Additive Manufacturing: The Next Great Challenge to Missile Defence

Innovative developments in technology will have significant and complex ramifications for the conduct of nuclear strategy and the state of global nuclear security. Additive manufacturing (AM), including 3D printing, is one such technology. Whilst the applications of these technologies in the nuclear context have been highlighted and discussed, there has been less exploration of the possible impact this could have on related strategic systems, such as ballistic missile defence (BMD).

This is an important gap as one such system –The US Ground Based Midcourse Defence (GBMD) system, may offer the US mainland protection from current and future ballistic missile threats.

Contemporary Missile Defence

Kinetic BMD - the term used to describe defences which destroy targets via physical impact - and the GBMD program in particular has enjoyed a controversial history. There have traditionally been concerns over the project’s viability. In 17 previous tests Ground Based Interceptors or GBIs (the missile component of the GBMD) have made only nine successful interceptions. Nevertheless the program has achieved some positive attention recently with the successful test of the GBMD system, during which an interceptor destroyed an ICBM warhead for the first time.

However, BMD systems based on kinetic interceptors still face a trinity of challenges: discrimination, interception and saturation.

Discrimination is the challenge faced by ground-based radars and sensors within the kill-vehicle of identifying a genuine warhead amongst a field of debris and decoys. Interception is the task of utilizing the information provided by sensors to allow a kill vehicle to physically impact and destroy a warhead. Both challenges have plagued the GBI program for years, but the recent success may imply that it has taken steps towards overcoming them.

Nevertheless, it is still vulnerable to the third: saturation. Saturation is the term used to describe the technique of overcoming BMD systems by overloading them. There are a number of ways in which this could be achieved, for example overloading sensors and battle-management capabilities, possibly with the aid of coordinated cyber-attacks. The most relevant technique to this discussion is saturation by exhaustion, as AM techniques have the potential to influence the size of adversary missile arsenals.

Saturation by exhaustion is the simple expedient of attacking with more offensive missiles than the number of available interceptors can cope with. The number of missiles required to saturate a BMD architecture largely depends on the number of interceptors available, but will vary according to the defender’s firing doctrine. This is the number of interceptors assigned to a single target and how they are sequenced.

States like Russia and China are already capable of saturation due to the size of their arsenals. This is why much of the rationale for the US GBI is focused on the threat posed by North Korea and Iran; states possessing much smaller missile arsenals which, correspondingly, cannot currently saturate the system.

The Challenge

Additive manufacturing has the potential to change this. AM involves ‘printing’ a design directly from a computer schematic into a physical object with fewer materials relatively quickly. It is possible that if breakthroughs are made in extreme precision printing, AM could allow missile production to become quicker, less technically challenging and less resource intensive. This could be achieved by printing entire sections or possibly an entire missile as complete units rather than relying on the laborious reductive manufacturing techniques currently used. Raytheon claims it is possible that AM will allow missile components to be produced in hours, rather than weeks and in a far less resource-intensive manner.

Commercial AM technology is already widely available, and is not covered by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Although dependent on the infrastructure, technical capacity and security environment, the adaption of AM to missile production could allow states to increase their missile arsenals more quickly than has previously been possible, granting more states the capability to saturate contemporary BMD systems.

A state may choose to intersperse a smaller number of nuclear-tipped missiles within a larger group of conventionally-armed, or even unarmed decoys. This could allow saturation with limited expenditure of nuclear devices. Whilst an aggressor must take the risk that only non-nuclear warheads may strike the target, this can be mitigated depending on the ratio of nuclear/non-nuclear missiles selected for the mission. Alternately an aggressor may choose to launch missiles in waves, with the intent of allowing a vanguard of non-nuclear missiles to absorb the interceptors. Of course, this risks allowing the defender a relatively slim margin of time in which to retaliate.

Strategic Horizons

Should AM facilitate considerable growth to ballistic missile arsenals of smaller nuclear powers there could be consequences in both the medium to long term.

Larger arsenals may render contemporary BMD systems irrelevant and reduce the nascent role they play within nuclear policy. States could be compelled to find an alternative to active defences when dealing with smaller nuclear powers, with expanding missile arsenals. Of course, AM techniques may also be applied to kinetic BMD architectures. AM can potentially increase the production of interceptors in a similar fashion to ballistic missiles. Yet, interceptors may have to be produced in very high numbers in order deter or negate multiple threats from larger arsenals. Furthermore, unlike offensive ballistic missiles, all interceptors must be tipped with functional kill-vehicles and these could be more technically challenging to produce even with improved AM capabilities. This in turn may exacerbate the very growth in missile arsenals which BMD systems are designed to defend against.

Additive manufacturing is the very definition of a disruptive technology to any state which seeks to generate security via the development of BMD. This technology, along with other advances such as hypersonic missiles, unmanned vehicles and so-called special-effects warheads all promise that this nuclear age shall be of a different character than the last.

David Walsh is a PhD Candidate at the University of Aberdeen. He holds a BA (Hons) in Applied Social Science and an MSc in Strategic Studies. His current work is related to contemporary issues of nuclear strategy, security and technology.

Banner image by Jonathan Juursema

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The UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) promotes a cross-generational debate on contemporary nuclear issues. Nuclear Reactions is the blog of UK PONI, where all members can contribute new ideas and research.

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