“It’s just very disorganized and confusing,” said a tech company executive, who like others was granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. The problem with the initiative is that it’s “not actually associated with any dollars to make things happen.”
Since the Replicator program was announced, Defense Department officials have touted it as a key component of the United States’ effort to counter China’s growing military and technological capabilities. If the initiative falters, however, the Pentagon could fall further behind on one of its most important weapons fronts.
Shortly after Replicator was unveiled, Hicks said the initiative won’t need new money because it will draw from already-funded programs throughout the military. In November, however, she said the DOD may request money for fiscal year 2025.
That budget won’t be unveiled until the spring, more than six months after the initiative was originally announced, eating up about a quarter of the two-year horizon that Hicks identified as the goal for it to be up and running.
Some of the leaders left the Tuesday meeting without a clear understanding of how the program would move forward without any new funding, the tech executive said. Their complaints follow calls for the Pentagon to more clearly define exactly how the program works.
Hicks’ team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In early November, Hicks attempted to publicly clear the air on what exactly the initiative intends to do.
“The reality is, Replicator is removing kinks in the hose of the system that is innovation in DOD,” Hicks told reporters. “There are a multitude of programs that already exist in the department that need help to get from where they are to delivery at scale. That is where Replicator is focused.”
“It’s not a program,” she added. “It’s a process for improving our ability to scale.”
Lawmakers aren’t convinced and are demanding that the Pentagon clarify the program’s path forward before they greenlight funding.
“The department needs to define Replicator more precisely, and they have to understand there needs to be funding tied to that,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum this month. “What do they want to do with Replicator? … We need to define that, pick it and move on it as rapidly as possible.”
Appearing on a panel at the forum, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the chair of the House China Committee and the House Armed Services cyber subcommittee, said the only way this can work is for Congress to provide flexible funding that goes beyond a single year. That gives the tech industry the confidence to plan and invest, knowing that the funding will be in place for the long haul.
“In the simplest terms, what the Pentagon can do is pick winners and losers in this space, put their thumb on the scale, have a multibillion-dollar program in procurement … involving a non-traditional company leveraging AI and autonomous systems, and I don’t think we have that right now,” he said.
The Pentagon sees autonomous weapons as a potential way to counter China’s numerical advantages in ships, missiles and troops in a rapidly narrowing window. Fielding large numbers of cheap, expendable drones, proponents argue, is faster and lower cost than exquisite weapons systems and puts fewer troops at risk. The effort comes amid China’s increased aggression in the Indo-Pacific and Ukraine’s battle against Russia, which is seeing the widespread use of drone systems.
In theory, the program is a worthwhile concept, said the executive and a former U.S. official who also attended the meeting. But it needs a specific plan and dollars attached to it.
The Defense Department has looked to tech startups in Silicon Valley for help, since the companies are already developing cutting-edge drone technology. They’ve urged the companies to build those drones, with the promise of buying them in years to come. But without orders, the companies can’t promise the venture capitalists who fund them that they’ll see returns.
“We’re not going to go and build $100 million factories if there aren’t orders for these products,” the executive said.
Another tech leader who attended the Tuesday meeting agreed that orders with clear delivery schedules are crucial to Replicator’s success, describing it as “the number one thing” the Defense Department can do to ensure the program’s success.
The tech leader is also confident that DOD will move money around to make it work: “I’m just not worried about that,” they told POLITICO.
Attendees raised concerns during the meeting, the executive added, and Hicks seemed to understand. But she told those in attendance that the funding issue is Congress’ problem, without expanding.
Gallagher said he’s more confident the program is “moving in the right direction” after a classified briefing with Hicks and meeting with DIU Director Douglas Beck. But the Wisconsin Republican said he still has questions about meeting the timeline, and funding for the program is still a mystery.
“My biggest concern remains, if they’re saying they don’t need any new funding, OK, well are they going to cannibalize funding from, like, critical munitions, which are the things we should be replicating more than anything else?” Gallagher said in an interview. “We don’t need all these new widgets. We need, like, maximum production of Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles and things like that.”
The former official said Replicator’s woes could be fixed if high-ranking department officials decide not to buy other military assets, such as fighter jets or Navy ships. The executive estimated that $1 billion in funding would solve the problem.
“For the first time ever from a military hardware perspective, we are five to seven years behind our near-peer adversaries in a critical kinetic piece of technology. It has just never really happened,” the former official said.
At a defense industry conference held in Washington in late October, it was evident that many attendees — who would seem to understand how Replicator works — knew very little. They’re eager to learn, however, and are waiting for the Pentagon to provide clearer instruction.
“People will follow contracts, they will follow that command signal,” said Adam Broecker, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s LM Evolve, which seeks partnerships with mid-size firms.
On the sidelines of the event, one defense industry insider shrugged when asked about the program, pointing out that the Pentagon had yet to release any details to industry or invite companies to toss their hats in the ring.
Despite its issues, Hicks seemed optimistic about Replicator’s future, the tech executive and leader said. But there was no timeline discussed at the meeting on Tuesday.
Another issue with the program: There’s no process for the tech companies to apply for it, according to the tech executive and leader. When Replicator was announced over the summer, there were few details about how the program would work — and not much has changed since.
The Defense Department “really needed to have funding and a way to apply attached to their announcement,” the executive said.
Without that, “it’s just pure fluff.”
Paul McLeary and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.