The Complex

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 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.

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