Advanced Manufacturing and the Future of Combat 

160 years ago, the American Civil war raged throughout the US and as strange as it seems, foreign observers representing the major military powers of Germany, Great Britian and France came to watch and learn. At first, they turned their noses up at the disorganized conflict which in their opinion palled in comparison to the organized tactics of the European powers. As the war ensued, the observers began to gain valuable insights from the conflict and their principle finding was that the nature of war itself had changed and the chess piece battles of European conflict were no more.  

Instead, the wars of the future would be waged on a larger scale supported by ever more complex supply chains leveraging the innovations of the day (e.g., railways) and the scale of war would be staggering. Instead of small scale conflicts, war could now be waged on an industrial scale where the main determinant to success would not be tactics or individual leaders on horseback but instead raw industrial might. War would become a question primarily of resources, production, efficiency and supply chain where whoever geared up the fastest would be out in front. Inevitably, these findings among other factors lead into our first industrial scale world war which was unlike any conflict prior to it.  

Today, a similar situation is taking place in Ukraine where observers are noticing again that war is experiencing another major evolution and the way that war is fought has drastically changed in the last decade. Just this past week, I attended MIL AM where industry experts and military leaders discussed this change at length. The fundamental change that we are seeing now is that there is a rapid movement from a focus on a few expensive battle systems (e.g., Tanks, APCs, AFVs etc.) to a focus on many highly inexpensive battle systems. Specifically, in the conflict inexpensive unmanned aerial systems (i.e., drones) are being used at an enormous scale for surveillance and loitering munitions for targeting personnel and hard targets. In the last year alone over 200,000 drones have been lost in the conflict and it is expected over 1M drones will be lost in the next year.  

To understand just how disruptive this is, a drone capable of carrying munitions can be as inexpensive as $100 where an Abrams M1A2 tank has a price tag of $24M. A quarter million drones carrying munitions for the price of a single tank drastically changes how we think about warfare and creates orders of magnitude more impact for the same price. Further, a quarter million drones represents a seismic disruption to how battles and conflict unfold and create a vast array of new challenges for the warfighter.  

As discussed at MIL AM, unfortunately the US is very poorly positioned for this rapidly evolving type of warfare as the US does not produce the electronics required for this type of manufacturing at scale. Today, the US simply cannot support a large conflict that would utilize this quantity of drones despite the CHIPs Act and Replicator initiative working to improve the standing of the US. Further, the US military supply chain and manufacturing base is not designed for this type of inexpensive/high volume production. However, Advanced and Additive Manufacturing present promising new solutions such as manufacturing closer to the point of need.  

At The New Jersey Innovation Institute, we are working closely with the Army and Picatinny Arsenal to address this problem through our COMET facility which is a test bed for advanced manufacturing capabilities and also a training ground for the professionals who will lead this manufacturing and engineering shift. The coming decade will be extremely disruptive to how conflicts unfold and we at NJII are well positioned to help support this shift and the manufacturing improvements required.