Brent Scowcroft Center Nonresident Senior Fellow Matthew Kroenig cowrites for The Washington Quarterly on how the Additive Manufacturing (AM) process, through which 3-D printing machines build objects of virtually any shape from digital build file, could make it easier for countries to acquire nuclear weapons:

A revolution in manufacturing is underway that may enable the most sensitive pieces of a nuclear weapons program to be transferred and produced around the globe. In the Additive Manufacturing (AM) process, 3-D printing machines build objects of virtually any shape from digital build files—the essential data telling printers how to construct an object—by laying down successive layers of material.1 Since objects are built from scratch, one can make products in shapes and to standards impossible under any other method, and the digital nature of this automated process takes most of the skill out of fabrication. AM allows the manufacture of better products, with less effort, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. As a result, it is hardly surprising that General Electric, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army are already using AM to print sophisticated metal parts for jet engines, rocket propulsion systems, and fighter aircraft, respectively.2

Like many disruptive technologies, however, AM has a dark side. The widespread adoption of AM will make it easier for countries to acquire nuclear weapons, and more difficult for the international community to detect and stop them. If building the bomb is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle, one of the hardest parts is simply getting all the necessary pieces.3 Attempts to buy or build these items—such as the components of a gas centrifuge—are fraught with obstacles and set off alarm bells to the existence of a covert weapons program. In contrast, with a 3-D printer and the right digital build files, a country can print many of the specialized components for a nuclear program quickly, with little technical skill, and at low cost. Moreover, hiding such a fabrication effort would be much easier than under traditional manufacturing methods, rendering obsolete many of the international community’s tools for spotting illicit nuclear activity. In short, AM may provide a way for countries to print the pieces of the nuclear jigsaw indigenously before anyone notices.

Read the full article here.

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