As we discuss in our ongoing 3D Printing Drone Swarms series, additive manufacturing (AM) will play an increasing role in the production of all manner of semi-sentient robots. This has been demonstrated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being made in part with 3D printing for lightweight, custom designs. For this reason, we expect AM to be used for other drone-style bots as well, often for military purposes. We are also not advocating for the use of 3D printing for the manufacturing of weapons or military equipment, but are highlighting this as a likely inevitability.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and Ukraine’s surprisingly robust defense against this invasion—have both been heavily facilitated by the rise of drone warfare over the prior two decades. Already born out in Nagorno-Karabakh and through turning the tide in Ethiopia, drones have quickly gone from a curiosity and observation tool to a war winner, as we’ve surmised before. In our Drone Swarms series we’ve detailed how 3D printing has a role to play in the future of war, specifically through manufacturing drones in the broadest sense. Additive manufacturing (AM) are an oft-used technology in automated military vehicles, making everything from fuel tanks to wings and chassis components. 3D printing can be used to quickly adapt unmanned craft to local conditions and change them to be more survivable on the battlefield. More specific versions of drones can be made and adapted quickly to become better at war fighting.
Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a UAV revolution in which unmanned craft have become near the top of every commander and planner’s wish list. In the beginning, we were told that drones would usher in higher precision war with fewer civilian casualties, while others worried that they would lead to more casualties since countries could engage in conflict without worrying about the negative publicity of its own soldiers getting killed and captured.
The latter group seems to have issued prescient warnings, especially given the U.S. record in killing civilians with drones. The former group could be considered to have been far too optimistic in the UAV’s ability to reduce the civilian death toll of war. But, the precision of drones is one feature that is helping them to punch above their weight. Drones can inexpensively be used to patrol and strike at a particular target. Loitering munitions are a very cost effective example of that.
In previous conflicts, drones have tipped the balance between opposing parties that were once evenly matched. Now in Ukraine ,it may change the balance of a conflict in a new way. We’ve previously discussed sea-borne drones, such as AI-powered ships and how we can 3D print wolf packs to overwhelm and target much larger surface ships. In May of 2021, we also looked at why the U.S. is 3D printing boat hulls.
Essentially, our conclusions back then were that a lot of pleasure and small military boats were made in fiberglass on molds by hand. 3D printing boat hulls would allow for automated production of a large part of these craft, saving costs and allowing for stocks to be replenished in war. The U.S. has demonstrated 90% cost reductions when 3D printing composite boat hulls and the process is eminently scalable.
Now these autonomous ships are going to war. The U.S. has announced that it is providing autonomous unscrewed surface vessels to Ukraine. These vessels are meant to help Ukraine with “coastal defense” and it is theorized that they could help dissuade Russia from launching amphibious assaults. Currently, Russia rules the sea and uses surface ships and submarines to launch cruise missiles at Ukraine. Ukraine has no hope of successfully using its meager naval resources in a denied area filled with Russian ships. Crewless drones on the other hand do provide a chance to enter a vessel that can be expendable into the dangerous sea. At the same time they can act as a sensor platform, observation platform and make Russia more cautious in its activities on the Black Sea.
A curiosity in a laundry list of weapons given to Ukraine, this may seem like small beans compared to Howitzers and other weapons. However, this is an incredibly significant move. Russia should have near unrestricted access and dominion over the Black Sea. Due to the specter of these drones, however, it does not. It would take many millions of dollars in funds and thousands of individuals on conventional ships to make Russia worry about its position in the Black Sea. It would also take many months of training for Ukrainian sailors to learn to operate the high tech Christmas trees that are contemporary frigates and other warships. It would take many years to build new surface ships as well.
With conventional weapons, there is no solution or path to a solution whereby Ukraine would be a credible threat to the Russian Navy. But, with these new expendable drones, it is. All other solutions would be too slow or too expensive. Ukraine’s success with UAVs is also spreading a chilling effect, whereby Russia could now be cautious about these untested sea drones as well just because they are drones and unknowns. In terms of the millions spent and the forces put on alert by these things, before they’re even good and ready, they’re already very effective.
Far from only having a completely altruistic love for the people of Ukraine in particular and democracy in general, Western nations seem keep to test out some their latest kit up against Russia. There is also a marketing element here whereby governments and firms seem keen to promote their national weapons. Against this backdrop, these autonomous craft can be seen as a fanciful or hopeful ploy.
However, this is obscuring the most important element of the un-crewed surface vessels sent to Ukraine. If their hulls are produced with 3D printing, and we cannot be sure of this, they could be replenished quickly. If ineffective, they could be improved quickly. They could even be produced quite quickly in Poland or Turkey close to the battle. Most importantly the US could scale production of these craft quickly though scaling the production of large format composites 3D printers that could then spit out these craft. The US couldn’t all of a sudden build thousands of new surface ships quickly. But, it could build tens of thousands of these craft in short order should it need to.
So, they wouldn’t actually have to be very good to have an outsized impact. The U.S. could flood a battlefield with these vessels and just use them as cannon fodder to distract and keep the Russians occupied. Once in a while they could sink a Russian craft or impede a Russian mission and they’d still be effective. What we’re seeing here is the ability to resupply craft quickly but encapsulated within this is the potential to scale these things cost effectively and quickly. With that the Ukrainians could deliver a body blow to the Russian navy for cents on the dollar.
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