3D Printing & the Military: Advanced & Brittle

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The U.S. military is currently implementing 3D printing on a significant scale, focusing on areas such as maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO), hypersonics, and strengthening the industrial base. This technology is being adopted by every U.S. service. However, these substantial investments might be in vain if the U.S. produces expensive items that are less effective than the more cost-effective weaponry made by near-peer adversaries. Overall, I believe the US is missing an opportunity to solidify its military lead. Instead of reimagining its procurement processes, it might just be introducing a different kind of wasteful spending that the military is known for. Here, we will continue where we left off in the last post and explore more potentially squandered opportunities.

Squandered Opportunity 3: Replicator Everywhere

The container-size version of the WarpSpee3D, called the XSpee3D metal 3D printer from Spee3D, is deployable virtually anywhere.

 

The U.S. military’s Replicator initiative stands out as one of the most intriguing projects currently underway. It aims to produce thousands of drones at unprecedented speed across different domains. As a standalone effort, this is noteworthy and will offer the U.S. valuable insights into scaling up production of necessary equipment in urgent situations. However, there is potential for much more significant impact.

If the military redirected just 20% of its budget towards systems that manufacture rather than traditional vehicles and systems, it would make a world of difference. The U.S. military should invest in flexible factories that, using additive manufacturing along with water jetting, CNC, and other machine tools, could produce essential parts of most vehicles in an automated manner. Essentially, this would involve enabling the automated production of batteries, gearboxes, engines, control systems, and vision systems.

Subsequently, these factories could have different production lines for assembling these “drone hearts” into various forms such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), underwater drones, automated gun positions, or land vehicles. This approach would significantly extend beyond the Replicator initiative, granting the U.S. military the ability to produce vehicles close to the battlefield on a large scale. Additionally, it would allow for the crowdsourcing of war efforts and enable rapid iteration to adapt these expendable, affordable vehicles to local conditions and emerging threats, thereby providing the US with a strategic advantage.

Defense contractors would then focus on improving vehicle designs, components, and production lines that further automate the manufacturing process. This concept builds upon my previous idea of drone swarms to establish a system that creates manufacturing systems, essentially a factory for factories (see the 2015 video below for more on that idea). Such an approach is technically feasible today and should be pursued by the U.S. military.

Moreover, from a strategic standpoint, achieving superiority in additive manufacturing is crucial for the US to maintain its military lead. In contrast, China only needs to reach a comparable level in 3D printing to challenge the US in military capabilities. Therefore, the US must excel in additive technologies to preserve its advantage.

Squandered Opportunity 4: Brittle Spears

A Hezbollah drone

In our Brittle Spear series, we explored how modern technology is superior in terms of better safety, comfort, and power. However, the complexity of these new systems and devices comes with significant drawbacks. They consist of more materials and parts sourced globally and are accompanied by firmware, software, and a wider range of components. Consequently, while one could potentially maintain a car from the 1950s indefinitely with basic tools and elbow grease, sustaining a modern car for several decades poses challenges due to the necessity for specialized parts, firmware, software, and training from the manufacturer.

If we aim for robust, reliable, and durable technology suitable for austere environments, we should consider manufacturing items as they did a century ago. Products made from single materials, heavy, nearly indestructible, and straightforward to repair and enhance, would be ideal. Currently, the U.S. is producing high-tech, sophisticated, but expensive and fragile, iPhone-like weaponry. Instead, it should focus on developing factories capable of creating systems for warfare. Alongside facilities for advanced technology, it should also have those that manufacture more robust, less technologically advanced, and cheaper equipment for use by both the US and its allies.

The U.S. cannot afford to use a $1 million missile to take down a $700 drone or a $300 million UAV to destroy a $20,000 vehicle. It requires weapons that can be produced in large quantities to match those made more cost-effectively by others. Advanced equipment could then decisively tip the scales in the U.S.’s favor. A balance between robust, inexpensive vehicles and high-tech ones would enable the U.S. to counteract swarms and large numbers of enemy vehicles while maintaining its technological edge.

Squandered Opportunity 5: Hand Me Downs

US M1 Abrams Tank

Russia is currently being held at bay in Ukraine, primarily with blood and the support of hand-me-downs from the U.S. military. The second best army in the world has been exposed as an inefficient sham, with Russian tactics criticized for relying heavily on artillery, large bombs, and human wave tactics, while also employing brutality. Nevertheless, massed dumb artillery turning cities to rubble is working for Russia to a certain extent.

U.S. hand-me-downs, consisting of older equipment, even though costly, have not been sufficient to meet all of Ukraine’s needs. Additionally, there is concern about older US-designed aircraft potentially falling into adversary hands.

For this it needs to also produce factories at scale that can make linebacker like weapons. Yes, the super shining Mahomes of the weapon world, the F35 will still rule the skies. But, what if the US could make a factory to make inexpensive Tomahawk cruise missiles? Not the lastest one, just a Block II weapon from the 1990´s? That would give allies a 2500 kilometer range and a formidable weapon. Or perhaps it could license another missile from an ally and automate the production of the Taiwanese Hsiung Feng missile or the Turkish Atmaca. If that is too uncomfortable then perhaps the US could make an automated factory making the Burkan 3 which has a 1200 kilometer range and is currently being used by the Houthis to target cargo ships. These Scud derived missiles are easily intercepted by contemporary air defenses but cost around $20,000 to manufacture. Imagine if you automated it with a laser cell, welding robots and more. You don´t have to worry about the enemy getting access to this technology, because they already have it! Of course it wouldn´t work against enemy ships but it could take out an enemy tank or trench. In a war currently being fought with 155mm guns and trenches a lot of these missiles would stop assaults or determine the future of battles.

Even if the US implements additive well, I fear that they will not go far enough. To revitalize procurement and then it to make factories that make factories will to be be a path to victory. This victory will be even more likely if the US built more linebackers and less quarterbacks. Inexpensive robust weapons would augment its current high tech kit to defend the US and its allies effectively against a rising tide of autocracies.

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