Concrete Dreams: 3D Printing for Military Construction Enables New Tactics

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The US military has invested considerably in construction 3D printing. The Army in particular seems like it wants to develop recipes of local concrete mixes from all over the world, standardize procedures, and qualify parts. The Army has looked into swarm 3D printing, making better concrete and even hempcrete. Most of its public efforts focus on the obvious such as barracks.

In a previous article in this series, we looked at the public ways in which the military is exploring additive construction. The motivators include a reduction in goods to transport, less waste, less energy, less people on site, fewer soldiers needed at frontline bases, and an overall reduction in cost. But, besides these more apparent reasons why the US military would wish to adopt 3D printing for barracks and the like, there are other less evident benefits that additive construction could have for the military. Let’s look at some tactics and options that the armed forces would have if they were to deploy truly automated construction 3D printing in a robust way.

No Casualties Drone Base

A closer look at a completed section. (Image: Sarah Saunders for

Chabbeley Airfield in Djibouti serves to launch US Reaper and other drones across the Horn of Africa. It is an important part of a lighter-touch but still heavy-hitting US military that is reliant on drones to reduce U.S. casualties. Djibuti is receptive to the US, but far from a safe place for personnel to R&R, which is precisely why its an important place to have a drone base. Indeed, in 2014 there was an attack on a cafe there targeting service people and Westerners.

It may surprise you to know that this important but relatively unknown base got a $39.5 million cafeteria around 2020. What’s more, the RFQ process used to build the dining room shows you its location and that the dining hall seats 176—details that would be useful to those wishing harm on the base´s occupants. Earlier, 20 vehicles had to be hired to improve a runway and roads.

Nearby Camp Lemonier has around 1,000 staff, a Wikipedia page, and one on Facebook too. Lemonier also supports ground forces, probably special forces and air operations for the region, and the rent alone is $77 million a year.

I wouldn’t sleep very well if I were in charge of the security of either location. If the US wishes to project its drone power globally, then, in some cases, vehicles operated form the US would be better but they would be slower to get on site and supporting them would be expensive. Rearming would take a long time as well, while refueling would be in the air and, thus, expensive.

All in all, this setup is an expensive one that few other militaries could replicate. The Chinese and Japanese bases nearby are testimony to some truly amazing diplomacy on the part of Djibouti, but also more modest goals. Having said that, the Chinese base cost over $590 million to build. Let’s imagine a base with a much more modest contingent:

  • No airmen, no para rescue, very little force protection at all. Just the minimum viable number of mechanics and some marines to protect them. Less force protection will reduce costs considerably.
  • No cafeteria and less food
  • Less energy needed for people, thus low fuel use
  • Not 12 hectares, like the Japanese base but just one hectare for example. Fewer structures and less area to further cut costs

Meanwhile, drones would be responsive, but could put fewer US personnel at risk. Instead of just one base or six across the region it could put in 60 at the same cost and lower risk. It could also abandon them and pivot to new areas more quickly. One of the key enablers for that to happen? To let semi-automated 3D printing equipment build, repair, and upgrade the base continually with little human intervention.

Forward Operating Base in a Box

Early morning skies bleed purple as a container wafts down to a hard landing on the desert floor. Out pops an autonomous mobile construction robot. It builds a base under the watchful eye of a satellite. Foundations and then buildings are constructed. Fortifications are made. There are no soldiers in this contested area. Indeed, given the almost featherlight footprint, no one even may know it is there. But, when the special forces unit deploys to the base, it has mortar pits, dwellings, trenches, a helipad, and a basic runway. This small base can be built without having anyone there and abandoned quickly as well. This would allow a safer and quicker creation of hard points in advance of troops.

Bridges for Crossing

A contested river is difficult to cross. Only a few bridging vehicles can exist in the area, meaning that units would be slow to cross and it would take time to cross enough troops to establish a bridgehead. Also, by locating the bridging vehicles, crossing points could be easily guessed. In a safe, but close area, ten bridges could be made that can be moved into place using tanks of other vehicles. The crossing point would now less known and troops could cross more quickly.

This article illustrates just some of the possibilities that 3D printed construction would provide for the military, but there are still more. Check back for the next article in this series.

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