Friday, August 9, 2013

The Last of the Doughboys Talk About World War One While We Think About How 3D Printers May Change the Nature of Future Wars

Readers of WARN know that World War One has been my grognard topic of study for these last few years.

I started out with the Harlem Hellfighters, then watched Boardwalk Empire while jotting down notes about how great a resource that TV show is for understanding how race was made during the first part of the 20th century, and then kept reading more about the Great War.

I received a very good public education in high school; that education would have been much improved if we were taught something about how World War One helped to make the present. 

In keeping with my habit these last few weeks, here are a several "found topics" that I would like to share with all of you around the above theme for the weekend.

The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin is a great book which quite literally lets the veterans who fought in World War One speak to us. 

Other voices from the past can speak to us too. To point. African-Americans who were slaves in the 19th century can be heard here

Listening to the veterans of World War One speak touches me in a related way: have we forgotten the horrors of industrial warfare, just to have curiosity encourage us to fight on a mass scale as nation states again using technology that the iron mongers would like to see in action just to satisfy their own morbid curiosities and fatten their wallets?

In an era of unmanned aerial vehicles, resource scarcity, and lessons learned from fighting a counter-insurgency campaign for more than ten years in the Middle East, what will future wars look like for the United States? 

The public assumes American dominance on the battlefield; the experts know better given that her military has not fought a peer competitor in many, many, many years.

Wars, conflicts, battles, and engagements, of maneuver which feature coordinated armor, infantry, artillery, and integrated air support are not the past-present. They are the future. And the United States military is quite rusty in using those most basic of skills.

The book Fighting the Future War is a great read. It is a compilation of science fiction stories from the first three decades of the 20th century, and how their authors thought about "the future". Fighting the Future War contains stories about sentient robots, giant mecha, poison gas, electricity guns, and all manner of dystopic predictions. More than a few of the chapters resonate because of how useful they are for imagining our present 21st century.

3D printers are all of the rage among hobbyists, geeks, and first adopters who are trying to prepare themselves for a future of self-reliance in an era of resource scarcity. I remember first reading about 3D printers in Omni magazine while in elementary school. I was so impressed by how a fax machine-like device could "print" wrenches and other tools for researchers and explorers at the South and North poles. It was like Star Trek made real. 

We get old pretty fast, do we not? Such technology is now maturing. Just as it could help with space exploration, 3D printers will also complicate war-fighting by making logistics and supply chains much easier and simplified.

Writing for the Armed Forces Journal Lt. Commander Michael Llena highlights some of the possibilities:
Three-dimensional printing, a fast-moving technology that is still in its infancy, promises to upend the way we think about supply chains, sea basing and even maritime strategy. But it also requires us to think hard and carefully about the threats it enables and the vulnerabilities it introduces. 
As Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Neil Gershenfeld puts it, the revolutionary aspect of 3-D printing is that it allows us to make things into data and data back into things. For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one. Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3-D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary. 
Certainly, today’s ships and subs are not going to make everything they need on board, although it is tempting to imagine better uses for freed-up storage spaces. Today’s printers are generally limited to printing parts made of just one material, and variance is a big issue. But the development of multiple-material devices is well underway, and the technology is racing ahead. Perhaps closer at hand is a distributed global production network in which sailors and Marines send an email with a digital scan or design for a part they need and have it created at the nearest certified printer. 
Thinking bigger, the fleet might convert some Military Sealift Command ships into floating factories that can take print-on-demand orders from the battlegroup. 
The things that might be ordered go far beyond mere parts. Several university labs and at least one defense contractor have turned out UAVs comprised entirely of printed parts, excepting the motor and electronics. A Virginia Tech lab that started printing on a Friday had by Sunday completed an aircraft that could be folded up and stored in a backpack.
3D printers will also introduce their own challenges: how do you supply the resources necessary for those devices to keep functioning? Will that resource chain then become a target like any other, which protecting, will take more than the equivalent resources of what 3D printers can produce in terms of supply?

World War One was, like the Civil War on a smaller scale, an industrial war. What happens when relatively cheap technology like 3D printers are introduced?

3D printers would appear to be a force multiplier for both the attacker and the under-resourced defender if they are similarly equipped. 

World War One, quite literally, ate human beings alive. 

Could 3D printers and other related technology represent a similar paradigm shift that the general public and many war planners are not prepared for? And just how inaccurate are our predictions of future warfare more generally?


Vic78 said...

3d printers are a concern due to potential terrorism. We've got untraceable weapons out there and congress is bullshitting right now. Now's the time to at least address the issue before 3d printers are affordable.

