Outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced a new "offset strategy" for DoD. This initiative seeks to focus and energize technology development and systems engineering so US forces will be better able to function in the more challenging combat environments of the future.
The need for such an effort is clear to anyone who studies the military capabilities and strategies of potential adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. If the US is to retain its status as the security partner of choice for many of the world's most important states, and help sustain peace and stability in regions critical to our own security, future US forces must be far more capable.
Promoting the right kind of innovation won't be easy. The operational challenges facing our armed forces today are no less daunting and complex than those of the Cold War. DoD leaders might consider the following pieces of unsolicited advice from a student of force planning.
■ Resist pressures to expand the mandate: One can identify capability gaps in any mission assigned to US armed forces. But maintaining credible capabilities for power projection in regions where potential adversaries are fielding sophisticated anti-access/area denial capabilities is job No. 1. Proponents of other types of capabilities will want to pile onto the new offset bandwagon. They should be repelled.
■ Eschew "transformation": The emphasis on "force transformation," a hallmark of the Donald Rumsfeld years, seems to have fallen out of favor. This is all to the good. There are many reasons it failed as a conceptual approach to force development, but one reason is that it too often failed to meaningfully address real operational challenges. The men and women behind the brilliantly successful offset strategy of the 1970s and 1980s did not come to work wondering how to transform the US armed forces; they focused on trying to solve discrete, enduring, operational problems such as how to disrupt Soviet second echelon forces in the presence of dense, mobile and lethal air defenses.
Today's leaders should follow the example of their predecessors and closely evaluate a few well-defined scenarios, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a Russian invasion of a NATO member state to determine the most serious gaps in US and allied capabilities.
Such an offset initiative could focus on reducing the vulnerability of forward land- and sea-based forces to long-range ballistic and cruise missiles; locating, identifying and engaging military assets integral to the adversary's offensive operation prior to gaining air superiority over the battle space; rapidly suppressing integrated air defenses; and sustaining effective command, control and communications in the presence of intensive electronic, cyber and kinetic attacks.
■ This is not just (or mostly) about the hardware: The challenges posed by our most capable adversaries are extensive enough that simply buying more and better stuff is not adequate. The operational concepts that US forces have used against second- and third-tier adversaries such as Iraq, Serbia and Libya will not prove satisfactory against far more capable opponents.
■ Build the joint analytical foundation: This means that a robust program of concept development, experimentation, gaming and analysis will be essential to the new initiative. It is fine, at one level, to "let a thousand flowers bloom" in the development community, but we will only be able to nurture to maturity and harvest a small fraction of them. Determining which concepts and systems are likely to be most technically and operationally viable requires rigorous analysis.
■ Reward innovators: This sounds obvious and easy to do but is neither. In effect, DoD leaders are asking the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, and other components (e.g., DARPA) to propose new concepts for addressing hard problems. Typically, the "reward" for coming forward with good, new ideas is that the proposing entity is told to implement them using its own resources. In a budget-constrained environment, this compels innovative ideas to compete with existing programs, creating strong incentives against proposing new ideas. Leaders need to show they are willing to move resources to support promising new approaches.
■ Don't be shy about asking for more money: DoD does not have sufficient funds to do all that it is being asked to do. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has been clear that the department needs additional topline funds. Numerous programs that could provide the sorts of capabilities needed to meet aspects of the anti-access, area-denial challenge have been curtailed. A force constrained by the budget ceilings imposed by the Budget Control Act will not be able to support a strategy of US leadership.
David Ochmanek is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.