Disruptive Defense: 3D Printing, Unmanned Systems and Bitcoin


In the 1930s, a convergence of technologies confronted the world’s military powers. The proliferation of tanks, the introduction of mechanized infantry and advancements in wireless communications were well-known developments in London, Paris and Berlin. However, only military planners in the German High Command understood the potential offered by integrating all three in one package, ominously labeled Blitzkrieg. The result was one of the most epic takedowns in modern military history. In 42 days, German Field Marshalls’ Rundstedt, Guderian, von Manstein and Rommel obliterated a French Army that possessed numerically and technically superior military equipment.

Today, there is a technological convergence happening as well. It involves the merging of three technology trends that have been heralded individually, yet are only now showing their real potential, in combination, to upend the way analysts comprehend their military applications. 3D printing, unmanned systems, and Bitcoin present eye-opening possibilities to the defense industry as well as highly unpredictable outcomes as commercialization dissolves once massive barriers to entry in military systems development. Does this mean a more hazardous security environment for the United States and its allies? Perhaps, but as John F. Kennedy said about the Chinese, they “use two brush strokes to write ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” Today’s technological convergence carries the same risk-reward dichotomy.

3D printing is an additive process where material is layered in succession to create a solid design, in contrast to subtractive processes such as cutting. While this technology has been around for 30 years, I first learned of it during a long-range futures war game in 2005. I was initially skeptical as the technology appeared gimmicky, but 3D printing quickly scaled and became a household name when Defense Distributed unleashed its blueprints for the Liberator Pistol on the web. In one fell swoop, Defense Distributed fundamentally undermined the barriers to entry in place for anyone in the United States (and the world) seeking to produce small arms. With MakerBot seeking to put a 3D printer in every school, this presents a dual-use technology proliferation challenge that even the savviest Net Assessment scenario designer could not have dreamt up.

Yet fretting over the 3D production of handheld weapons is “small ball” thinking when compared to the crowd-sourced printing of unmanned systems (e.g., drones). With the advent of homemade drones that have increasing range and sophistication, the prospect of civilians rapidly printing and arming thousands of them gives an entirely new meaning to the “swarming” tactics posited by defense planners. Today, the 3D manufacture of such drones is largely focused on the component level, yet designs are approaching the capability demonstrated in this entertaining video from FPSRussia. While the technology demonstrated in this video is likely fake, this state of the art will soon be reality. This presents unknown and complex challenges to controlling such lethal systems through domestic law enforcement, as well as to the already brittle International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that the Department of State uses to govern the export of such technology.

Despite these major technological advances, there is still a major limiting factor in producing military-grade technology at scale: capital financing. Enter Bitcoin. This crypto-currency has come to dominate the world of alternatives to state-backed paper such as the U.S. dollar. More importantly, it has captured the imagination of countless individuals seeking options for funding ideas ranging from Kickstarter campaigns to illicit drug networks. It should come as little surprise, then, that Defense Distributed turned to Bitcoin and its new Dark Wallet project after its initial Liberator Pistol foray met with serious bureaucratic backlash from Washington. This anecdote should serve as a cautionary tale and essential data point for anyone seeking to quickly discount the potential for rapid, crowd-sourced 3D printing of military technology. Access to capital is the proverbial “last tactical mile” in these situations and Bitcoin offers an elegant workaround for countless non-state actors, well intentioned or not.

So how should we think about such a swirling vortex of innovation? Rather than planning against the advent of such technology, the U.S. military and the defense industry should wholly embrace these trends. Department of Defense research and development (R&D) houses—such as the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its Intelligence sister (IARPA) as well as the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO)— have an opportunity to engage and harness the “homebrew” community of 3D printing hobbyists in the same way that Silicon Valley captured emerging talent such as Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Early engagement can channel the ensuing innovation into much-needed defense R&D as well as into technology incubators at large defense corporations like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The venture capital firm I work with, Scout Ventures, is doing its part by nurturing a new 3D crowd-sourced business that “prints” and then assembles components for 3D printers to form a network of user printers rapidly producing designs on demand. The U.S. Government can play a critical role here by establishing industry quality standards in the same vein as ISO in an effort to ensure that 3D-printed products, whether drones or simple support brackets, can reliably be accepted into the marketplace.

Of greatest importance, however, is engaging the Bitcoin community. It is obvious, as Silk Road demonstrated, that some early adopters of Bitcoin sought to leverage its opacity for a host of illegal activities. Transnational terrorists understand this fact well and are undoubtedly using other “Tor” software-supported sites for trade beyond prostitutes and heroin. This feeds directly into the aforementioned convergence of 3D printing and military-grade technology.

I cannot think of a better time for officials in Washington to expand on the positive Congressional engagement of the Bitcoin community. They can do so starting with technology drivers such as IARPA and the Intelligence Community’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, investing in Bitcoin startups focused on transparency such as Coin Validation. This will go a long way towards ensuring that initial security barriers to widespread adoption are dropped, thus paving the way for integrating the capabilities into the Intelligence Community and properly commercializing the technology for expansion into the private sector.

With an increasingly uncertain world that proves Moore’s Law again and again, we must discern the next technology convergence on our doorstep. Failure to do so places us with those who missed the last game-changing convergence such as the French military on May 9th, 1940.


The author would like to thank Alex Waters from CoinApex and Ramzi Abdoch from the Farm for their technical guidance in producing this article.

Stephen Rodriguez is a regular contributor to War On The Rocks and has more than twelve years of experience in strategic planning, corporate strategy, and business development. His core market experience is in the aerospace & defense industry in the realm of technology assessment, game theory applications, and implementing strategic initiatives for growth-stage, venture-backed investments.


Photo credit: Joseph Morris