Nation states will be more dependent on one another in the future. I see something like Perpetual Peace being a real possibility. I'm not going to say there won't be any fighting. We'll still have our terrorists to contend with. I can see terrorism coming from people that are shut out of the money game.

Resource scarcity doesn't concern me. We can use algae to make oil. I can see every country having large scale indoor farming. We'll have to adjust our economy because what's going on now can lead to civil wars. People aren't just going to go hungry. I believe we'll see more vision and intelligence from future leaders. If we don't, God bless.

DanF said...

Like Vic78, I see 3D printers as more of a domestic issue. When you can print a gun, any attempt at gun control becomes meaningless. I think most scanners and printers have a currency detection algorithm embedded in them. I'm not sure how or if this can be accomplished for printed gun parts, but it should be pursued.

The paradigm shift I think they represent is certainly there from a consumer angle. Instead of buying toys, you download a pattern. Need a screwdriver? A few extra cups and plates for a party? Print it. I won't be able to print an iPhone for a while, but printing electronic circuits is already a reality (

Between 3D printing and the huge strides being made in robotics, our economy will be radically different in thirty years.

chauncey devega said...

There was an article from the Army War College I believe that talked about 3d printers being used for logistics purposes and causing a total rethink of how forces are supplied. They then strategized about how 3d printers could be used to support insurgents, etc.

I don't know enough about how 3d printers scale up in terms of resource use. Do they "put out" to scale or do need more resources and energy than what they can produce?

chauncey devega said...

Very hopeful. We are running out of water and people are being concentrated in mega-cities. Plus, the resource race in the arctic and on the undersea continental shelves really scares me. So much potential for conflict. We haven't destroyed ourselves yet.

Maybe we will have your Startrek model of political economy in the future...fingers crossed.

George Smith said...

World War II ate people alive, too. The big differences were strategic and tactical air forces, more artillery and the full flower of the tank. Heartlands, primarily in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, China and North Africa became battlefields. Thirty miles beyond the north to south trench lines in WWI, the country and cities were unscathed although blockades imposed shortage and starvation. The nature of war waged by the US, close in, is not changed much by invention and this lies at the root of a long term American problem which is that war can be made with technology at no cost to the side which has it. This is not the case up close. If a nation's people, or tribes, refuse to give up, your technology won't make them unless you are willing to annihilate all of them. You can pick them off all you like with drones or remote tech but it doesn't end the war, it just makes sadism. Strategic bombing of cities with the express interest of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in WWII hardened the enemy in Germany. Relentless strategic and tactical bombing did not work in Vietnam. The model now is that the US spends a significant amount of its treasure on war-fighting machinery support, more than anyone else combined. In the face of this a lot of other countries, the sensible ones -- anyway, have pretty much abandoned competition although the national security industry press tries to persuade otherwise. 3D printed logistics, even if they come to fruition (and I have my doubts whether it will be economical in what's left of my lifetime) don't make a difference on the orders of magnitude change simply because the gap between what we have and any potential "they" is already so wide. The United States has a military strategy of bombing paupers which is structurally part of measuring what we have against what any potential adversary might have. Potential enemies in conventional war right now, are ants -- Iran, Syria, North Korea (even with it's so-called huge standing army), any country where the powers that be wish to sally into in Africa because of "terrorism." A war with China is hard to imagine because it would mean global economic ruin which the US could not escape, at least in the short term. The national security megaplex anticipated this twenty years ago and it invented a construct to explain how potential enemies would take down the US. This was the concept of assymetric attack, the exploitation of some alleged but always changing Achilles heel of American society. With al Qaeda, it was its claimed resilient leadership capable of springing up from everywhere, or an imagined belief that it would easily develop guerilla weapons of mass destruction. Now the common script is cyberwar. China or North Korea or Iran or some other nation with puny defense spending can use cyberattack to take down the entire (or segments of) the US infrastructure, as effectively as natural disasters. Of course, this too has taken a big hit from the Edward Snowden affair and the revelations of the Stuxnet virus used on Iran, which tell the observer that as in all else, the US has quietly built the biggest cyberwar-fighting capability in the world.

chauncey devega said...

Funny how things change and stay the same--distance from your enemy, hit them when they cannot hit you, fight on your own terms, and increasing the lethality of the projectiles you throw at the enemy.

Now we use jets and uav's when before we used spears.

Of course, WW2 ate people alive. It is interesting to see how technology caught up a bit more with the strategy and tactics. I was reading a book on the philosophy of war and strategy by the former sac in Yugoslavia. He observed that despite all of the technology at present, a general from WW2 or even WW1 with some coaching could get up to speed pretty fast.

