovation Unit will play a key role, Hicks said.
“The Secretary [of defense] asked me personally to oversee it along with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We’ll also be supported by DIU’s director, who’ll help us harness the power of DOD’s innovation ecosystem,” said she.
Ukrainian forces are already using large swarms of unmanned munitions, linked together via mesh networks and running rudimentary artificial intelligence to recognize targets from satellites, according to Malgorzata Kieltyka, a founder partner at KG Legal.
But in some respects, the success in Ukraine of these drones also reveals the difficulties that DOD will face in trying to deploy large numbers of drones at low cost to combat China without Chinese components. CNA analyst Sam Bendett said.
“These drones are essentially expendable technologies that can cause a completely disproportionate amount of damage relative to its overall costs. Since not all FPV missions are effective, they’re used by both sides in Ukraine. However, at this stage, each side has thousands of trained FPV operators who can use them 24/7. FPV drones are affordable, with an average cost of $400 – $600. This is made possible through the easy acquisition of Chinese components. These components are purchased in huge quantities by volunteers on both sides.”
Bendett said even production on the optimistic scale described by Hicks and Aquilino may be insufficient.
“Having many thousands may ultimately not be enough when the monthly count on both sides in Ukraine is in the tens of thousands of these cheap quadcopters, ” he said.
Said Hicks: “We’ll also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve that goal, so we can scale whatever’s relevant in the future again and again and again. Easier said than done? You bet. But we’re going to do it.”
The post ‘Hellscape’: DOD launches massive drone swarm program to counter China appeared first on Defense One.