The United States has a Drone Army ready for China

China leads the global consumer drone market, with Shenzhen company DJI holding around 70% of the market share and offering affordable drones.

Pentagon plans to boost domestic drone production.

The Pentagon seems to have an ace up its sleeve to revolutionize the future war: a host of thousands of compact, low-cost drones. The unobvious ambition behind this plan? Stimulate domestic production of unmanned aircraft and break the armor that China has forged in that market.

As the program has been named, Replicator has given hope to U.S. drone manufacturers eager to support a domestic manufacturing operation. Strengthening the drone supply chain that does not pass through China is essential for defense strategists in the face of the small risk of a future conflagration with the Asian giant.

In the words of Doug Beck, director of the  Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, valuable lessons have been learned about the novel use of the industrial base to support the needs highlighted in situations such as those in Ukraine. China’s shadow grows, becoming a key driver of this novel program.

The Pentagon’s ambitions for drone production

The Pentagon plans for the ‘Replicator’ program to produce “thousands” of unmanned aircraft units by the end of next year. However, many experts are skeptical about the Pentagon’s optimism and the challenge of adjusting to this schedule due to the lengthy processing and approval of the defense budget.

As noted by Paul Scharre, vice president of the  Center for a New American Security, a former Department of Defense worker and an expert on autonomous weapons policy, this is a “challenging and ambitious” goal. And the clock doesn’t stop ticking.

Although the name “Replicant” derives from a fictional machine from the television series “Star Trek”, the heads of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) assure that the name points to their intention to develop a process that can be replicated in other industries. Drones are the first target of this replicable method, called “Replicator One.”

China dominates the global consumer drone market.

China leads the global consumer drone market, with Shenzhen company  DJI holding around 70% of the market share and offering affordable drones. For strategic reasons, US authorities consider it prudent to develop alternative sources, given that the relationship between the United States and China will remain fiercely competitive for years to come.

The possibility of future conflict on the island of Taiwan, a hot spot in geopolitical tensions with China, would force the US military to send in non-Chinese-made drones.

The usefulness of low-cost drones in modern warfare

Gregory C. Allen, former director of strategy for the  Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, noted the U.S. military’s trend toward acquiring high-end drones, such as the $220 million Global Hawk model. However, involvement in the Ukrainian war has demonstrated the usefulness of also having large numbers of low-cost drones for kamikaze missions, those from which they are unlikely to return.

“This is a paradigm shift in terms of the cost and effectiveness of drones,” said Allen, who currently serves as director of an artificial intelligence center at the Center for  Strategic and International Studies, a think tank from Washington.

In contrast to the ubiquitous high-value drones, Ukrainian soldiers have been using them in large numbers in their engagements, equipped with bombs for outbound missions and reconnaissance of combat terrain. These drones, which are mostly manufactured in China and cost around $2,000 a unit, have managed to cause untold damage to Russian military equipment, even though their communication is susceptible to Russian interference.

According to the UK-based Royal United Services Institute, Ukraine is consuming 10,000 drones per month, a telling figure of the important role these low-cost drones play in modern warfare.

Manufacturers around the world accelerate the production of military drones.

Russia is not far behind in this new war paradigm, working at full speed to build its own legion of self-exploding drones based on Iranian technology, with an estimated launch date for the summer of 2025,  The Washington Post reported. Once considered mere toys, drones are receiving massive recognition for their strategic importance, said Jeff Thompson, founder of  Red Cat, a Salt Lake City-based drone manufacturer.

On the US military design tables, the strategy of cheap and autonomous drones is gaining ground, with the aim of complementing fleets of human-piloted aircraft. “Loyal wingmen” drones are being developed to fly alongside high-cost aircraft like the F-35. Many countries are investing in “loitering munitions” (drones capable of circling the battlefield and bombing targets autonomously), which have already seen action in Libya, Armenia and Ukraine.

This shift is creating opportunities for small tech companies to compete with the giant military contractors that have dominated the sector for years. On Friday,  Anduril, a military technology company, unveiled a new jet drone called Roadrunner, capable of deploying to intercept enemy aircraft and returning to a base if not used against a target.

While this radical change in thinking allows for large-scale defensive launches at an extraordinarily low cost, skepticism about the Replicator program persists in Washington, in part due to its lack of a budget of its own.

Skepticism about the Replicator program

Doubts are growing about whether the Pentagon will buy enough drones each year to sustain an expansion of the US industrial base. Loren Thompson, a defense consultant at the  Lexington Institute, thinks it could be just a fad or a turning point in the defense industry.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on cyber, information technology and innovation, shares concerns that without a dedicated budget, Replicator could cannibalize other programs.

The difficult path to deploying critical technologies on the battlefield

Even while appreciating the cautious level of optimism surrounding the program, Gallagher highlights concerns about how slow the Pentagon’s acquisition of drones has been, which seems to justify a new initiative.

Additionally, he notes that it is necessary to address what appears to be a persistent problem within the Department of Defense: the slow intervention to rapidly deploy critical technologies to the battlefield.

The project is being led by the  Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a DOD unit created in 2015 to help the military adapt to cutting-edge commercial technologies. Allen described it as a kind of diplomatic organization between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley, operating on a shoestring budget but with a mission to close significant deals.

Michael Brown, the former DIU director, said the lack of consistent, large-scale orders was the main obstacle to working with domestic manufacturers to build small drones with strong cybersecurity and key components made in the US.

The impetus behind the “Replicator” program is, in the words of Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of Defense and leading proponent of the idea at the Department of Defense, “to create that demand signal.”

Future funding of the Replicator program in doubt

The financial support received by the Replicator program may be reserved for external financing. Although the House of Representatives has proposed a new $1 billion fund for the DIU, part of the 2024 defense budget, the Senate has rejected the proposal. If the DIU does not have an expanded budget, it will have to make use of reallocating funds from other parts of the defense budget.

National drone companies are actively seeking their place in the Replicator program despite the lack of clarity in many details of the initiative. Red Cat’s Jeff Thompson sees the show as an intriguing possibility and aspires to participate.

According to Thompson, his company plans to move all manufacturing to its new plant in Salt Lake City and sell its consumer division that manufactures in China. The factory, which has around 100 workers, has the capacity to produce thousands of drones per month at a cost of $14,800 per unit. Thompson believes large-scale production could reduce this cost.

The difficult competition against the prices of Chinese drones

Industry executives argue that American drone makers are unlikely to match the prices of China’s DJI, which has had advantages in terms of government investment and lower labor costs. DJI’s “Mavic” line of consumer drones starts at $1,599.

AeroVironment, based in Arlington, Virginia, and  Skydio, based in California, are among the U.S. drone makers also hoping to secure a spot in the Replicator program. Wald Nahabi, CEO of AeroVironment, underlined the importance of constant demand for manufacturers, allowing them to plan their investments and orders confidently.

Furthermore, widespread use of small drones in civil sectors is expected in the coming years, although the future size of this market remains uncertain. Legislation recently introduced in the House of Representatives, which prohibits the federal government from purchasing drones made in China and other countries considered threats to national security, adds a new twist to the industry’s evolution.

Despite Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ statement about his ambition to deliver packages nationwide with drones, much of the price competition from DJI and the failure of large-scale drone delivery to materialize has resulted in the disappearance of numerous American drone companies that emerged a decade ago.