On August 28, 2023, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced the new Replicator initiative to field thousands of autonomous systems within the next two years to counter the PRC’s “biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships, more missiles, more people.” Hicks declared that to stay ahead, the Pentagon will pursue Replicator to “create a new state of the art” and “field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.”
In a separate announcement in May, Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA) and Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) announced their co-sponsorship of the bipartisan Autonomous Systems Adoption & Policy Act (ASAP Act, H.R.3168). The bill seeks to establish a Joint Autonomy Office (JAO) within the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO) at the Department of Defense (DOD). In their press release, Reps. Wittman and Ruppersberger both spoke strongly about the necessity for the JAO, to “accelerate development and delivery of autonomy technology and programs for United States military operations.” Short of standing up an actual office, the Senate version of the 2024 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (S.2587) includes a report (S. Rept. 118-81) recommending an increase of $50 million for CDAO to create an “autonomy enterprise platform.”
Determined near peer adversaries are pursuing autonomy for the battlefield in air, land, and sea domains. Uncrewed, remotely-piloted systems deployed in the Russia-Ukraine War foreshadow how autonomy on the battlefield will alter the nature of war. Falling behind in this militarily critical technology would have consequential impacts on tactical and strategic advantage in future conflicts. These big announcements on autonomous systems from the Congress and the Pentagon provide focus and momentum, but the success of the lofty ambitions will depend on leveraging a legacy of innovation and making sound decisions from here forward. Indeed, a few critical questions come to mind:
- ASAP Act as Framework for future CDAO role: Can the ASAP Act offer guidance for the CDAO in executing across DOD acquisition efforts, to accelerate development and delivery of autonomy capability for United States military operations?
- Evolution in Innovation Ecosystem: How should the role of the innovation ecosystem change in terms of the stakeholder evolution required to deliver autonomous systems capability on the battlefield at-scale?
- Engaging Stakeholders on Autonomy: In light of the recent Replicator initiative announcement, how can an autonomy enterprise platform within CDAO best address the many stakeholders across DOD, industry, as well as international allies, critical to delivering Warfighter capability?
ASAP Act as Framework for Future CDAO Role
To be successful, CDAO leadership will have to strike a balance between Services concerned with oversight levels; an acquisition system ill-poised to rapidly deliver as near-peer competition mounts; and emerging needs from the operational community that will be called upon to face near-peer adversaries actively adopting these tools. Among key innovation stakeholders, questions range from what degree of control CDAO would exert over service-level autonomy programs to concerns about compliance with rigid top-down protocols or waiting in queue for key decisions. Important calls have to be made about where within the CDAO organizational structure this autonomy enterprise platform fits, and whether CDAO is staffed appropriately to take on this additional effort. Short of establishing a new joint office, the ASAP Act could act as a framework to guide CDAO in executing this role.
Rather than creating another means of oversight or standards creation, the ASAP Act may provide a useful framework for how an autonomy enterprise platform should be structured. Rather than establishing another oversight office, focus should be placed on providing enterprise-level infrastructure for autonomy programs across DOD. What past autonomy programs have taught us is that data collection, labeling, DevOps — the software infrastructure— is the most critical part of autonomy programs. Adding delivery pressure to programs focused on platform capability to solve this infrastructure problem in-house will limit the scope and effectiveness of these programs. In fact, requiring individual programs to absorb infrastructure costs and implementation challenges could result in either lack of data libraries, duplicative efforts to create environments, GOTS software development that does not provide production-grade tools, or all of the above.
Here, CDAO, tightly coupled with industry, could work across the Department to provide autonomy efforts access to a host of “best-of-breed capabilities through an enterprise pipeline,”such as multi-tenant cloud environments, sensor data repositories, data labeling and curation, T&EVV consultation, and commercial testing tools. Rather than implementing new standards or policies, or developing autonomy software itself, CDAO could build the autonomy enterprise platform to provide a DevOps environment to bring service and joint-level autonomy programs, commercial partners, international partners, and T&E together.
Evolution in Innovation Ecosystem
A robust pipeline for future technologies is critical to delivering and maintaining technological advantage. In the case of autonomy and robotics, decades of investment by DOD and industry partners has delivered on the goal of advancing from discovery to research, from technology development to prototyping, and from concept exploration to experimentation. Over time, pipelines for research, development, and experimentation forged between government and industry have successfully fostered knowledge products, technical solutions, and informed requirements. To ensure these hard fought successes are applied to capability at-scale, as envisioned by the Replicator initiative, a stakeholder evolution is called for now.
Until now key DOD stakeholder roles in autonomy and robotics development have been dispersed throughout the innovation ecosystem. The DOD has created an ecosystem of defense innovation labs, hubs, and centers to help bridge the technology innovation gap between private-sector firms and the U.S. military. There is recent indication that Congress will grant leadership of that ecosystem greater authority to deliver capability by means other than JCIDS. While there is sufficient authority in the existing DOD acquisition regulation to innovate, a focused entity empowered to oversee and drive the delivery of autonomy capability for future Warfighters is clearly needed. Such delivery leadership could be provided by CDAO, as a follow on to successes in the Replicator initiative 18 to 24 months from now.
The DOD innovation ecosystem has been the greatest conduit for newer non-traditional partners and VC-backed start-ups to engage the DOD. In addition to the challenge of defense innovation being disconnected from defense procurement, input from the operational user community within the combatant commands tends to be ad-hoc. In order to deliver capabilities, DOD leadership must transition the innovation ecosystem built to develop and mature autonomous systems technology into an “innovation adoption” enterprise to deliver autonomous systems capability, on the battlefield, at-scale. To accelerate innovation adoption, the CDAO could work with operational leaders and industry partners of all types to help inspire new concepts of operations that allow Service acquisition chiefs to integrate innovative capabilities at-scale.
Stakeholder Engagement on Autonomy
Based upon preliminary reports on Replicator, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) will seek to leverage the power of the innovation ecosystem to operationalize Replicator’s vision, with the Deputy Secretary and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff at the helm. Following a successful two-year Replicator effort, CDAO could step in to lead and advise a fresh set of key stakeholders from the acquisition and operational communities. CDAO could use ASAP Act intent as a framework to take on the long-term role of coordination between leadership in these communities to deliver, deploy and sustain autonomous systems capability at-scale on the battlefield, “between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.”
Ultimately, the difficult task of defining DOD requirements appropriately is made easier by finding ways, especially for the Services, to work with industry, early and often. Traditional industry partners have a long history of enhancing DOD progress in research, development and experimentation. More recently, innovations from commercially developed technologies have gained interest from the operational community seeking greater capability for future Warfighters. Smaller companies that do not traditionally do business with DOD and start-ups backed by venture capital (VC), are the leading developers of commercial innovations, from Starlink to Switchblades to commercial imagery.
Recently intensified DOD interest in innovation adoption focuses on answering the question of how to adopt, at-scale, innovations in commercial technology developed in the non-traditional and VC-backed commercial R&D sector for Warfighter capability. Accordingly, the Replicator initiative is envisioned to use commercial technologies, relying on “uplift and urgency from the commercial sector”. To provide Warfighter capability at-scale, acquisition stakeholders must be able to generate requirements that do not limit the ability of the commercial sector to bring to bear its full capability.