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The US Military Is Getting Smaller, Cheaper and Smarter

A new drone-swarm initiative called Replicator will use low-cost technology to counter China’s massive arms buildup.

By James Stavridis, Fletcher Dean Emeritus, and former supreme allied commander of NATO

In Eric Frank Russell’s classic 1957 science fiction novel Wasp, an interplanetary war is ultimately decided by the use of individual killers operating behind enemy lines, each of which can “sting” with vicious power. In more recent novels — Ghost Fleet, by Peter Singer and August Cole, and my own 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, co-written with Elliot Ackerman — a conflict between China and the US features the use of small clouds of wasp-like unmanned vehicles.

Now the US Defense Department has committed to turning fiction into reality. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced a plan to create thousands of autonomous unmanned systems over the next two years to compete with China — which is already moving ahead of us. Called “Replicator,” the program will “galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of US military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap and many,” said Hicks.

The basic ideas are simple and solid. First, given that China is building military capacity — ships, aircraft, sensors, missiles — at a rate the US is unlikely to match, we need to not just innovate but to create the right kinds of high-tech systems. Second, mass swarms of small, unmanned vehicles can be swiftly assembled, fielded and integrated into the fight — we are seeing Ukrainian troops do that on the battlefield today.

More generally, the Replicator concept is something many warfighters have long advocated: shifting away from huge, expensive, vulnerable platforms (aircraft carriers, large planes, satellites) toward lighter, cheaper, more nimble systems.

All sounds about right in theory. But how, in real life, can the initiative be put in place quickly to deter China from its aggressive claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan?

First, we need to recognize the scale of the resources required. The necessary dollar amounts — perhaps in the single billions — are a drop in the bucket compared to funding going toward big, expensive weaponry in the $850 billion defense budget. But the shift won’t happen overnight. Even relatively small amounts of money and manpower cannot be apportioned by a giant on-and-off switch, wherein we suddenly stop funding the big platforms and pour resources into Replicator. It’s more like a rheostat: Payments can gradually be dialed toward the new and the many, away from the old and the few.

Just as important, the heads of the Pentagon’s 11 combatant commands need to find a way to work seamlessly with the individual services. There will be many hard-fought battles between the traditionalists and those reformers pushing for Replicator.

To understand the urgency, again look to fiction. A powerful set piece that opens Ghost Fleet includes swarming unmanned vehicles used to overwhelm US defenses, particularly in Hawaii. In 2034, China uses a clever combination of cyberwarfare and stealth to destroy older, lumbering naval platforms in the South China Sea. In both books, the wakeup call comes very late in the game for the US military. 

Both books provide a vision of how US forces will need to change. A key is merging the efforts of special forces, cyberweapons and swarms of unmanned vehicles along with a number of traditional platforms. Some of the military’s top people have been giving this a lot of thought already; two that come to mind are General Dave Berger, who just retired as commandant of the Marine Corps, and Admiral John Aquilino, head of the Indo-Pacific Command. General Chris Cavoli, my latest successor as supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been intensively studying the success of the Ukrainian military in neutralizing Russian offensives.

How would Replicator work on the battlefield? The initial step might be mobilizing two separate swarms of small, unmanned vehicles. The first group, numbering in the tens of thousands, would be focused on surveillance and reconnaissance, sending back uncountable millions of data bits to form a precise targeting picture. Second, the battlespace would be turned over to hundreds or thousands of vehicles large enough to accommodate payloads of explosives. Working alongside them would be drones carrying out cyberattacks to blind the enemy, effectively “cloaking” our own forces while destroying an enemy’s fighting ability.

This concept could be relevant in the heavens as well. As the new Space Force comes online, it should be working with the traditional services to refine a role for Replicator in space. Instead of relying on enormous, vastly expensive communications satellites, it might make sense to use cheap satellite swarms with linkages to each other and to ground stations. 

Finally, much of the communications linkage between all aspects will be done through artificial intelligence. The ability to process billions of data inputs instantaneously, then compare the size, shape, location and connectivity of each individual element, sounds like science fiction, right? Yet that future is closer than most realize. Replicator is not science fiction at all.

(This post was republished from Bloomberg Opinion.)

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