3D Printing & the Military: Stingers & Tigers


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As stated in the first part of this series, the U.S. military appears committed to extensively employing 3D printing in the enhancement, maintenance, extension, and improvement of its arsenal and equipment. The applications of additive manufacturing (AM) within the U.S. military are broad-ranging and will likely play a pivotal role in shaping the future of warfare, from satellites to armor, missiles, and drones. However, considering the disproportionately high amount of money the U.S. spends on its military, there’s a lingering concern.

It’s possible that the U.S. might always possess the most sophisticated and advanced Kit but could be overpaying for it. Despite having the best-trained and equipped troops, the U.S. might struggle to overcome a delaying action by an entrenched enemy equipped with far less sophisticated but much cheaper equipment. This situation could lead to the U.S. being affected by the Innovator’s Dilemma, where “good enough” technological solutions could displace its expensive arsenal or render it ineffective.

Alternatively, the US might find itself outpaced in areas where it traditionally leads, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Other countries might achieve supremacy through alternative means, such as mass-producing consumer drones, a scenario exemplified by China’s DJI dominating the consumer drone market, while the U.S. maintains superiority in global reach UAVs. Moreover, Turkey’s Bayraktar drones, which are affordable anti-armor UAVs viewed as game-changers by many nations, highlight another aspect of this challenge. Consequently, the U.S. risks focusing on making Rolls Royces, only to be disrupted by bicycles and Ford F-150s.

Bicycles and Rolls Royces

This scenario suggests that the U.S. might possess 100 exceptionally advanced drones, while an adversary or near-peer could field 1,000 more affordable ones. At the platoon level, the Chinese military could potentially dominate, leveraging its capacity to produce and deploy technology on a massive scale. It’s hard to envision how the U.S. could compete with companies like DJI and its counterparts in manufacturing both superior and more numerous drones for individual warfighters. There’s a concern that the U.S. might not be able to produce small arms for its soldiers as efficiently or cost-effectively as others could. In a potential future conflict, every Chinese soldier might have access to an inexpensive drone for tasks like mini overwatch, scouting around corners, or bombing an emplacement, whereas a U.S. squad might only have access to a $300,000 drone that performs better but is used less frequently.

The implications extend further when considering the impact of electric mobility on modern warfare. Electric motorcycles, quads, and dune buggies, which can operate silently in hybrid or battery mode, are transforming reconnaissance and small unit missions with their stealth capabilities, with dune buggies also acting as long-range gun platforms. Who is best placed to equip its troops with tens of thousands of these battery or hybrid-powered vehicles? The Chinese military, of course. Similarly, when it comes to nighttime optics, communications gear, and devices like rangefinders, the Chinese economy seems better suited to produce and distribute these items more efficiently.

Tooling, Plastics, Medicines

Autoclave tooling representing the shape of car door, photo Credits: Airtech

As the world’s industrial base shifts to the East, Europe and the U.S. are experiencing a decline in their manufacturing capabilities. This includes a dependency on external sources for tooling, manufacturing engineering, and the production of polymers, among other essentials. Notably, the production of many chemicals for medicines and the base medicines themselves is no longer a domestic capability in these regions. The “Workshop to the World” approach adopted by China has significantly entrenched manufacturing within its borders.

It’s crucial to remember a time when the Soviet Union and its allies struggled to produce personal computers or the necessary chips. This is a stark difference from the global capitalist system that managed to place personal computers on teachers’ desks, while the Soviets couldn’t supply them to their nuclear engineers in any significant number. This period marked a transition into the computer age, underscored by the adoption of CAD and digital manufacturing techniques. While the Soviet Union excelled in the era of slide rules, matching the intellectual capabilities of its Western counterparts, the advent of affordable computing in the West served as a force multiplier that significantly disadvantaged the Soviets in various fields, from encryption to engineering, effectively sealing the fate of the U.S.S.R. in any potential future conflict.

The technological rivalry now seems to favor China, potentially best positioned to advance in areas such as machine vision, wearable computing, and ubiquitous sensing platforms. At one point the Soviets could make supercomputers but a switch to digital meant that the U.S.S.R. lagged in semiconductor and production to the point where the nation was unable to see computing technology make a significant impact on its society. The inability to keep pace with these technological advances played a significant role in the Soviet decision to open up under Gorbachev, driven by the realization of their inevitable defeat in any conventional future conflict, leaving nuclear options as their only viable response.


The Soviet experience in Afghanistan revealed to them that a simple U.S. missile, the Stinger, requiring minimal training and provided in increments to the mujahideen, could completely neutralize Soviet air power. The U.S. contributed approximately $3 billion in funding to the mujahideen. In conventional warfare, this meant that the Soviets had to acknowledge the capability of the US, where the efforts of a single House of Representatives member and some adventurous CIA personnel could effectively dismantle their air power as a fun side gig. It wasn’t merely that the US negated Soviet air power; they did so with relative ease and for a minimal cost. The conventional wisdom derived from Afghanistan was that, in a head-to-head confrontation, the Soviet Union would be at a significant disadvantage against the US.

Fast-forwarding a few decades, the United States invaded Afghanistan, known as the “Graveyard of Empires.” Over a two-decade conflict, the U.S. and its coalition suffered 3,500 deaths, while there were 3,900 contractor fatalities, 66,000 Afghan ally deaths, and 46,000 civilian casualties. The US expenditure on the war exceeded $2 trillion, a staggering amount indicating a significant reassessment. In the 1970s through the late 1980s, the US possessed cost-effective, war-winning technology. For the equivalent of $120,000 in today’s dollars, individuals with donkeys and determination could neutralize the Soviet Air Force. However, by the 2000s, billion-dollar aircraft dropping million-dollar missiles failed to defeat the descendants of those same Mujahideen. With an annual expenditure exceeding $100 billion for a country of 40 million, the US was spending seven times Afghanistan’s GDP per year on military operations.

The Refrain

Despite this evidence, like a Greek chorus, members within the US defense community consistently argue that superior equipment and training will prevail in a conflict between nearly equal powers. Well, there’s a problem with that. In the Second World War, the best-trained tank crews, consistently throughout the conflict, were the Germans. The German infantry was better trained as well:

¨On a man for man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances.¨

German tanks were indeed superior at almost all stages of the war. However, the Russians and the U.S. were able to produce a significantly higher number of simpler tanks than the Germans. The sheer numbers of Russian, Canadian, and American forces eventually overwhelmed the German defenses. The precision machine tools, long supply chains, and various precision components necessary for producing the best tanks were severely disrupted under the weight of Allied bombings. Although many consider the German Tiger II tank to be the best of the war, only 500 of them were manufactured. At the Battle of Kursk, the Germans deployed around 2,400 tanks, losing about half. Of these, 146 were the also excellent Tiger I tanks. The Germans suffered 165,314 casualties at Kursk, compared to the Russians’ 600,000. While these figures are substantial, they weren’t sufficient. The war’s demands for tanks and manpower outpaced what the Germans could replace. Today, the U.S. possesses the most well-funded and best-trained military in the world, but history suggests that this alone may not be enough.

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