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How 3D Printers Will Change Civil Wars

By Taylor N. Trummel | May 24, 2018



A foundational attribute of a civil war is the ability of a rebel group to acquire resources like finances, arms, and soldiers. The advent of 3D printing rewrites the rules for financing and arms by bypassing traditional routes to obtain deadly weapons. Now, rebel groups simply need one 3D printer in order to produce high volumes of weapons at minimal costs.  3D printing changes the economics of war and amplifies information asymmetries. This makes it easier for rebel groups to strengthen in power and creates new challenges for security experts.


In the past, rebel factions have sought allies with stronger, often international, actors. It is possible that future groups could thrive in a world where they must only acquire enough funding to purchase and maintain a 3D printer. Currently, a basic 3D printer costs roughly $500, but industrial models can easily range from $20,000 to $100,000. With the cost of 3D printers likely to decline in the future due to technological advance or market saturation, acquiring these printers without the support of a wealthy ally will become even more feasible.


Widely available blueprints for 3D printing make the production of firearms much cheaper which could diminish outside actor presence in domestic disputes. This could cause the duration of civil wars to decline, given that research has demonstrated, for a number of reasons, when more actors are involved civil wars last longer. While the duration of civil wars could decline, we could instead see civil wars break out more frequently since rebel groups will be able to maintain extremist positions without the need to negotiate with outside groups.


Without international legislative regulation, there is little international accountability. Currently, 3D printing is only regulated domestically. There is currently no legislation to regulate these uniquely self-made, undetectable guns despite their poignant international threat. States will find it difficult to quantify the number of guns being printed and therefore face significant information asymmetry issues. This lack of knowledge on the side of the state inherently makes negotiations and the ability to credibly commitment to a deal much more difficult. To this point, we could expect civil wars to last longer due to the inability to share and discover credible information.


3D printing of weapons strengthens rebel groups by allowing greater independence and less transparency. With less dependence on outside actors, the world could witness more frequent outbreaks of civil wars, while negotiations could be expected to result in little compromise and last longer due to information asymmetry. Considering the benefits of printed weapons for rebel groups and the resulting effects on the duration of the civil war they are engaged in, 3D printing as it stands now overwhelmingly supports dissident forces. 3D printed weapons may soon pose major security challenges for world leaders.



Taylor N. Trummel is a first year master's student studying International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy. Prior to UC San Diego, she studied Political Science at San Diego State University. Her current research focuses on trends in women-led democracies in Latin America.