Over the last five years, political leaders and technical experts alike heralded additive manufacturing – more commonly known as digital 3D-printing – as an emerging technology with ‘the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything’, including military hardware.1 Analysts quickly identified the technology as ‘a prospective game changer’ with ‘significant national security implications’ because it utilised breakthroughs in robotics, computation and network connectivity to fabricate components with unprecedented levels of complexity from digital blueprints.2 In 2013, for instance, a team from the Center for New American Security claimed, ‘additive manufacturing could fundamentally impact the defense industrial base … by dramatically increasing the pace of moving from prototype to production and by enhancing the flexibility and adaptability of production lines.’3 Other scholars underscored the possibility for 3D-printing to ‘enable the rapid integration of new technologies whenever a design breakthrough occurs’,4 especially if it offered the ability ‘to make (almost) anything, anywhere’.5

These forecasts proved prescient as aerospace and defence firms leveraged additive manufacturing to make sophisticated components for jet engines, missiles and satellites, often at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional production processes.6 To no surprise, nuclear weapons enterprises also began to invest in the technology to reap similar benefits.7 At the same time, key players in the civil nuclear industry – from General Electric Hitachi to Rosatom and the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation – adopted additive manufacturing for peaceful purposes because it could ‘potentially reshape the very nature of supply chains’.8 Research and development efforts focused on 3D-printing nuclear reactor components with ‘new complex designs’, including nuclear fuel rods and large pressure vessel cylinders.9 As a result, the technology started to improve and expand upon the traditional menu of options for manufacturing nuclear capabilities. 

Tristan Volpe
Tristan Volpe is a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and assistant professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.
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Unfortunately, defence experts still struggle to explain how the looming adoption of additive manufacturing by nuclear programmes will affect strategic stability.10 On initial consideration, it seems like this novel means of production might sow the ground for arms race instability and even interstate conflict by enabling the next wave of clandestine proliferation. As the National Nuclear Security Administration reported in 2017, future improvements in additive manufacturing could ‘create new and worrisome pathways to nuclear weapons’, while an early report from the National Defense University highlighted the risk of the technology ‘being used to render detection of nuclear proliferation more difficult’.11 The Defense Science Board went so far as to speculate that the technology might enable nonnuclear weapon states to march towards the bomb with greater secrecy, speed, and ease than before. As the study concluded, the diffusion of ‘such a capability could create game-changing technological surprise and potential vulnerability’, thereby pressuring nations to consider preventive measures at the earliest sign of proliferation.12

Yet additive manufacturing is merely the latest manifestation of an emerging technology with the potential to change the likelihood of competition and conflict over nuclear programmes. As Bernard Brodie cautioned during the Cold War, “what may look like extraordinarily important changes in the tools of war or in related technologies may appear to lack significant impact on strategy and politics … even though those improvements may look quite significant to a scientist or to an engineer.”13

To be sure, a few innovations in nuclear technology set the foundation for periods of heightened tension, such as the consideration and employment of military force against gas centrifuge plants or heavy water reactors. But many other breakthroughs in production technologies of similar lineage to additive manufacturing, notably the maturation of automated precision machine tools, ended up having little observable impact on interstate relations in this context. Moreover, some changes in the technology available to states – for example, the spread of light water reactors or remote sensing methods – lowered the risk of conflict and dampened arms race incentives by providing options for nuclear energy-aspirants to reveal motives and verify peaceful commitments.

Given this mixed track record, I refine a theory of interstate competition – the security dilemma – to determine how emerging technology impacts strategic stability among nations with nuclear programmes. This framework provides a solid foundation to explore when it is difficult for nations to reveal benign motives while accumulating technology that is dual use in nature, meaning it has ‘both peaceful and military applications’.14 In a twist on the offense-defence variables at the heart of the security dilemma, I show that emerging technology can change the material capacity to produce atomic weapons and the information environment for distinguishing motives. My theory claims that innovations in the global pool of nuclear technology shape the security dilemma by making it easier or harder to distinguish military from energy aspirants. I use this logic of dual-use distinguishability to shed light on the consequences of additive manufacturing if it becomes further integrated into nuclear supply chains. On the one hand, additive manufacturing could create periods of intense competition making investments in energy infrastructure indistinguishable from weapons programmes. But the digital nature of additive platforms could also make patterns of peaceful nuclear behaviour more transparent, thereby enabling energy aspirants to better distinguish themselves and escape from the security dilemma altogether.

