WASHINGTON — Come January, the Pentagon will almost assuredly have new leadership, complete with a new vision for how the Department of Defense should operate, organize and plan for the future.
It’s a reality facing down Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Deputy Secretary Bob Work as they try to complete a transformation at the Pentagon, one which both men have said is vital to making sure the US is able to maintain its technological edge against great powers like Russia and China in the future.
While Carter has made his reach-out to nontraditional communities the centerpiece of his initiative, Work’s focus has been the “Third Offset,” a series of technological bets, largely focused on man-unmanned teaming, that he believes will pay off in the future.
So how do you make sure that a long-term project like the Third Offset keeps going under a new administration?
“We have three really complimentary ways to go about this,” Work said Monday at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.
The first, he explained, is giving many options to the next administration.
“First of all, I’m going to be central to the transition, so I am going to be able to personally talk with the transition team and explain to them what we have pursued and why we have pursued it, and let them make their own decisions,” Work said.
“One of the things we have done in our program is build in a lot of different options that they can pull levers on,” Work explained.
As an example, he pointed to the idea of an electromagnetic railgun. Initially, Work and his team thought that was an area that would be a major focus of development, but as they experimented they realized that a powder gun with a hypervelocity round could have almost the same impact — but at a fraction of the cost, because it did not require the development, testing and adaptation of a new gun.
“We’re going to say ‘look, this is the place where [we think] you want to put your money,’ but we’re going to have enough money in both the electromagnetic railgun and the powder gun that if the new administration says ‘I really want the electromagnetic railgun, this is the way I want to go,’ knock yourself out,” Work said. “We’ve set you up for success.”
The second part of the plan involves Congress. While the Senate has shown general backing for the Third Offset plan, Work called out the House Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, as particularly supportive of the initiative.
“They were quite complimentary of it in testimony and they are going to try and help us make sure that this goes across administrations,” the deputy secretary said.
Finally, the Third Offset requires getting buy-in from military leaders who will outlast the political appointees at the top of the department.
“The most important thing is try to convince senior leadership, military leadership in the department, that regardless of what political leadership sits here, this is something they need to pursue, from an organizational perspective, from an operational perspective,” Work said.
The good news on that front — Carter has helped choose new leadership for the entire Joint Chiefs, a rare opportunity for a secretary of Defense, and has made choices largely seen as innovative and tech friendly.
Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is seen as particularly forward on the Third Offset and other technological initiatives that will need to outlast the Obama administration in order to have any lasting impact.