WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit plans to host a technology summit in the coming months as it ramps up its engagement with candidates for the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, an effort to field thousands of autonomous systems by 2025.
The summit is slated for early 2024 and is designed to update companies on the Replicator process and get feedback on the Defense Department’s plans, according to Aditi Kumar, DIU’s director of strategy, policy and international partnerships.
“We’re bringing in our partners to think through what capabilities are critical to this and how we build some of the common architecture pieces and other enabling pieces to deliver a capability that, over the long term, the department can benefit from,” she told reporters in a Nov. 30 briefing.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in late August unveiled Replicator, a new DOD mechanism for rapidly fielding large quantities of innovative capabilities to military users.
Under the first iteration of that process, the Pentagon wants to field a fleet of attritable, autonomous systems across multiple domains over the next 18 to 24 months. To achieve its ambitious target, the Pentagon will increase or speed up production and fielding of existing systems and solicit new ones.
DIU’s role in Replicator is to assess what gaps exist in the military services today — be it individual capabilities or enabling infrastructure — and vet the proposed capabilities, evaluating whether they meet the department’s needs and determining whether they can be produced quickly and in large quantities.
DIU Director Doug Beck chairs the Defense Innovation Working Group, a panel of officials from the military services and combatant commands who will recommend projects that meet the Replicator criteria to the Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group, which oversees Pentagon efforts to rapidly field high-tech capabilities to address operational problems.
The Pentagon plans to field Replicator capabilities in batches, and Hicks told reporters Nov. 21 the department will identify the first tranche of candidate systems in December.
Kumar said that in the first few months since Hicks unveiled Replicator, the department has been working to set criteria for selecting systems. Those criteria — which she broadly listed as attritable, autonomous and resilient — will serve as “guideposts” as the department identifies capabilities it might consider within each capability tranche.
The first round of systems, she said, will likely consist of those that are “ready to go,” meaning they’ve already been tested and validated or are perhaps already being fielded in smaller quantities.
Beck said in the same briefing that while the first tranche will feature more mature capabilities, they won’t all come from traditional defense contractors.
“Those will come from a broad range of kinds of players — from larger companies to smaller companies to commercial companies that DIU works with frequently already,” he said. “We’re leveraging the best of all that capability.”
Along with identifying systems that may meet Replicator’s near-term goals, DIU is also developing processes for evaluating capabilities and integrating them into the military services.
“We need to have a concept of operations that will support the capabilities. We need to think about the experimentation that needs to go into it, the validation in an operational environment of individual capabilities, of group capabilities, of how they will work together,” Kumar said. “There are a lot of downstream implications of delivering these systems.”
Make or break
DIU’s role in Replicator is a significant expansion in the organization’s influence within the Pentagon — and experts say it presents a test for whether the Defense Department is serious about leveraging the non-traditional, commercial industrial base.
Ret. Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, the Air Force’s former deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told Defense News that Replicator represents a “put up or shut up moment” for DIU.
“If DIU is successful, we will have thousands the thousands in air, land and sea in 24 months,” he said in an interview. “If they’re not, then I think we have to go and think, well, what is DIU good for?”
Andrew Metrick, a defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Replicator’s goal of increasing the scale at which the department fields innovative capability is a big deal for commercial companies and startups. It also matters to private investors who want assurance that the Pentagon sees significant value in these companies before funding them.
“The big thing when you talk to investors is, [DOD has] gotten a lot better at funding the [research, development, test and evaluation] and prototyping of some of these technologies, but are absolutely terrible at getting it out into the field in numbers,” he told C4ISRNET. “I think that’s the important part about Replicator.”
Beck acknowledge the risk inherent in Replicator — at the process and financial level as well as reputational. The goal, he said, is to take bets in those areas in order to reduce future operational risk to military personnel.
“We’re taking those risks on purpose so that we don’t inadvertently transfer that risk into real risk for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and guardians who would ultimately have to fight a war if we end up having to fight it,” he said. “And that’s a conscious decision.”
Defense News reporter Noah Robertson contributed to this story.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.