The Pentagon released its clearest picture yet of Replicator, an ambitious program to field thousands of drones by next August.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the goal late last summer. In the eight or so months since, there‘s been scant details on how it would be funded and what exactly would be procured.

Hicks partially answered both questions with a statement Monday, saying that the first items in Replicator’s shopping cart would include AeroVironment’s Switchblade-600 loitering munition, a batch of uncrewed surface vehicles and another unspecified set of counter-drone systems.

The maritime vehicles are a part of a solicitation from the Defense Innovation Unit — a Pentagon group that scouts high-tech weaponry — published this year. These production-ready, inexpensive, maritime expeditionary, or PRIME, systems are meant to transit hundreds of miles, wait for a target and then intercept it. The Pentagon will award “several” contracts for the drone this summer, according to the statement.

The PRIME contract relies on an authority that makes it easier for the Defense Department to work with commercial companies, and which it used often to buy protective gear during the coronavirus pandemic.

Two senior defense officials, briefing reporters Sunday on the condition of anonymity, would not describe Replicator systems in further detail. The statement said other maritime and counter-drone systems in this first buy were classified.

The second question to this point has been funding. Earlier this year, Hicks said the program would split $1 billion between fiscal years 2024 and 2025. The total for FY24 would come from a $300 million reprogramming request — essentially getting Congress’ permission to move around existing money — and another $200 million the Pentagon had already secured.

On the call Sunday, one of the defense officials said some of the $200 million bucket comes from money left around from previous years and some of it comes from separate reprogramming requests, which the military services are now sending Congress. There’s also money in the massive national security supplemental passed in April that could aid Replicator.

“It gives us some optionality,” the official said of that new bill.

The $500 million for FY25 won’t involve shifting money around. It’s included in the Pentagon’s budget request, rolled out this March, but not on a specified line.

Replicator overall has two goals. The first is to fast-track these drones with a focus on countering China. And the second is to learn a new way of business for the Pentagon, one future leaders can repeat to rush in other systems.

Both goals, according to the defense officials, are moving according to plan. They wouldn’t share dollar figures, nor the number of systems being purchased in this round — meant to be one of many before next August.

For this first batch of systems, the second defense official said that the Pentagon increased manufacturing capacity “three-to-eight times.”

The officials didn’t say when there would be a second round of buys for Replicator but did say the next systems will likely feature similar sorts of drones, software and “enablers,” such as command and control and autonomy.

The goal, said the first defense official is to make sure not only that the Pentagon can meet its purchasing goals but also make sure the systems are ready when they arrive. To that end, the Defense Department is developing concepts of operation, gathering data, and reviewing the systems to make sure they meet the Pentagon’s ethical and policy guidelines, said the first official.

They’re also working with Congress, where some lawmakers have been frustrated at the scarcity of details surrounding the program. The officials said that so far they’ve held 30 “engagements” about the program with Capitol Hill, along with more one-on-one meetings.

“We’re still learning,” the first official said. “Replicator is about pushing the boundaries.”

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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