Marines take 3D-printed drones to battle; Inside STRATCOM’s new HQ; Selling US guns overseas; and a lot more.

When U.S. Marines shipped out in January to support operations in Iraq and Syria, they brought along a few 3D printers — and plans to print a small quadcopter drone called the Nibbler.

All of the Nibbler’s parts, except for the electronics, are 3D printed. Assembling one costs about $2,000.

The Marine Corps is using the project “as a training vehicle to teach additive manufacturing,” according to Col. Bill Vivian, who leads the Special Purpose Maine Air Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command. Vivian and his unit returned to the U.S. in August from a seven-month deployment.

Here’s why the Nibbler is unique: the Marine Corps owns its intellectual property. If the drone breaks a rotor, they can just print a new one. That’s not always the case. Though U.S. military ships and units have been deploying with 3D printers for some time — it’s great to be able to tailor-make spare parts instead of carrying extra items — intellectual property restrictions sometimes hinder repairs and innovation.

“Because it’s not proprietary, we’re free to modify it as the mission dictates,” said Maj. Miguel Cruz, logistics officer for the unit. “It has that level of flexibility that you wouldn’t have with a commercial off-the-shelf drone.”

Since the drone has a camera and can fly for up to 25 minutes, it was used by security forces at forward locations to keep an eye on their surroundings. But it had another use as well: to help Marines understand how the Islamic State and other enemies use their own small drones.

“They’re facing them every day and the threat is growing,” Vivian said.

Vivian, Cruz and others from the unit were at the Pentagon this week talking to Marine Corps leaders. Aside from the Nibbler, the unit printed assembly components, medical splints, and wrenches for working on motor systems and generators. They even printed a cover for a laser device, receiving in one day a part that was backordered for seven months. The unit called their 3D printing area the “Ripper Lab,” a play on the unit’s nickname.

The Marine also experimented with other types of innovative equipment. They tried out some personal cooling devices, hoping to find ways to work longer on aircraft in desert heat, but without much success.

“That’s a very practical problem,” VIvian said. “How do you extend the ability of a Marine to work on an aircraft when it’s 125 degrees out and touching the metal is painful cause it’s been sitting in the sun? We haven’t solved that one, unfortunately. Can’t 3D print our way out of that one.”


You’ve reached the Defense One Global Business Brief by Marcus Weisgerber. As the fiscal year comes to an end following the whirlwind that has been September, it’s a good time to recap much of what’s happened. Something I’m pondering: Does anyone hold a fiscal New Year’s Eve party? Google turned up one result. Let me know if you hear of any. As always, send your tips, feedback and random thoughts to or @MarcusReports. Check out the Global Business Brief archive here, and tell your friends to subscribe!

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Coming Up: Global Business Briefing with L3’s CEO

Some exciting news: we have scheduled our second Global Business Briefing, for Oct. 11. It’s with L3 Technologies Chairman and CEO Mike Strianese, and it’ll be a great way to kick off the final day of the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference in downtown Washington, D.C. You are warmly invited to attend; free registration is here.

Inside STRATCOM’s New Headquarters

Two weeks ago (feels like a month), I was at U.S. Strategic Command with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While we were there, the North Koreans decided to fire a missile over Japan. Earlier in the day, I had the chance to walk through the under-construction headquarters building just across the street from the current HQ, named for cigar-chomping Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

Six to eight stories down, the new global operations center is taking shape, with tiered seating facing a giant wall that will be covered by massive screens. Aboveground, a giant glass atrium will serve as the building’s lobby and a meeting point for the 3,500-plus employees who will move in during the coming years.

Unlike the old LeMay building, this one has been purpose-built for modern IT and all of the wires that come along with that. (Side note: the building is expected to cost $1.2 billion; IT alone costs half of that.) When the high-tech building was being designed, engineers visited commercial firms like Google and Apple to get ideas. The hallways are large and airy despite elevated floors and drop ceilings for those wires.

As workers hustled around in hard hats, construction chief Michael Kolster said it hasn’t always been easy to find electricians and drywallers. Construction is booming in the greater Omaha area; a massive Google data center is going up just across the Missouri River in Iowa.

Great Primer on the Columbia-Class Submarine

If you have a spare six minutes and even a passing interest in things naval or strategic, you should watch Ben Watson’s latest “3 Questions” episode about the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines. The explainer is quite timely: last week, the Navy awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat a $5 billion contract for the first of the new Columbia class. As Ben notes, the only Pentagon programs more expensive than the new submarines are the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and America’s ballistic missile defense shield. Check it out, here.