The principles remain much the same. Now, war is very cheap for the American people which is a very very bad thing as a small percentage bear the burden of so many. War should be expensive and hurt so policy makers are not easily tempted. Are the American people ready for a real fight? What happens when the Chinese sink an American carrier...or whole battle group?

George Smith said...

Yeah, I agree believe part of the national security strategy was to get the majority of the American people out of it, deduced during Vietnam. That certainly made it seem cheap, particularly when coupled with the salve of reverence for all things military practiced on national days of memorial. Good question, what would happen if anyone got a hit on an aircraft carrier? Would there be an hysterical escalation to global annihilation? I'm sure the Chinese think about it. What happens if you're a new global power and you poke an irrational country with the biggest military in history too hard? I don't think it turns out like a Tom Clancy story.

DanF said...

You can print to actual size or whatever scale the printer is capable of. The devices are getting better for the field in that they are taking less energy to run and the consumables are becoming more varied (and less noxious), but the printers are still fairly fragile to move and pretty slow. I can see where having several specialized printers at a forward base would mean not having to pack and store a bunch of items on the off chance that you might need them - you just need a few 80 gallon jugs of Goop "A" and "B" and a generator and you have all the paper-clips, chairs, palettes, mugs, shower-heads, etc. you need.

The most common DIY way right now is extruding and layering where tiny bits of plastic are melted and layered in a precise way, but there are several other methods. I guess it comes down to whether a plastic printed shovel will work as well as steel shovel and can you print shell casings that won't destroy your weapon? And how fast can you churn this stuff out?

DanF said...

Absolutely. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars exceeded the length of our involvement in Vietnam, and protests have actually diminished over time. You don't get that if you have a draft on.

chauncey devega said...

Here is the big question. Is sinking a U.S. carrier considered attacking U.S. sovereign soil? Likewise,when the U.S. hits the Chinese mainland is that provocation to go nuclear?

The Sanity Inspector said...

The best description of World War One was written sixteen years before it started:

...everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle...
At first there will be great slaughter - increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will such a lesson that they will abandon the attempt for ever. Then, instead of a war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which, neither army being able to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening each other, but never able to deliver a final and decisive attack.
-- Jean de Bloch, The Future of War, 1898

George Smith said...

Practically speaking, I bet it does because it compels a huge reprisal. The Chinese nuclear arsenal would be the only deterrent to a US campaign against its infrastructure, navy or air force.

The Sanity Inspector said...

As for war and the time machine-like properties of the internet, we are currently living through the bicentennial years of the War Of 1812. The last veteran of that war died in 1905. His funeral procession may be viewed here.

RepubAnon said...

The impact of 3D printers is overblown. Yes, it will make logistics easier, and avoid inventory issues - but the 3D printer itself merely becomes the new supply depot. More efficient, but not a game-changer in conventional warfare.

No, the real game changer should be analyzed in terms of the classic offense versus defense balance. In World War 1, the technology favored defense over offense and resulted in trench warfare. This changed in World War 2, when air power became a major factor and offense overtook defense. The Cold War was colored by Mutual Assured Destruction - where the offensive weapons of the day were ICBMs against which there was no defense, requiring both sides to have roughly equal offensive nuclear capabilities.

Defense, however, is staring to catch up in the form of anti-ship "carrier-killer" ballistic missiles such as China's DF-21D and anti-ballistic missile defensive systems.

The real game-changer is asymmetric warfare's resurgent power. From car bombs and targeted assassinations to cyber-warfare, the utility and expense of conventional forces has been overshadowed by the damage a small group of saboteurs can accomplish - largely untraceably. Just as the advent of air power changed modern warfare, so too will these new versions of Hassan-i-Sabbah's Hashshashin.

chauncey devega said...

Asymmetrical warfare is nothing new. Now cyber and its impact on infrastructure and the battle space is something to be weary about as a game changer. Funny, how every generation someone is running around talking about a huge paradigm shift and most of the basic principles have stayed the same for a long time. The other--of many issues--in WW1 was that the doctrine had not kept up with the technology.

Car bombs have been around since the 19teens. And can forces using asymmetrical warfare actually hold territory? Sure, they can influence a political outcome but can they take ground, invade a country, etc? They can even deny a force the freedom to operate at will--see Afghanistan in a given space. Or is this an outmoded way of thinking?

Roxie Deaton said...

Here's your printed gun!

There is a link in the article supposedly to the CAD drawings. I'm under the impression the drawings have been pulled but the video is still up.

Jay said...

Progress. Amerika can kill more people more expensively with less loss of American life. What a country.

chauncey devega said...

Death and war drive progress. We are using the Internet today for that reason.