AMS Spring 2023

In Standoff with China in Ladakh, Indian Army to 3D Print Shelters

6K SmarTech

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On the border between India and China, the two military powers have, in recent years, increased the buildup of their respective capabilities for armed conflict. Now, according to Indian news reports, the Indian army aims to deploy 3D printing to construct shelters for its forces, heralding a new era in war-fighting technology.

The Line of Actual Control

The line of actual control (LAC) is a term that has been used for over 60 years to refer to the imaginary boundary separating the Indian and Chinese borders. Since 1993, India and China have made a series of formal agreements with one another related to preventing each side’s patrol of the border from escalating into armed conflict.

Nevertheless, in the past few years, the increasing political tension between the two nations has led to a drastic intensification of military buildup on both sides of the LAC. The locale where the potential for confrontation is perhaps most acute is in eastern Ladakh, where the standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries is now heading into its third consecutive winter.

India’s Military Construction 3D Printing

Now, the Indian army is wants to deploy printed shelters along the LAC. The structures were designed by India’s Military Engineering Services (MES), in collaboration with additive construction (AC) startups — including some from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) at Gandhinagar and Madras. This buildup has been in the works for some time. Earlier in 2022, Tvasta, an AC startup that began in an incubator at IIT-Madras, partnered with the Indian Air Force’s South Western Air Command to build the Indian military’s first printed shelters, which were about 700 square feet and took around a month to finish.

Shelter built by the Indian Air Force earlier this year. Image courtesy of Livemint.com

In my post about those shelters, I mentioned the inherent value in the Indian military’s acquiring the ability to print concrete, for precisely the context in which India is currently preparing to apply the technology: “The Indian military serves in some of the planet’s most hostile terrain, such as Eastern Ladakh. There, winter temperatures drop as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Yet, India and China have been in a standoff with one another for over two years. Indian forces in Ladakh spent much of the fall of 2020 building living accommodations that, at the time at least, were meant to be temporary. Therefore, the ability to construct military accommodations quickly could be beneficial.”

According to an article in the Indian publication Business Line about the printed dwellings, the MES hopes that the Indian Army will finish deploying the printed shelters some time next summer, throughout various forward operating areas of the LAC, as well as along India’s international border. According to sources from the nation’s defense establishment, India’s strengthening AC capabilities are expected to allow its military to build housing and matériel storage for up to 22,000 troops.

Military Interest in Construction 3D Printing

Despite its being perceived as far more of a moonshot than even the rest of the additive manufacturing (AM) sector, military interest in the AC market segment has increased at a steady pace over the last few years. By 2019, the US military was already working with AC startup ICON to print small shelters which, at the time, were said to be in development for use as “vehicle hide structures”.

“Vehicle hide structures”, developed by the US Army and ICON. Image courtesy of ICON

On the other hand, those particular structures were strikingly similar to early versions of what Tvasta and the Indian military ultimately came up with. Moreover, Tvasta has received funding from nonprofit, and AC proponent, Habitat for Humanity, which suggests at least a realistic possibility that the US is funneling advanced construction technology into India. Although the latter isn’t officially a US military ally, the overlap between American and Indian defense infrastructure has nonetheless become more formalized, and has grown in terms of its significance to both countries, over the last decade: and, especially, since the Trump administration.

Printed runway hut, image courtesy of Asian News International

Finally, this is far from the only recent example in which AC has been utilized in a battlefield context. In addition to the Indian military’s having used the technology to build airport runway huts in September, construction printing also made its first publicized appearance in the Ukraine conflict last month, under the auspices of building a school. It seems not coincidental, however, that shortly after that project was announced, Ukrainian soldiers also began building concrete walls along the Belarusian border, in an effort to deter the movement of Russian troops. Although AC was not mentioned in stories about the walls, the timing, along with the rapidity with which the construction efforts seem to be taking place, suggests that it very well may be a part of the operation.

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