Preserving U.S. Military Might: How to Make the Third Offset Strategy a Success

Nations like China and Russia are zeroing in on perceived areas of U.S. military weakness. The recently declared "third offset" could keep Washington ahead of the curve. Here are five ways to make this effort a success. 

In a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library on November 15th, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel introduced the Defense Innovation Initiative or DII, a set of projects some have dubbed the “Third Offset Strategy.” Hagel challenged his department and the greater defense community to devise technologies and concepts that will ensure that U.S. military forces retain, as Hagel described, “the ability to project power rapidly across oceans and continents by surging aircraft, ships, troops and supplies. If this capability is eroded or lost, we will see a world far more dangerous and unstable, far more threatening to America and our citizens here at home than we have seen since World War II.”

Hagel warned that, “technologies and weapons that were once the exclusive province of advanced nations have become available to a broad range of militaries and non-state actors,” and “countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge, fielding advanced aircraft, submarines, and both longer range and more accurate missiles. They’re also developing new anti-ship and air-to-air missiles, counter-space, cyber, electronic warfare, undersea, and air attack capabilities.” According to Hagel, “our Armed Forces could one day go into battle confronting a range of advanced technologies that limit our freedom of maneuver. This would allow a potential conflict to exact crippling costs and put at risk too many American lives.” Hagel and his lieutenants (notably Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work) have apparently concluded that business as usual at the Pentagon will no longer be adequate.

The Defense Innovation Initiative comprises several research, experimentation, concept development, personnel, and management reform programs, structured around the goal of efficiently redirecting Pentagon resources to meet the challenges Hagel described. At this point however, the initiative appears vague and unformed. Hagel’s grab-bag list of currently trendy technologies – “robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing” – was not linked to any particular military problem or operational concept. And Hagel’s description of the initiative’s other experimental and conceptual components seemed equally hazy.

Since the initiative has just been launched, this lack of clarity may be understandable. But it also identifies the need to focus on specific and realistic results, lest the initiative later flounder into a swamp of waste that leaves the United States and its allies unprepared for the threats Hagel described. Fortunately, managers of the Third Offset Strategy can learn from previous successful (and unsuccessful) military innovation initiatives to improve their odds of success.

Here are five steps Pentagon leaders can take to make the Third Offset Strategy work:

1. Remember the ultimate goal, namely influencing the adversary’s calculations and behavior:

New technology programs and operational concepts are not ends in themselves, nor should they be pursued merely because they are interesting ideas. Innovation initiatives should support deterrence and bargaining leverage. The closer the programs tie to these ultimate goals, the more useful they will be to national strategy.

The first two offset strategies adhered to this precept. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” strategy used America’s overwhelming advantage in nuclear weapons and bombers to offset the threat posed by the massive Soviet army in eastern Europe. New Look’s threat of nuclear retaliation appeared to successfully deter Soviet leaders from risking military expansion into Western Europe.

By the 1970s, the USSR’s nuclear arsenal had caught up with America’s and thus undercut the credibility of a U.S. strategy based on the threat of massive retaliation. Meanwhile, the large and highly mechanized Red Army remained poised on NATO’s frontier. The “Assault Breaker” concept, the fielding of new precision munitions technologies, was the second offset strategy and targeted Soviet army follow-on echelons, a main element of Soviet offensive doctrine. Assault Breaker attacked the Soviet army’s main operational concept and thus created doubts inside the minds of Soviet commanders, a key aspect of successful deterrence.

Designers of the Third Offset strategy should similarly place a high priority on the direct link between their new technologies and concepts and the influence it will have on adversary calculations and behavior.

2. Focus on solving specific military problems:

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