A Ukrainian soldier prepares a drone during training in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, May 3, 2024.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares a drone during training in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, May 3, 2024. Diego Herrera Carcedo / Anadolu via Getty Images

New details give Replicator a distinct Ukrainian flavor

First purchases announced in Pentagon's plan to acquire thousands of drones.

Ukrainians who read the newly released details of the Pentagon's giant Replicator drone effort may well have said, "Hey, that's what we're doing."

"The first tranche of Replicator capabilities include uncrewed surface vehicles (USV), uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and counter-uncrewed aerial systems (c-UAS) of various sizes and payloads from several traditional and non-traditional vendors," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Monday in a press release, adding that other capabilities “remain classified, including others in the maritime domain and some in the counter-UAS portfolio.” 

The Pentagon will spend about a half billion dollars on Replicator this fiscal year, including about $300 million approved in this year’s defense appropriations act, with the rest from “existing authorities and Defense-wide sources,” the release said, adding that the department has asked for about another $500 million in the fiscal 2025 budget proposal.

Replicator will “accelerate fielding” of the Switchblade-600 loitering munition, it said. The weapon enables its operator to take out armored vehicles more than 24 miles away.  

“U.S.-supplied Switchblade drones have already demonstrated their utility in Ukraine, and this system will provide additional capability to U.S. forces,” the release said. 

Simi Valley, California-based AeroVironment has supplied “thousands” of drones to Ukraine, according to a company press release. While early Switchblade-600 systems were felled by Russian jamming, software updates to the system and better operator training alleviated the problem, according to Phil Rottenborn, AeroVironment’s senior director of business development. 

“There was certainly electronic warfare to the extent that we hadn't seen in previous conflicts,” Rottenborn told Defense One in March at the AUSA Global Force conference. 

Replicator’s focus on loitering munitions and counter-drone systems echoes Ukraine’s efforts—improvised and otherwise—to fend off Russia’s uncrewed weapons. It also duplicates the Army’s recent unfunded priorities request and even a new Marine Corps effort.

As for seagoing drones, the initiative received more than 100 tech-firm pitches since January and is “on track to award several contracts this summer” through a fast-track solicitation dubbed “Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary (PRIME) Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO),” the release said.

Perhaps some will resemble the armed drone boats Ukraine has been using against Russian warships since late 2022. Or perhaps they will draw on experiments by the U.S. Navy’s 4th and 5th Fleets. 

Since Hicks launched the Replicator initiative last August, the release said, the effort has “aligned senior leaders around a common vision to identify and validate key joint operational gaps and rapidly field solutions in 18-24 months.” 

Acronym alert: The press release says this first tranche of the Replicator initiative “is focused on fielding all-domain attritable autonomous (ADA2) systems.” That’s different from A2AD, or “anti-access, area-denial,” which was coined in 2003 and vaulted into wider use in 2008, particularly in reference to China—the very potential foe that Replicator aims to deter.