Small Wars Journal

Services No Longer Required? Challenges to the State as Primary Security Provider in the Age of Digital Fabrication

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 12:10am

Services No Longer Required? Challenges to the State as Primary Security Provider in the Age of Digital Fabrication

Clint Arizmendi, Ben Pronk and Jacob Choi


Given the exponential growth and popularity of digital fabrication, also known colloquially as 3D printing, it is timely to question the implications that it holds for state security, especially as this technology becomes cheaper and more accessible to the everyday citizen. Though state and non-state actors will most likely continue to invest in traditional and contemporary methods of kinetic and non-kinetic engagement, digital fabrication represents a threat to state security due to its ability to provide those actors with rapidly produced and potentially untraceable means to achieve their desired endstates. Using future conflict metatrends, this article will examine the threat that the (mis)application of digital fabrication represents for the state's monopoly on sanctioned violence and its potential effect on the relationship between the citizen and the State.


With the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia at the cessation of the Thirty Years' War in 1648, the Westphalian State was born.  This 'majestic portal...from the old into the new world' ushered in an era of legitimacy and recognition where all states could consider themselves sovereign and legally equal.[1] Approximately 350 years later, inventor Chuck Hull developed a device with which he could print three-dimensional objects.[2] Hull’s work effectively introduced a method of materiel production that had not been seen before and which continues to challenge traditional methods of production and the ways in which society interacts with the concept of manufacturing writ large. Referred to as positive prototyping or digital fabrication (DF), this technology has gradually evolved from large and expensive industrial applications to compact and affordable desktop technology that is freely available to everyday citizens in an increasingly connected world. Could this technological advance contribute to the unraveling of three and a half centuries of socially accepted governmental structure, or is it a means by which the citizens now have an additional ability to hold their governments more accountable?

This article reviews the modern state construct, focusing in particular on the key reasons why citizens choose to relinquish responsibility for their individual and collective security to the state. Emerging security and technological trends, including developments in digital fabrication, will then be analyzed with a view to determining the nature of the environment in which States are likely to find themselves.  This article will argue that not only is DF technology likely to influence the nature of security threats faced by states in the future, but it may also provide alternative means for groups of citizens to augment, or even replace, the collective security currently provided by the state.

The State Monopoly on Violence

While it may well be argued that the concept of a Westphalian State is nothing more than an idealistic, retrospective justification of the manner in which great powers have always interacted with each other and smaller states,[3] the notion of equality amongst states and the primacy of the state in the international system is a powerful one; akin to the concept of the universality of human rights at a national level.  As such, the construct of the state provides a conceptual underpinning for this article and represents the primary, or default, provider of security services for its territory and its citizens.

So powerful is this construct that successive generations have relinquished one of the most fundamental human rights to their governments: the right to self-protection.  By agreeing not to take conflict into their own hands, citizens make a social contract with their state, thereby subscribing to a state’s 'monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force'.[4] Such a contract should protect citizens from the potential alternative: a society in which continuous individual melee and a lack of legitimacy and recognized formal structures perpetuate chaos and lawlessness for its agents.

The ability of the state to retain this monopoly on violence is not unconditional.  Recent civil conflicts in Syria and Egypt have demonstrated that the legitimacy of the state can be challenged and its contract with some or all of its citizens is not impervious to rapid dissolution.  In short, both the state and its legitimacy are fluid constructs subject to influence from actors both foreign and domestic. Perhaps most important to recognize is that it is particularly sensitive to changes brought about by technological advances; for example, Syria and Egypt demonstrate how enablers such as social media platforms and internet infrastructure can contribute significantly to the ability of citizens to challenge state legitimacy.  Here, connectivity of citizens and systems extended well beyond state borders, exposing the internal fragility and volatility of those states.