Beyond the nuclear realm, the theory presented in this article contributes to scholarship on the role of technology and information in world politics. By reformulating the classic concept of offense-defence distinguishability to better account for how changes in the dual use nature of technology enable states to practice disinformation, my framework helps us understand the structural sources of deception among nations.15 I find that new technologies set the stage for competition when they make civilian investments indistinguishable from military enterprises. But in line with the central theme of this special issue, I also identify the conditions under which technologies stabilise arms race incentives by enabling states to reveal non-military motives with relative ease.16 As such, my core concept of dual-use distinguishability complements the expansion of the offense-defence balance by Ben Garfinkel and Allan Dafoe to account for levels of technology investment.17 In addition, as Heather Williams points out, the general notion of arms control is predicated on the ability to make clear distinctions between weapon platforms.18

I show how distinguishability becomes even more critical when dealing with the underlying latent capacity to produce military forces. Indeed, governments are struggling to grapple with the challenges presented by the availability of dual-use technologies today, from computer networks and artificial intelligence to autonomous systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.19 As new innovations push states onto the horns of the old dual-use dilemma, this article identifies clear incentives for states to develop technologies in ways that reveal the motives of various aspirants.

On the policy front, my analysis highlights the need to track and guide how additive manufacturing and other new technologies impact the distinguishability of nuclear programmes in the years ahead. The problem is that it will be difficult to manage the impact of additive manufacturing in this manner, as no single nation or industrial entity controls this global pool of technology. Whereas major innovations ‘used to be “born secret” and remain controlled from cradle to grave’ by individual governments, the rise of multinational industry as the stewards of global science and technology means that new technologies are now ‘essentially ungoverned’.20 In the nuclear domain, however, states can leverage cartels such as the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) and international institutions to manage the structural impact of emerging technologies. As a result, the article recommends closer collaboration among industry leaders, national governments and international institutions to ensure additive manufacturing matures into an asset rather than a liability for nuclear energy programmes.

The article is organised into five parts. The first offers a primer on the novel features of additive manufacturing for nuclear proliferation and identifies analytic gaps in the literature. The second section refines the security dilemma to better account for variation in the nature of nuclear production technology. The third section derives hypotheses about how additive manufacturing changes the likelihood of arms racing and conflict. The fourth section crafts indicators to guide future empirical research into additive manufacturing and dual-use distinguishability. The final section concludes with implications for the study and practice of non-proliferation.

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This article was originally published by the Journal of Strategic Studies.


1 Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 12 February 2013, The American Presidency Project.

2 Connor McNulty, Neyla Arnas, and Thomas Campbell, ‘Toward the Printed World: Additive Manufacturing and Implications for National Security’ Defense Horizons, 73 (2012) 1–16. For similar forecasts, see Thomas Campbell et al., ‘Could 3D Printing Change the World? Technologies, Potential, and Implications of Additive Manufacturing’ Strategic Foresight Report (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, October 2011); T.X. Hammes, ‘3-D Printing Will Disrupt the World in Ways We Can Barely Imagine’ War on the Rocks, 28 December 2015; Tate Nurkin, ‘Disruptive Impact: Technological Revolutions Raise Nuclear Risks’ IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review (May 2016) 30–34.

3 Shawn Brimley, Ben FitzGerald, and Kelley Sayler, ‘Disruptive Technology and U.S. Defense Strategy’ (Washington, DC: Center for New American Security, September 2013) 14.

4 Michael C. Horowitz, ‘Coming Next in Military Tech’ Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 70/1 (2014) 59.

