Here Is the Secret Formula to Make Sure the Third Offset Succeeds
Wide-ranging advances in military capabilities by potential adversaries of the United States are driving a major reassessment of American power projection dominance. In broad terms, this reassessment is known as the Third Offset. This initiative primarily aims at overcoming competitors’ progress in electronic warfare, surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, long-range cruise missiles, and theater ballistic missiles in order to preserve the power projection advantage enjoyed by the United States for the last twenty-five years. As the Third Offset concept matures, it must account for the changing political, economic, and military context faced by the United States with a strategic approach that leverages both technological trends and new political realities.
There are two main contextual trends the Third Offset must address. The first is the status quo character of contemporary US foreign policy goals. During the Cold War, US foreign policy focused on resisting communist expansion by deterring and defeating threats to the “free world” and seeking widespread political reform throughout the communist sphere of influence. The status quo of global ideological conflict was seen as unacceptable and US foreign policy for the last half of the 20th century actively sought large-scale changes to the existing international system. Today, the United States maintains a broad foreign policy agenda aimed at promoting freedom and democracy around the world. However, in the post-Cold War world, contemporary US planning objectives for major conflict generally center on maintaining the territorial integrity of an ally against regional threats or preventing an emerging power from dominating a global common traditionally open for international use. In short, contemporary US foreign policy goals largely focus on preserving the international system as it evolved following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
This overarching posture must inform US military strategy and investments. This does not mean that the United States should abandon the expeditionary capability to conduct missions such as counter-terrorism and limited counterinsurgency operations abroad. But, it does mean that at the high end of conflict the United States should acknowledge that its goals are now largely to deter and, if necessary, defeat threats to the current international system.
The second trend is the realization that defensive technologies are on the rise relative to offensive capabilities. The Second Offset saw the rise of several specific technologies that gave the United States a marked offensive advantage over Soviet-built systems. Stealth aircraft, the global positioning system, and precision guided munitions are good examples of how the United States largely negated decades of Soviet investments in air defenses and large-scale ground maneuver units during the 1980s. While the ultimate impetus for these capabilities was the defense of NATO, Second Offset platforms and weapons were designed to be employed offensively in what was known doctrinally as AirLand Battle. The effectiveness of these systems was clearly demonstrated during the fast-paced and lopsided US victory in Operation Desert Storm. Today, advances in missile technology and electronic warfare (broadly known as Anti-Access Area Denial or A2AD) threaten to not only degrade Second Offset capabilities, but also challenge the effectiveness of the entire spectrum of US power projection capabilities.
The big strategic question that the United States must ask in response to all of this, is not: “how do we regain power projection dominance in every conceivable context?” Instead, policymakers and strategists should ask, “how do we meet the status quo strategic goals of the United States in a 21st century political-military context?” It should not be assumed that an expansive power projection capability is the only way to meet every US goal. Making this assumption in the context of relatively cheap and increasingly effective defensive technologies will inevitably put the United States on the wrong side of the cost imposition curve.
Instead, a Third Offset strategy must combine the status quo policy goals of the United States with the rising efficacy of defensive capabilities to advocate for the deployment and export (when appropriate) of defensive capabilities meant to counter the power projection forces of emerging peer and near-peer adversaries. Simply put, given that US goals are largely defensive, the United States should embrace, not fear, the relative rise of defensive capabilities. Admittedly, such an approach will not solve the A2AD problem entirely or overcome the “tyranny of distance” in every potential operational scenario. However, by fielding defensive systems aimed at countering adversary power projection, the United States can largely flip the current cost imposition curve and force potential adversaries to face the same dilemmas that A2AD currently poses against the United States.