What then, does the state need to do to retain the legitimacy that underpins its ability to maintain a monopoly on violence?  Obviously, there is no definitive or short answer to this question; however the following criteria are presented in this article as central to the maintenance of state legitimacy:

1. The state’s proficiency in providing security for its citizens;[5]

2. the agreement of other states to observe this legitimacy; and

3. the degree to which the state’s population accepts the legitimacy.[6]

In a security sense, so long as these criteria continue to be met, a state's citizens should have little cause to either seek out or engage with alternative governance structures. However, likely developments in technology and the character of conflict – discussed below – may well make it increasingly difficult for the state to satisfy the requirements required to retain its monopoly on violence.  Specifically, the evolution of DF presents a number of challenges for the state, including societal attitudes toward its unchallenged monopoly on violence. For example, Cody Wilson, the inventor of The Liberator – the first open source design for a 3D-printed gun – cites theorists such as Beaudrillard and Proudhon as his inspiration for arguing that citizens have the same rights as state to “own all of the terrible implements of war.”[7] In removing a physical barrier to ownership of weaponry previously reserved for, or at least strictly controlled by, the state, DF can serve as the catalyst to wider questioning of the state’s exclusivity as the sole provider of security. Arguments such as this exemplify a move beyond traditional debates, such as those about the 2nd Amendment in the United States. Moreover, they have the potential to increase the ways in which societal established thresholds of acceptability with regard to the possession of weapons which were previously inaccessible by everyday citizens.

The Future Security Environment

In the past several years, literature about the future character of conflict has grown significantly.  In the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, military and intelligence agencies have developed reports that analyze and extrapolate on recognized global trends and the potential ramifications they have for state security.[8]  In this environment, predicted in the literature, where the legitimacy of the state is already constantly challenged by multiple factors, DF technology is providing previously unheard of opportunities.  By making it almost as cheap to make one item as many, DF technology significantly lowers the economy of scale barrier[9] that has prohibited smaller entities, or individuals, from producing their own high-end items. While this barrier still exists, especially in the high one-off cost of setting up DF production lines it is certainly lower and will arguably decrease in the future. Adversely, this presents the possibility of ‘warfare on the cheap’ where historically sub-ordinary adversaries can achieve ‘peer’ status.[10] DF also removes the traditional cost hike associated with increased design complexity and a prerequisite technical understanding that was once required of operators using traditional manufacturing techniques.[11] Additionally, DF provides the ability to rapidly and cheaply engage in the trial-and-error cycle, greatly reducing research and development iteration times.  Finally, DF offers incredible flexibility – it is not too far fetched to imagine a world where an individual or non-state group might be able to print an assault rifle in the morning and its ammunition in the afternoon. What are the implications for state security of wide access to this level of enabling technology?

There are a number of themes common to the UK, US and Australian future conflict publications, three of which are particularly pertinent to this discussion. Increasing technological parity, population growth and global connectedness represent significant security challenges for the state, and each of these challenges stands to be exacerbated by proliferation of DF technology.  The nature of this nexus, and its implications for the state’s ability to maintain a monopoly on violence, are examined below.

Technological Parity

Historically, states have enjoyed a comparative advantage over non-state actors with regard to the regulation of, and access to, kinetic (e.g., assault weapons) and non-kinetic weapons and technology development (e.g., cyber and bio weapons) while securing its interests and those of its citizens. However the growth and expansion of the internet is contributing to a deterioration of this advantage by creating an environment where news, ideas and [mis]information can be produced and consumed by global citizens with almost instant effect, irrespective of geographic borders and state control of media or digital infrastructure.

DF stands to exacerbate this challenge by facilitating the nearly instantaneous proliferation of not just ideas, but objects.  Already, the growth of the internet and increasing global interconnectivity has enabled a different means of activism, allowing actors to exploit online networking technologies to bypass conventional methods of state control, sometimes violating international agreements and accords in the process. Given that DF requires computer programming to develop files and design blueprints, the user interface between conceptualization, online file-sharing, and physical production of a particular item is significant. That is, the potential imbalance of power between state and citizen can be achieved faster when individuals can print 3D products without needing to occupy factory space, invest in and secure logistical chains, or follow legislative and IP protocols.

In recent conflicts, non-state actors such as insurgents have proven their competence at building tactical weapons for use against state military forces with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) crudely crafted from everyday materials. Civil unrest such as the Syrian conflict demonstrates the capacity of non-state actors to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. In cases such as this, an ostensibly legitimate government is unable to control the manufacture, use and effects of weapon systems crafted by everyday civilians for their own use. The advent of DF technology will serve as a tool to shorten cycles of production which otherwise would be time-consuming or inefficient, thereby allowing combatants access to a more responsive supply chain of weaponry and allowing rapid proliferation of successful design.