More Money for Missile Defense

Speaking of missile defense, there might be more money on the way (via a supplemental spending request). Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the request during his re-confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A day later, Tony Bertuca over at Inside Defense had a scoop that the Pentagon was looking to move $416 million within its current budget into missile defense projects, that protect the U.S. from North Korean missiles.

Who Will Win the Air Force Trainer Contest?

The odds — calculated by Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners — are on Boeing. Callan, this week, said there a 40-percent chance Boeing (and its partner Saab) will capture the contract to build 350 new pilot training jets for the Air Force. He assigned Leonardo 32 percent chance of winning and Lockheed Martin a 28 percent chance. What’s the biggest reason for giving Boeing the slight edge? To keep its aircraft production factory in St. Louis alive long enough to compete against Lockheed for future combat aircraft projects. It’s worth pointing out though that Callan previously pegged Boeing’ chances of winning at 65 percent.

Proposed Fighter Jet Deals Boost Arms Sales Numbers

If no deals are announced before Saturday, the number of foreign military sales cleared by the State Department will total $75.9 billion, according to a tally by Aaron Mehta at Defense News. Proposed fighter jet deals alone  — $21 billion for F-15s for Qatar; $10 billion for F/A-18 Super Hornets for Kuwait; $2.7 billion for F-16s for Bahrain and $5.2 billion for F/A-18 Super Hornets for Canada — accounted for 52 percent of the deals.

Reminder: approval for a deal doesn’t mean it will go through. Example: the Canadian Super Hornets is on thin ice. That’s because Hornet maker Boeing this week persuaded the Commerce Department to slap a 220 percent tariff on a new passenger jetliner made by Canada’s Bombardier. While this tariff could persuade U.S. airlines to buy Boeing’s 737 instead of Bombardier C-Series, it also could kill the $5 billion Super Hornet deal. Remember, Canada — which has old F/A-18 Hornets — wanted the Super Hornets as a gapfiller as it decides whether it will ultimately purchase F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Bonus: Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg chatted with Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley at The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute Washington Ideas on Wednesday. No talk about the Canada Super Hornets here, but Muilenburg does discuss future technologies and his vision for the future of Boeing and the aerospace sector. The video is here.

Selling American Guns Overseas

It’s about to get easier, according to Reuters. That’s because the Trump Administration is preparing to shift approval of non-military sales from the State Department to Commerce. The changes could boost the number of American jobs at gunmakers, but not all are celebrating the approval. Critics say the changes could allow weapons to more easily get in the hands in unintended users.

More on Arms Deals: Bill Hartung of the Center for International Policy has a new report out today about UAE military. It’s Hartung’s latest look into the American weapons that are being used in the war in Yemen, which has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians. “The United States has made offers of over $27 billion worth of weaponry to the UAE under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) since 2009, in 31 separate deals. The offers have included 97 Apache attack helicopters, over 30,000 bombs, 4,569 Mine Resistant Armor Protected (MRAP) vehicles, 16 Chinook transport helicopters, and a Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.” Here’s Hartung’s previous report on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Making Moves

Lots of folks — lots — are taking new jobs. Here’s a downpayment on all the news:

Northrop Grumman, which recently announced an agreement to buy Orbital ATK, also has a slew of leadership moves, all effective on New Year’s Day: 1) Kathy Warden was elected president and COO; 2) Mark Caylor was named corporate vice president and president of the Mission Systems business; 3) Shawn Purvis was named corporate vice president and president of Enterprise Services; 4) Lesley Kalan was elected corporate vice president of government relations.

Former Army Secretary Eric Fanning has been named CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, one of the top defense industry advocacy groups. The organization’s current head, David Melcher, announced in July that he would step down at the end of the year. Fanning takes over on Jan. 1.

Let’s now shift to inside the Pentagon. Back in April, we were hearing rumblings that U.S. Special Operations Command acquisition head James “Hondo” Geurts was in line for a top position at the Pentagon. He’s been nominated for assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.

Other Trump administration nominations sent to Congress: Robert Behler to be director of operational test and evaluation and Thomas Modly to be undersecretary of the Navy. The White House has also said it would nominate Robert McMahon to be an assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness.