For the first time, Pentagon officials on Monday estimated the cost of Replicator, a program to field thousands of drones before August 2025 to counter China.

While briefing reporters on the Pentagon’s new budget request, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said her signature initiative would cost a planned $1 billion, divided evenly between fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

Hicks debuted Replicator in August. The goal is to field thousands of drones while at the same time honing a process to do it all over again for other tech in the future. In her briefing, Hick emphasized that second aim, noting the first round of the program is intended to help the military services innovate faster and in larger numbers.

Whatever programs follow early Replicator work will likely require additional funding, she said.

“It is my fervent view that [the] follow-on to that is a significant investment potential that is not about Replicator,” she said. “That is about what the services are going to be able to do on autonomy once we’re able to lower those barriers through that initial investment.”

Just after Hicks finished speaking, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord detailed how the department might get the $1 billion.

There are two options. First, Congress could include the first $500 million in its long-delayed FY24 Pentagon budget. Working toward this goal, McCord said, Hicks has been speaking with the defense committees on Capitol Hill.

The backup plan, McCord said, is a reprogramming request — in which the Pentagon asks the defense committees for permission to shift money around in its budget.

In FY25, the $500 million for Replicator is already in the budget. McCord, though, did not say where that money is, other than to say it’s classified.

In a briefing Friday, Rear Adm. Ben Reynolds, the Navy’s budget deputy, told reporters multiple times the service’s request includes funding for Replicator projects.

Days after the briefing, a spokesman from the service issued a correction. Reynolds, it said, “conflated” money intended for other projects with money for Replicator.

“We are not currently discussing specific numbers associated with Replicator,” the correction read.

The Army in a separate briefing with reporters wouldn’t comment on its share of the program. And an Air Force spokesperson confirmed the service wouldn’t be spending any money on it in the coming fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s overall budget slides say “Replicator does not have a specific funding line,” though “the FY 2025 Budget includes resources to boost the number of Replicator investments.”

This followed a page focused on other Pentagon innovation programs — each listing a specific dollar figure.

The Pentagon’s stated reason for its ambiguity around the program is that it doesn’t want China to know what it’s up to. Some in Congress and the defense industry have criticized that ambiguity, saying it’s not yet clear whether Replicator is more than a good idea with ambitious goals.

McCord said that posture will likely stay the same for now.

“We’re leaning on the side of not disclosing the details until we are confident that that’s what the deputy secretary wants to do,” he said.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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