U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Cozart, a radio chief with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, attached to Special Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command, makes upgrades to a drone after a test flight Nov. 12, 2018.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Cozart, a radio chief with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, attached to Special Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command, makes upgrades to a drone after a test flight Nov. 12, 2018. U.S. Marine Corps / Staff Sgt. Donell Bryant

Can troops with 3D printers save the Pentagon’s mass-drone vision?

Big defense contractors aren’t jumping at the chance to make cheap drones. It might be up to the troops.

There's a major obstacle to the Pentagon’s new effort to manufacture thousands of small drones: China dominates the market for consumer-drone parts, which is awkward since the point is to deter China. One potential solution could be rapid manufacturing in the field, according to one of the military’s top young tech minds. 

The two-month-old Replicator effort seeks to apply a Ukrainian success—modifying lots and lots of consumer drones for military purposes—to the U.S. campaign to keep the peace in the Pacific. But the Pentagon can’t simply clone the Ukrainian program for the INDOPACOM mission set. 

“The fact of the matter is: we don't have an industrial base to do this,” Michael MacKay, national security advisor to Sen. Jodi Ernst, R-Iowa, said last week at a Pallas Advisors event. “If China shut off the hose tomorrow, we don't have the carbon fibers; we don't have the micro-electronics; we don't have the chips; we don't have the motors to be able at this point to provide thousands [of small drones] at scale. 

“We ran into this in the beginning of Ukraine,” MacKay said, referring to Russia’s expanded invasion in 2022. “We've had a lot of laws and we have a lot of presidential executive orders that say you can't buy Chinese, down to some of the component level...America needs to get back into manufacturing on some of these components.”

The Pentagon hasn’t said much about where the program is going or how it will achieve its objectives. But major defense contractors are cautioning that Replicator drones could cost far more than Pentagon officials imagine. They pointed to  microelectronics and other supply-chain issues—but also argued that the Pentagon might well want the higher performance of more expensive parts.

Last month at the ComDef conference in Virginia, defense industry representatives made a pitch for more expensive and more capable drones, the sort of thing that they already know how to supply. 

“Trying to build something at that scale, at that cost, is going to be very challenging,” said Adam Broecker, vice president of LM Evolve at Lockheed Martin. “Higher up the cost and capability curve, I think there's going to be a lot more opportunity.”

Neither the United States nor its allies can easily mimic Chinese manufacturer DJI’s Mavic drone, which is a hot item on both sides of the Ukraine war. 

“I think an allied-built version of a Mavic drone is going to be much more expensive. But I think there's gonna be a lot of trade-off in terms of capability,” Broecker said.

John Suding, the executive director of East Asia defense and government services at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said the drones that traditional defense contractors can supply may be a bit more expensive and specific than what many are currently envisioning. 

“The complexity of the systems is going to matter, right? Can you use dual-use technology in the system?” Suding said. “That gives you access to a different type of supply base than you might have if it's a very bespoke solution. Once we understand that, once we understand how many of these things do you [the Pentagon] want to build, how long do you want to build them for? Then you can start sizing supply chains to the, you know, to the point on driving scale.”

Once those questions are answered, he said, building thousands of cheap military drones quickly may become as easy as building missiles and bombs like Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition. 

“JDAM is a great example. We can deliver tens of thousands of those in a year,”  Suding said.

But, he said, if you want the machine to have better eyes, brains, and steerability than a missile, you might have to deal with a more specialized and thus expensive solution.

Speaking at a Defense Writer's Group event last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said "what we are thinking of is more like things in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit than in the millions of dollars per unit."

A new approach

Schuyler Moore, CENTCOM’s chief technology officer, speaking at the Pallas event, said that the key to achieving the Replicator vision is to hand combatant commands a bigger role earlier on—and even let operators build their own drones. 

“There was definitely going to be a supply-chain element of this that needs to be talked through, not only of manufacturing, but also getting things into theater,” Moore said. “But we also believe that there are mitigating actions that you can take.” 

She pointed to Task Force 99, an innovation unit within Air Force Central Command. 

“They were frustrated with waiting for a number of systems that they were trying to get out into the theater. They happened to have a couple of 3D printers on base. And in their free time—quite literally, this is how they described it to me afterwards—in their free time, they found a company who had a blueprint online, and by blueprint, I mean that they had a picture of the UAV that they were 3D printing online. And they talked to this company and the company said, ‘It's going to be ready in two years.’” 

That was too long for Task Force 99, Moore said. 

“They wanted to see if they could print out the picture that they saw on the company's website, and they did it in 48 hours. And they are currently in the process. of writing out the [standard operating procedures] for how you print UAS in theater,” she said.

To pull off such feats, Moore said, combatant commands need professional innovators who are solely focused on rapid prototyping and scaling.

Not surprisingly, she sounded an optimistic note about DOD’s goals for Replicator: 

“We believe it is absolutely possible and we believe that our task forces are very well positioned to serve as the battlefield replicator,” she said.