Can America Maintain Its Military-Technology Edge?

Why it's time for a third "offset strategy."

In a recent NDU speech, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, spoke about the need for a third offset strategy in order to maintain U.S. technological superiority. This raises a couple of questions: What is an “offset strategy”? And what is the Department of Defense (DoD) thinking about with this approach?

A keen student of military-technical history, Work is building on two famous previous such strategies. By offset, he means a strategy that allows one force to overcome or mitigate another force’s advantages. Looking back, Work identifies the use of superior U.S. nuclear capability in the early part of the Cold War, under Eisenhower in particular, to “offset” the numerical superiority of Soviet forces. This first offset strategy was successful until the Soviet Union developed a credible second-strike nuclear capability and especially as it achieved nuclear parity and mutually assured destruction with the United States. This left the United States in a bind, as it was no longer credible that the United States would risk its own destruction by using nuclear weapons first against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

Accordingly, the United States then developed a second, conventional “offset” strategy, designed to create a stronger conventional deterrent against the numerically superior Soviets. This strategy has since become known as the Offset Strategy.

Developed under the leadership of then-Under Secretary of Defense Bill Perry in the late 1970s, there were two primary components to the Offset Strategy. First, the DOD generated technological superiority by investing its robust research and development (R&D) budget into specific information-based technological enablers and ‘force multipliers’ like global positioning services (GPS), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and a range of information and networking technologies that would improve the efficacy of extant U.S. weapons platforms.

Second, this technological advantage, funded, built and controlled by the United States, was preserved through a series of export and trade controls, including the Arms Export Control Act, International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Missile Technology Control Regime that allowed the United States and its allies to provide or deny access to particular technologies as required.

The Offset Strategy was a masterful success, ushering in an era of unparalleled U.S. military-technical dominance. The strategy was successful because it responded to a well-understood and directive threat and to a particular military problem: the necessity to create a serious conventional deterrent against numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces. It was also perfectly aligned with the prevailing grand strategy of containment. Further, it capitalized on (and contributed to) a real strength: the advanced state of American technological development relative to the rest of the world. As a major side benefit, DOD investments in R&D as part of the Offset Strategy significantly helped the U.S. economy with technologies like GPS, satellites and computer networking, creating entire industries with American companies at the forefront.

While the Offset Strategy propelled the United States to technological dominance during the Cold War, that advantage is now eroding. That is what the Deputy Secretary is responding to in his recent speech, and he is right to be looking for a new strategy. The offset strategies of years gone by provide inspiration and many useful lessons, especially as the U.S. military gets smaller.

But today is also different, and we can’t forget that. Thirty-five years later, the driving factors that catalyzed and enabled the Offset Strategy no longer exist. While no longer facing a clear existential threat, the United States now faces a more uncertain strategic environment with an increasing range of threats to mitigate. The past thirteen years of engagement in the Middle East have underscored how the United States can struggle against smaller forces, not just the numerically superior foes we sought to deter in the Cold War. More broadly, there is no longer a singular grand strategy to act as a guide for DOD technology strategy, R&D or the defense industry. Finally, innovation is not just a DOD preserve. Beginning in the 1980s, the weight of R&D budgets—along with the locus of technological innovation—has shifted to the global private sector, meaning that DOD cannot maintain exclusive access to, or easily control the proliferation of, new technologies.

At the same time, the United States’ increasingly homogenous platforms, predictable capability mixes and well-understood doctrine provides our increasingly diverse adversaries the opportunity to employ their own offset strategies against us. Technically inferior, near-peer competitors can invest in capabilities, such as GPS denial or antisatellite weapons, to deny U.S. technological advantages. Expensive and time-consuming U.S. R&D and capability development further allows these competitors to employ second-mover strategies that rapidly exploit our intellectual property to develop less expensive technologies in larger quantities. Numerically and technically inferior nonstate actors, having learned how to exploit improvised explosive devices to strategic effect, can now obtain GPS, ISR and unmanned technologies from commercial markets as inexpensive information-based ‘force multipliers’ of their own. Such strategies mirror the exact approach that Secretary Perry employed decades ago.

The DOD and its industry partners must, therefore, develop a new strategic approach to military-technical superiority.