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Government Drone Program Navigates Supply Chain Disruption

Oct. 11, 2023
Announced in August, a new Pentagon effort to make thousands of attritable, autonomous drones is encountering supply chain snarls and production limitations.

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In August, the Pentagon unveiled its new “Replicator” drone program, which was put in place to better compete with China. The program is expected to field thousands of attritable (reusable, but able to be feasibly left behind if the situation requires it) autonomous drones across multiple different domains within the next two years, DefenseNews reports.

“Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap and many,” U.S. deputy director Kathleen Hicks said at an emerging tech conference. 

The program focuses on building a high volume of low-cost air, land or sea drones that can “swarm” an enemy. According to National Defense, the Pentagon’s goal is to field the capability within an 18-to-24 month period.

“House appropriators have backed that idea in their fiscal 2025 defense spending bill,” the publication notes. “The legislation would allocate $1 billion toward establishing a DIU-managed hedge portfolio made up of low-cost drones, agile communication and computing modes and [artificial intelligence] capabilities.”

Challenges Abound

Even as the global pandemic and the widespread disruptions it caused fade in the rearview mirror, organizations across many sectors continue to encounter delays and shortages of some products, components and raw materials. Uncle Sam, it seems, is not immune to these extended impacts of the pandemic on the world’s supply chains.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the recently-announced drone program is already running into some supply chain snarls as it works to ramp up quickly. That’s because the Pentagon is rolling out the program amid “booming demand in the commercial aerospace market that has left a shortage of skilled labor, raw materials and parts such as advanced electronics and fasteners,” the publication reports.

“The Pentagon wants to buy thousands of cheap drones in as little as 18 months, and as many as 2,000 larger uncrewed jets,” WSJ continues. “By contrast, one of its primary drone suppliers, Shield AI, produced 38 of the aircraft last year.”

In “How to Navigate the Pentagon’s New ‘Replicator’ Program,” consulting firm Oliver Wyman says the opportunities and challenges associated with the initiative are “massive,” and that its success will be based on “production capacity and flexibility not typically found in the defense industrial base.”

As a point of reference, the firm says the auto industry is one of very few sectors that understands the strains of having to produce mass volumes of complicated differentiated machinery. “To keep pace, the industry relies on product platforms that coordinate design and manufacturing strategies to adapt rapidly and at low cost to what customers want, consolidating the development process down to a year or two,” the consultancy says.

Hitting a Tight Timeline

To get around the current and potential supply chain hurdles standing in the program’s way, Oliver Wyman says original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) involved in the effort should revitalize their supply chain strategies to increase their buying leverage. Also, the Department of Defense (DoD), should “focus on materials and components that will be common among OEMs’ unmanned platforms.”

The Replicator program is on a tight timetable, given the scale of manufacturing required to produce thousands of drones. In Texas, Shield AI has built a factory to produce small drones that are already used by the U.S. military.

According to WSJ, Shield AI was an early maker of “autonomous flying vehicles that rely on artificial intelligence to navigate and complete missions, and one of the best-funded.” The company aims to boost output to 100 drones this year, ultimately seeking annual production of 1,000 over the next several years.

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