AeroVironment’s Switchblade-600 is a 50-pound drone that can fly more than 24 miles.

AeroVironment’s Switchblade-600 is a 50-pound drone that can fly more than 24 miles. (AeroVironment Inc./TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has sent Congress a classified request to shift $300 million in funds to speed development and purchasing of its first Replicator drones, an effort to field thousands of pilotless aircraft to counter Chinese capabilities by August 2025.

This initial request to reprogram funding previously approved for other purposes, which must be approved by all four congressional defense committees, reflects the Defense Department’s determination to show unaccustomed agility in developing a new armada of air, sea and sub-surface drones. The unmanned aircraft have become everyday weapons, from the war in Ukraine to the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

Contractors whose drones are selected will see millions of dollars in increased sales as the department plans to scale production to meet its ambitious goals with the additional request to reprogram funds.

“We hope they will act quickly, which will allow us to ramp up and accelerate production on Replicator capabilities,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. Asked why the request was classified, he said “we are taking a careful approach of what information we reveal” and will do so “if it makes sense in the context of our operational needs.”

Aditi Kumar, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, which is managing Replicator and working with industry, said this week at a forum that “we will be very selective about how we talk about those capabilities publicly.” The innovation unit, based in California’s Silicon Valley, is working to tap into the talents of tech companies rather than relying solely on the Defense Department’s usual contracting giants.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who is spearheading the Replicator initiative, said last year that the Defense Department, known for programs that consume billions of dollars and years of planning, won’t create a new bureaucracy for Replicator “and we will not be asking for new money” in fiscal 2024. Thus the request to repurpose dollars approved for fiscal 2023 programs.

Among initial candidates that will benefit from a shift of fiscal 2023 funds is the Switchblade 600, according to a U.S. official. The 50-pound model, produced by AeroVironment Inc., a Simi Valley, California-based company, can fly more than 24 miles and loiter 40 minutes before attacking with an anti-armor warhead.

The drone operator uses a tablet-based touchscreen fire-control system with the option to pilot the loitering missile manually. The weapon has been been used by Ukraine to destroy Russian targets.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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