WASHINGTON: This time last year, top Pentagon officials were very publicly touting the Pentagon’s new Third Offset Strategy. Then offset went into stealth mode as people went behind closed doors to wrestle with what it would actually be.
So, I asked Deputy Secretary Bob Work yesterday, what’s up with offset? Work’s response made clear the concept — arguably his brainchild more than any other person’s — remains a high priority under current Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“I can’t give you, Sydney, exactly, what the Third Offset is yet,” Work said at the Defense One summit yesterday afternoon. “[But] the Secretary will be talking about it here soon, and you will see, when we roll out the budget in February, the technological and operational bets that we’re making to preserve our conventional edge.”
Well, we’ll see some, Work clarified. Some will be too secret. Stealth aircraft were a crucial part of the what’s often called the Second Offset Strategy in the 1970s and 1980s, along with precision-guided weapons and computerized command-and-control, but, Work noted, the Pentagon didn’t discuss stealth until 1989.
This time around, the most secret secrets are likely to be offensive cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities. Work didn’t say this. But he did say that, alongside defending military networks and civilian critical infrastructure, a third crucial component of cybersecurity was “offensive cyber capability which would deter attacks on us” — whatever deterrence means in cyberspace, which Work acknowledged is still unclear. There may be classified developments in space as well. After all, the administration has publicly committed $5 billion in new money over the next five years to classified space control spending.
Other potential offsets unmentioned by Work include laser weapons and rail guns. These offer the possibility of shooting down incoming missiles — as well as enemy drones and even manned aircraft — at a fraction of the cost per shot of current missile defense systems, which would run out of ammo under heavy attack.
There’s tremendous military interest in robotics of all kinds, from the self-driving ground vehicles to mine-hunting mini-subs to drones. Robots don’t only help keep humans out of harm’s way: They can also, if they are cheap, expendable, and numerous, give the American military the kind of numerical advantage it hasn’t enjoyed since World War II.
Indeed, the term “offset strategy” itself was coined in the 1970s to describe a situation where the US couldn’t match Soviet numbers, so it would have to “offset” them with superior quality and technology. The idea was then applied retroactively to President Eisenhower’s “New Look,” which offset Communist numerical superiority not by building up conventional forces but by threatening to nuke any aggressor to oblivion — at a time when America’s atomic arsenal far outweighed any competitor’s. When the Soviets caught up on nukes, the US turned to conventional but precision-guided weapons, what’s now called the “Second Offset Strategy.”
There’s a big difference between these previous offset strategies and today’s, Work warned, and it’s a difference that makes fixating on specific technologies an error.
“The first and second offsets only had one competitor you had to fight against,” Work said. “Now we have four different potential competitors that we worry about” — Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea — “plus we have this condition of transnational regional terrorism,” most notably manifesting as the Islamic State at the moment but always metastasizing into new forms.
“We also had a very steady, very stable long-term competition with the Soviet Union,” Work went on, in which the US and the American military-industrial complex in particular were on the leading edge of innovation. Nowadays, new technology with military applications is constantly coming out of civilian companies around the globe.
So with many adversaries, all able to access many sources of innovation, the resulting competition is far more complex, unpredictable, and intense than during the Cold War. “This is much more like the interwar period [1919-1939] where everybody knew there was radios, everyone knew there were tanks, [and] everybody knew there were airplanes,” Work said, “but only certain competitors put them all together and made them into an initial operational and tactical advantage.”
That’s an “initial advantage” because others could often copy it. Japanese carriers bombed Pearl Harbor only to be crushed by American carriers (and codebreakers) at Midway seven months later. Germany overran most of Russia in 1941, but by 1944 the Russians were blitzkrieging the Germans right back. In the 21st century, with new technology available to all, such quick reversals will be the norm, not America’s decades-long monopoly on stealth (which has now ended).
“This is going to be a very, very competitive environment. It’s going to be ripe for technological surprise,” Work said. “In the Third Offset…we’re no longer thinking about trying to have an advantage for 40 years — [there are] too many fast followers — so what we’re planning on doing this time is, what can we do to get an advantage for the next five to ten years, and then immediately start working on the advantage that will give us an edge in the next five to ten [after that].”
The problem is the Pentagon is actually pretty terrible at this kind of rapid-fire innovation. So the first thing to fix may not be any technology, but the system by which the military acquires technology.
That’s something Work acknowledged. Sec. Carter has chartered a new outreach office in Silicon Valley to bridge the gap between the defense-industrial complex and information entrepreneurs, he noted. The Pentagon is doing a $10 million pilot project with the intelligence community’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel. And Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall has launched a long-range R&D plan. The Defense Department, Work said, is “really try[ing] to change the paradigm so we can become more nimble in this very, very competitive environment.”