5 Neil Gershenfeld, ‘How to Make Almost Anything: The Digital Fabrication Revolution’ Foreign Affairs, 91/1 (2012) 46.

6 For an overview, see Trevor Johnston, Troy D. Smith, and J. Luke Irwin, ‘Additive Manufacturing in 2040’ (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018).

7 See e.g. U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Fiscal Year 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, Report to Congress (March 2015) 3–13; U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, ‘Labs in NNSA lead the way in 3D printing – the next industrial revolution’ Press Release, 13 June 2016.

8 Ian Stewart, Dominic Williams, and Nick Gillard, ‘Examining Intangible Technology Controls – Part 2: Case Studies’ (London, UK: King’s College London, June 2016) 18. Office of Nuclear Energy, ‘Neet-Advanced Methods for Manufacturing Award Summaries’ US Department of Energy, May 2016; Press Release, ‘GE Hitachi Selected to Lead U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Nuclear Technology Research Project’ General Electric, June 2016; Clare Scott, ‘ROSATOM Announces New Additive Manufacturing Subsidiary’ 3DPrint.com, 13 February 2018.

9 Zeses Karoutas, ‘3D Printing of Components and Coating Applications at Westinghouse’ MIT Workshop on New Cross-cutting Technologies for Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs), 30 January 2017.

10 In line with the special issue, this article defines strategic stability in terms of (1) arms race incentives in peacetime and (2) conflict initiation during a crisis, see Todd S. Sechser, Neil Narang, and Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Emerging Technologies and Strategic Stability in Peacetime, Crisis, and War’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), 727–735.

11 ‘Prevent, Counter, and Respond – A Strategic Plan to Reduce Global Nuclear Threats’ Report to Congress (Washington, DC: National Nuclear Security Administration, November 2017) sec. 1.7; McNulty, Arnas, and Campbell, ‘Toward the Printed World: Additive Manufacturing and Implications for National Security’, 3.

12 ‘Technology and Innovation Enablers for Superiority in 2030’ Defense Science Board Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, October 2013) xx, 67.

13 Bernard Brodie, ‘Technological Change, Strategic Doctrine, and Political Outcomes’ in Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems ed. Klaus Knorr (University Press of Kansas, 1976), 263.

14 Matthew Fuhrmann, Atomic Assistance: How Atoms for Peace Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity (Cornell University Press, 2012), 2.

15 On the production and exploitation of deception, see Austin Carson, Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2018); Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay, ‘Weaving Tangled Webs: Offense, Defense, and Deception in Cyberspace’ Security Studies 24/2 (2015) 316–48.

16 Sechser, Narang, and Talmadge, ‘Emerging Technologies and Strategic Stability’.

17 Ben Garfinkel and Allan Dafoe, ‘How Does the Offense-Defense Balance Scale?’ Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), 736–763.

18 Heather Williams, ‘Asymmetric Arms Control and Strategic Stability: Scenarios for Limiting Hypersonic Glide Vehicles’ Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), 789–813.

19 In this special issue, see Jacquelyn Schneider, ‘The Capability/Vulnerability Paradox and Military Revolutions’ Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), 841–863; Michael C. Horowitz, ‘When Speed Kills: Autonomous Weapon Systems, Deterrence, and Stability’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2019), 764–788. See also Jürgen Altmann and Frank Sauer, ‘Autonomous Weapon Systems and Strategic Stability’ Survival 59/5 (2017) 117–42; Heather M. Roff, ‘The Frame Problem: The AI “Arms Race” Isn’t One,’ Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75/3 (2019) 95–98; Natasha E. Bajema, ‘Countering WMD in the Digital Age: Breaking Down Bureaucratic Silos in a Brave New World’ War on the Rocks, 13 May 2019; Ulrich Kühn, ‘Can We Still Regulate Emerging Technologies?’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 9 May 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/05/09/can-we-still-regulate-emerging-technologies-pub-79125.

20 Zachary S. Davis, ‘Ghosts in the Machine: Defense against Strategic Latency,’ in Strategic Latency and World Power (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2014): 22.