3D printing and the future of warfare

Imagine 20 years from now U.S. soldiers establish a combat outpost deep inside territory surrounded by people who are less than friendly. In past decades, resupplying this outpost would have meant risky and expensive flights or ground convoys escorted by troops or helicopter gunships. Now, however, unmanned, armored supply trucks and choppers run beans and ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Imagine 20 years from now U.S. soldiers establish a combat outpost deep inside territory surrounded by people who are less than friendly. In past decades, resupplying this outpost would have meant risky and expensive flights or ground convoys escorted by troops or helicopter gunships. Now, however, unmanned, armored supply trucks and choppers run beans and bullets to the remote base while spare parts and other hardware is fabricated on site using a 3D printer.

As the United States shifts its military focus toward the Pacific while drawing troops back to the United States from bases in Europe, the Army recognizes that it will need to become lighter and more flexible in how it sustains itself due to the likely expeditionary nature of a conflict in the Pacific -- a region where distances are vast and American forces may find themselves fighting out of scattered facilities that are much more bare bones than it is used to.

To that end, Army officials are looking at a future where whole convoys of unmanned trucks (or possibly choppers) inspired by Google's self-driving cars replenish forward bases. What can't be, or doesn't need to be, shipped in will be made in the field by troops using 3D printers.

Imagine 20 years from now U.S. soldiers establish a combat outpost deep inside territory surrounded by people who are less than friendly. In past decades, resupplying this outpost would have meant risky and expensive flights or ground convoys escorted by troops or helicopter gunships. Now, however, unmanned, armored supply trucks and choppers run beans and bullets to the remote base while spare parts and other hardware is fabricated on site using a 3D printer.

As the United States shifts its military focus toward the Pacific while drawing troops back to the United States from bases in Europe, the Army recognizes that it will need to become lighter and more flexible in how it sustains itself due to the likely expeditionary nature of a conflict in the Pacific — a region where distances are vast and American forces may find themselves fighting out of scattered facilities that are much more bare bones than it is used to.

To that end, Army officials are looking at a future where whole convoys of unmanned trucks (or possibly choppers) inspired by Google’s self-driving cars replenish forward bases. What can’t be, or doesn’t need to be, shipped in will be made in the field by troops using 3D printers.

"We have a requirement to be an expeditionary army," said Col. Kevin Felix, chief of the Future Warfare Division at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command during a Dec. 14 interview with Killer Apps. "In order to be an expeditionary army you have to have a level of global agility. In order to do that . . . you’ve got to be able to sustain yourself."

Felix and a number of academics, military officers, government scientists, spies and even science fiction writers recently got together at something called the Strategic Trends Seminar and looked at, among other things, trends in manufacturing and tech that could help the Army become lighter and faster.

"Google has self-driving cars, so if you can project that, which exists today, to 20 years from now and" imagine where such technology will be, said Felix. "Then take another idea, the maturation of 3D printing and you look downstream from those two [ideas], you could see a force that could reduce its footprint from a sustainment perspective and keep more soldiers out of harms way in terms of resupply operations by [using] GPS-guided supply convoys . . . and they could produce and print out their own parts as required."

It’s worth noting that 3D printers can already produce guns that can fire six shots,  who knows where this technology will be in 20 years.

The Strategic Trends Seminar is an Army conference aimed at predicting what the Army needs to do to prepare itself to fight around the year 2030. (Strategic Trends is part of the service’s ongoing larger effort, Unified Quest, that the service uses to predict as much as possible about the future. These predictions help guide the Army’s super long-range planning.)

In addition to self-driving resupply vehicles, something that the Army and Marines are already experimenting with in Afghanistan, both on the ground and in the air, the attendees at the Strategic Trends conference identified the fact that Army vehicles will need to become much, much lighter if they are going to be deployed around the globe quickly.

"What we’re looking for is an order of magnitude improvement in capabilities. We’ve got to get a 70 ton vehicle down to 20 tons, or something much less than 70," said Felix.

The same applies to things like communications gear that troops deploy with.

"When you go out to the field now and see a company commander, he’s enabled with all kinds of communications gear. Well, he needs a whole truck to move it around the battlefield; he can’t just ruck up and put it on his back, so there’s a requirement to enable" him to do that, said Felix.

Don’t tell all this to the Marine Corps, which bills itself as the United States’ "middleweight force," ready to fight anywhere around the world at a moment’s notice rather than "a second land army." Commandant Gen. James Amos has famously been pushing for the Corps to adopt gear that is much lighter in order to facilitate the service’s expeditionary role.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.