Shanzai! The Era of DIY Warfare

Low-cost knocks offs of multimillion dollar weapons systems - the era of large scale, run-and-gun DIY micro-warfare is just around the corner.


SEVERAL months ago, awaiting a delayed night flight at LaGuardia airport, I engaged in some idle banter on Twitter with a friend and former colleague, Josh Calder, about the latest Libya dispatch from New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers. We were discussing his report that the rebels had successfully fired a 57mm launcher when, to our mutual surprise, Chivers chimed in, presumably from some roadside cover between Brega and Ajdabiya. He pointed out that success is a relative term in those conditions: “What do you mean by ‘succesful (sic) firing?’ The rockets left the launcher? That's part 1. Part 2 = where did they land?”

Chivers has so far been second to none in drawing attention to the almost comically makeshift arsenal being assembled against Qaddafi’s well-armed forces. Roughly six weeks into the conflict, outgunned and getting only air support from NATO, rebel groups had taken to creating their own DIY artillery such as pickup-truck mounted rocket launchers appropriated from attack helicopters, modified rifles, sidearms and munitions, and, soon after, armoured vehicles and other military machines. A peek inside the Libyan rebels’ workshops reveals scenes that are positively neo-medieval: welders, grinders and cutters all at work turning junked-out mini-pickups into apocalyptic death machines that would have a weekend machinists’ club salivating. Add to this the rebels' own hacked-together mobile phone networks, and we have a prime example of a militia being built from scratch – the sort of thing that defines what some are referring to as the “maker” era.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the view into Libya’s workshops is that these kinds of arms factories have previously been out of sight and behind enemy lines, the preserve of hostile terrorist and insurgent groups. They have also tended to be on a much smaller scale—a batch of ball bearings stuffed into a pipe here, some electric doorbells made into triggering devices there. In Libya, to paraphrase the apocryphal Roosevelt quote about Antonio Somoza, these are our sons of bitches. We should get used to the view: we're looking at the emerging shape of 21st century warfare as it begins to scale down, from billion-dollar bomber vs. billion-ruble air defence system, to 12-inch drone vs. techno-slingshot.

Insurgencies have cobbled together bits and pieces of weaponry since the dawn of conflict. The story of every guerrilla struggle has typically been one of asymmetry and ingenuity. Only the weapon of choice changes—from a sharp rock to tubs of burning pitch to roadside IEDs. What makes the current phase stand out is its use of the open source ideal, and the accelerated processes that come with modern technology, networks, media and the ability to harness innovations in small-scale manufacturing. Throw in a contracting global economy, shrinking military budgets and growing isolationism, and the stage seems set for a boom in DIY warfare on a microscale—marked by militias as startups, garage-born arms, hacker-driven intelligence and DIY communication.

About the same time that the US was getting bogged down in Iraq, two intellectural threads were being noted, by analysts like John Robb on open source warfare, and people like Tim O'Reilly on the maker movement. The economic nose-dive back home put the spotlight on the marriage of frugality with resourcefulness and technical savvy. As Robb was looking at fourth-generation warfare for his seminal book “Brave New War,” the first Maker Faire, a sort of swap-meet of technological tinkerers, was happening in San Mateo, California. Thanks to the power of globalisation, opposition fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking advantage of the same access to cheap technology and know-how that enabled people in Arizona to toy with backyard rockets.

Fast forward to today, and we aren’t just talking about roadside bombs. Now, sophisticated weapons, transport and even surveillance fuel international and intra-national cat and mouse games between those with power and those with a roll of duct tape, internet access and a spare diesel engine. A full-on global conflict is brewing in hardware and it parallels, in an unsettling way, the expanding hot war in geo-economic hacking. Mexican drug gangs have gained notoriety for developing “tanks” to combat security forces, no doubt inspired by the Colombian narco-submarine business, which, while only in existence for a few years, can now boast in its arsenals 100-foot-plus craft capable of travelling 30 feet below the ocean’s surface from home ports to the Mexican coast.

The poster boy of this movement is the unmanned drone, which has become the focus of amateur weapons builders as well as harmless hobbyists. With the increased use of drones by Western militaries, and an expected boom in “legitimate” drone building (analysts at the Teal Group put global spending on drone development at an estimated US$94 billion by 2021), everyone wants to get involved. A recent Brookings paper details the threats of reduced size and cost of dones, pointing out that “in some respects today’s drones are more similar to smartphones than to cruise missiles.” In essence, small drones today are little more than mobile apps with wings, and as such can be created in short order with a few simple parts. Teal estimates upwards of 70 countries are involved in producing drone technology, including a push in China to match US capability.

The line between official and underground blurs a bit more every day. DARPA has got into the act, using a program called UAVForge to crowdsource for low-cost drone designs from private drone enthusiasts —effectively formalising the connection between the DIY and defence communities. And why stop in the lower atmosphere? Make: Magazine dedicated a recent issue to techniques for creating simple satellites for under US$8,000 and getting them into orbit, a process easily  reproduced through military use of over-the-counter parts (as the US Air Force  has done already).  If you think it’s getting harder to tell which side is the upstart in this scaled-down warfare, you’re not alone.

One wonders if we aren’t eventually going to see “peak arms,” in which the combination of know-how, technology and economics put a permanent crunch on the growth of the global arms trade, which now stands at almost half a trillion dollars, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The shift away from straight-forward state-on-state wars has heralded a proliferation of conflict types: not just battles between states and non-state actors, but also conflicts that only indirectly involve governments such as narco-wars, cross-border hacker battles, violent competition between corporations, and infighting among terrorist groups and insurgent organisations, to name but a few. This can only drive demand for the tools of high-tech, low-intensity conflict and broaden the global supply chains that provide them.

As with mobile phones and other consumer electronics, pirates are only too happy to grab a piece of armament and quickly knock off a cheaper, home made version of it. Concerns over what might happen to the surviving tail rotor of the stealth helicopter that crashed in bin Laden's Abbottabad compound suggest something more serious is going on. With a growing convergence between our favourite gadgets and lethal weapons, there is an increasing ability to “Shanzai” – or create an effective, low-cost knock-off – of a multi-million dollar piece of materiel. This kind of systematised piracy and the boom in black market electronics keep the technology industry awake at night, and it is likely to become an increasingly central focus of defence planning in the coming decade. The era of large scale, run-and-gun DIY micro-warfare is just around the corner. 


Scott Smith is a futurist, founder and principal of Changeist, LLC, a foresight and strategic design lab.