Therefore, non-state actors who are already able to produce crude weapons will advance, with the aid of DF, to build more sophisticated weapons that previously would have required industrial machinery to build. Although the current generation of DF has limitations on the sizes, quality and complexities of printed products, the potential exists for non-state actors to create digitally fabricated pieces as complex as China’s printed titanium fighter jet parts or NASA’s rocket parts in the near future. Granted, the accurate completion of the work and its application in conflicts will still require technical expertise, DF technology serves to significantly lower the entry barrier while raising the base level of weaponry. This is perhaps best exemplified by the devastating and confounding effects that weapons created from rusty sawblades and home-made explosives have had on the most advanced western land forces and is likely to provide further security challenges as this trend evolves into the proliferation of printed shaped charges, undetectable composite trigger mechanisms and advanced initiation sets in future conflicts.

Another current example of the intersection between state security and technology is the private development of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Although UAVs sit within a broader field of remote-piloted systems (RPS), which can also occupy water and land to serve functions such as reconnaissance, combat and logistics functions, this section will focus specifically upon the emerging threat that digitally fabricated UAVs represent for state security.

While hobbyists have long had the means to craft their own model airplanes, DF has opened up additional sector for exploitation where actors with no aerospace background can ‘print, fly, crash’ small UAVs. Again, the movement of UAV making by home hobbyists is not new, but it is the ease of DF that has accelerated the market for non-state actors building quadcopters, small fuselages and blimps. Whereas previously the incentive to manufacture aerospace parts was bound within the constraints of cost, scale and knowledge, DF has reduced all three constraints to allow any actor to print almost all the parts for a UAV and fly it immediately. Thus, military and government services who were once the sole operators of UAVs are challenged in an increasing battle for air superiority. Though they may not be defeated necessarily by the non-state actors' UAVs – these developments pose a serious threat when a military airspace is breached and freedom of action is available for a non-state actor to use their UAV for surveillance or delivery of small packages in order to secure their rights – perceived to have been encroached upon by the state.

States and their citizens will undoubtedly benefit from DF technology as well; however, they will face legislative, copyright and intellectual property processes not likely to hinder their adversaries.  Further, bureaucratic and organizational inertia, potentially combined with pressure from a defence industrial complex hostile to any challenge to its major project stranglehold, are likely to inhibit full or rapid uptake of DF manufacturing processes. As a recent Center for New American Security (CNAS) study notes, “change is painful, especially for large organizations building highly complex systems worth billions of dollars.”[12]  

Population Growth

The trend of population growth, particularly in urban areas, is predicted to be a primary driver for forthcoming state conflicts, due to larger population masses, connected both physically and digitally. Amongst the effects of this population growth will be increasing complexities of infrastructure for mega-populations. Government services are predicted to be further limited in their scope and expertise for even basic infrastructure networking – water and electricity will be commodities for all demographics, potentially leading to friction and conflict. The current struggle for nation states to provide consistent, capable and scalable technology infrastructure with appropriate regulation has allowed a contest for smaller private entities to answer the insatiable technological appetite of consumers.

The presence of private entities, larger criminal elements and businesses that are not only competing for business with the state, but marketing to clients who wish to avoid any interference or regulation from state authorities will continue to challenge state security. In the 2050 world of 9.7 billion people, at least 1.3 billion will live in developed nations where governments may struggle to provide infrastructure[13]. A failure by any government to meet the needs of its people is fundamentally a failure to deliver state services, particularly due to population growth. Common consequences, according to the World Health Organization, include 'unhealthy housing, problems with food and water safety, congested traffic, air pollution and crime'[14]. This opportunity will allow non-state actors, particularly criminal elements, to provide alternatives to the populace, enabled by DF which frees them from a dependence on governmental systems, services and supply chains as well as potentially placing them below the detection threshold.

While it is largely assumed that populations will subscribe to the default services provided by their governments, the 21st century has already seen an increase of activism by everyday citizens who seek to meet those needs without state sponsorship. The alternative to a government providing critical services for its population is the outsourcing or contracting of those services, which is already seen in almost every government department of high income nations. Primarily seen in developing nations, these opportunities for furthering public infrastructure without reaching all of the population has the potential to create criminal ruling classes determined by the vital commodities. Within this potential alternate criminal ruling system, criminal elements could exploit a lack of expertise, legitimate governance and poor regulation to effectively seize a sovereignty of the population’s information domain to the detriment of the state and its citizens.

Although the notion of DF-equipped revolutionary cadres ushering in a new world order might present as nothing more than dystopian science fiction, it is interesting to posit what the introduction of advanced DF technology into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro might herald. This example is a situation where significant tracts of a contemporary megacity are already operating largely independently of the state.  What would it mean for Brazil, as a state, if these individuals were able to manufacture their own high-end weaponry or their own ammunition (and complete the transaction with crypto-currency)?

Global Connectedness

The expansion of the internet has been the single largest contributor to global connectedness since the introduction of intercontinental travel. The interconnectedness and interdependence brought on by the phenomenon of globalization are already serving to not only erode the identity of the state and the patriotism of its citizens, but to present new and unique security challenges.  So important has this expansion been that cyberspace has come to be recognized by military and intelligence agencies as the fifth environmental domain.[15] Like the domain of space, cyberspace security poses particular challenges to contemporary governments due largely to the lack of finite, distinct boundaries for sovereign states to control or regulate.

In comparison with international space law, which incorporates relatively agreed upon international frameworks, cyber law is much more complex for a number of reasons. First, it must regulate a range of commercial, government, and private interests on a much larger scale. Second, there is much greater interest, and therefore investment, in cyberspace by the general public, which means that there is less government oversight as well as more ways to contravene government legislation. This has resulted in a previously unseen situation where the leading edge of development in this domain is occurring outside of state architecture. 

All this results in the global connectedness brought about by online networking technologies significantly affecting the relationship between states and their constituents. The fact that this relationship has increasingly incorporated global and transnational elements serves to render many of the services provided by the state redundant. While a global netocracy is perhaps more disjointed and less qualified to govern than a stable democracy, its power and networking advantage collectively surpasses that traditionally offered by states.

Given multiple events of the past decade where state cyber-security has failed to protect its own and its citizens’ interests against hacktivists, criminals or foreign intelligence services (FIS) intrusion, the state has been proven to be unable to protect its own information domain. Most governmental responses to cyber-warfare attacks have resulted in strengthening the software dominance of their services, only to have other non-state actors and malicious insiders compromise these updates. Cyber-security has therefore morphed into an algorithm war where the state actor is always undermanned, under-resourced and tracking the elusive capabilities of defiant non-state actors or competent cyber-warfare opponents. With DF’s ability to effectively transform the proliferation of ideas into a proliferation of objects, this governmental loss of control over the information space is not to be taken lightly.[16]

The reason this physical world of data management and protection is important is because even if DF is able to promote rapid prototyping and supply and production lines, it is still limited by contemporary information systems. However, given the future trends discussed above and the exponential growth of data management, predicted to increase exponentially to zetabytes in 2015[17][18], state security will need to consider how to define and regulate the transmission of DF files for weapons. Will these virtual files of weapons require the same regulation as the physical control of weapons? If so, how will state security establish thresholds to govern, detect and enforce the spread of DF weapon files? Existing search patterns will need to advance alongside non-state actions that attempt to thwart the state's detection of suspect DF files, such as Matthew Plummer-Fernandez's Disarming Corruptor – a free piece of software that scrambles vertex positions on a DF file[19], providing an effective piece of encryption for non-state actors. Though the above example is a technical one, it is similar to the Cody Wilson scenario mentioned previously in that Fernandez was socially motivated by contextual societal issues regarding the US 2nd Amendment, the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance methods and the desire to circumvent a ‘prohibitive’ electronic environment in which he deemed issues regarding 3D-printing, IP and firearms to be ‘taboo’.

In this sense, DF represents an extension to this already fragmented world of government systems.  DF provides both solutions and problems to the existing cyberspace domain, but also spills over to the other four domains of military power. The physical outputs of DF will empower non-state actors to obtain similar capabilities to the state in terms of the delivery of violence, given that the primary inputs for technologies such as DF are basic materials, a power source and information, all of which are readily accessible to the average citizen.


