AeroVironment’s (AV) Switchblade 600 loitering munition system has been selected for Tranche 1 of the first iteration of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Replicator initiative. Image – AeroVironment

In science fiction, self-replicating and autonomous robots are popular villains.  The “replicators” of the Stargate SG1 TV show destroy anything that obstructs their search for raw materials.  Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker book series has self-replicating robots with the mission of destroying all life that is not their creature.  The Terminator movie series made a star out of an obscure Austrian actor and made the public worry that future robot protectors could become their oppressors.

The Pentagon’s Replicator program is not like these fictional things.  The U.S. is looking for a way to quickly acquire and field large numbers of drones to counter developing threats.  The Replicator program aims to overwhelm an enemy’s defenses through the sheer weight of numbers.  An interesting concept, perhaps inspired by the tactics of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) during the Korean War.  Lacking advanced weaponry, the PVA used superior numbers to wear down and defeat its opponents.

Already, the Pentagon is delivering the first Replicator drones to the Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).  Specifics are not available.  The Pentagon will test different systems.  The only system known to be part of the Replicator program is the AeroVironment Switchblade.

Replicators could help the Pentagon defeat very large militaries, such as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  The U.S. military could field thousands of inexpensive land, air and sea unmanned systems working within an integrated network.  As already mentioned, this is not a new idea.  Attrition is an age-old military tactic, but one that could result in a “Pyrrhic Victory.”  Using low-cost drones instead of people might be a solution.  Yet every time it is suggested, these new weapons are always five years away and seem to stay there.  Even worse, countermeasures could appear just as quickly as these new low-cost drones.

Ukraine is successfully using low-cost small drones against the invading Russians.  However, thickening air defenses and other countermeasures are beginning to take their toll and could force the development of more sophisticated systems and the possible abandonment of the whole “large numbers of inexpensive drones” concept.