This article argued that the legitimacy required by a state to underpin its monopoly on violence is a fluid construct, reliant on the state’s proficiency in providing security for its citizens; to be recognized by other states; and to be accepted by its population.  The emerging trends of technological parity, population growth and global connectedness each challenge these underpinnings, and DF stands to exacerbate the manner in which they do so. 

As the state seeks to sustain its legitimacy in an increasingly crowded and digitally connected society, this same society is likely to embrace the benefits that DF represents. Amongst all the positive impacts DF is likely to bear, this technology will also offer far easier, and more difficult to monitor, methods of creation, production and distribution of items such as firearms, ammunition, advanced IEDs and low-cost UAVs.  This provides the opportunity for a malicious actor to challenge the state’s authority and potentially destabilize its government.

In addition to facilitating production of the tools used to challenge the state as a provider of security, DF technology is likely to make it easier for non-state entities – including individuals, criminal groups and corporations – to provide their own means of security, including physical force.  While one could argue whether this alternate means is ‘legitimate’ or not, it will certainly represent a challenge to the monopoly largely enjoyed by states to date as a result of the fidelity to the social contract with its citizens.

There are no signs that DF will become a challenge to the states monopoly on violence, at least not yet. But the reality is that the state and its relationships with its citizens are in a constant state of evolution. As DF improves and proliferates, it will become additional facet of this interaction. There is already interaction between the two, but as citizens continue to embrace DF and as its capability improves, new challenges and problems governing this relationship will emerge. If the state is to continue, it may need to take the potential threat of DF more seriously or be overtaken by new arrangements between citizens and their political affiliations.

End Notes

[1] Andreas Oriendi, "Sovereignty, International Relations and the Westphalian Myth", International Organization 55 (Spring, 2001), 251-87.

[2] Pagan Kennedy, "Who Made that 3D Printer", New York Times, 22 November 2013.

[3] For a well constructed argument of this point, see P. Michael Phillips, 'Deconstructing our Dark Age Future', Parameters, (Summer 2009), 94-110.

[4] Referred to hereafter as the ‘monopoly on violence’, this term originally appeared in Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1921,, 1.

[5] This criteria could well be expanded to include the State's ability to provide essential communal services, such as healthcare, education and critical infrastructure.  This article will focus, however, on the security and defence aspects of state provided services.

[6] Criteria taken from Phillips, op cit., 97.

[7] Alex Rayner, “3D-printable weapons are just the start”, The Guarian, Available; accessed 22 January, 2014.

[8]  United Kindom Ministry of Defence, 2010. Future Character of Conflict.  [online] [cited 25 January 2014] London; Australian Department of Defence, 2014. Future Land Warfare Report. Canberra; KPMG, 2013: Future States 2030: The global megatrends shaping governments. [online] [cited 14 January 2014] Switzerland; United States National Intelligence Committee, 2012. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. [online] [cited 28 January 2014] Washington

[9] 'Print me a Stradivarius', The Economist, Feb 10, 2011.

[10] Afghan IEDs: warfare on the cheap Retrieved 21 January 2014.

[11] McNulty, Arnas, Campbell, "Toward the Printed World; Additive Manufacturing and Implications for National Security", INSS Defense Horizons, Sep 2012, 1-16, 3.

[12] Aaron Martin and Ben Fitzgerald, “Process over Platforms: A Paradigm Shift in Acquisition through Advanced Manufacturing”, Centre for New American Security Disruptive Defence Papers, December 2013, 15.

[13] Population Reference Bureau (2013) World Population Data Sheet 2013 ( Accessed 27 Jan 14, p. 2.

[14] World Health Organization (2010) “Hidden Cities: Unmasking and overcoming health inequities in urban settings”, Part 1, Chapter 1, p. 7

[15] The other four environmental domains are space, land, air and maritime.

[16] The Economist, (01 Jul 2010) “War in the fifth domain: Are the mouse and keyboard becoming the new weapons of conflict?”

[17] Cisco Visual Networking Index (29 May 2013) Networking Solutions White Paper – Forecasting and Methodology

[18] One zetabyte is estimated to be the equivalent of  approx 200 billion DVDs worth of data

[19] Disarming Corruptor distorts 3D printing files for sharing banned items. Accessed 28 January, 2014; available:


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Jacob Choi work for the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Pronk works for the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Dr. Clint Arizmendi works for the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.