A growing budget deficit, increasing peer competitor expansion combined with an urgent need to modernize our military for the 2020s and beyond have made the third offset strategy more than a concept — it is an urgent matter that can't be put off.
Recently, at our annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work spoke about this third offset strategy. He said: "Offset is about operational and organizational constructs which are 'enabled' by new technology but not simply a matter of technology."
Said another way, an offset means countering an apparent advantage, not by simply throwing money at it but finding new and innovative ways to counter a threat. An offset should throw adversaries back on their heels. It should make them cringe and say: "Where did that come from?" In its simplest form it means harnessing existing technologies while investing in new ones to better effects. We painfully learned this lesson in 1939 when everyone had tanks, planes and troops but the German blitzkrieg harnessed these existing technologies in a new way that, if only temporarily, rocked us back on our heels.
To better understand this concept, let's go back to the first offset strategy. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union fielded a much larger military force in Eastern Europe than NATO. We couldn't match them in numbers so we grew our arsenal of nuclear weapons by building a triad consisting of bombers, missiles and submarines to deter any Soviet intention of invading Western Europe. Although at the time we had no way of knowing just how profound this strategy would be, it helped lead to the demise of the Soviet Union.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the second offset occurred as a result of the development of precision-guided conventional weapons employed under the new operational concept of joint operations. The key drivers of this strategy were precision, stealth and an operational concept that focused on achieving desired effects as opposed to simply destruction. Precision began to replace mass as a means to achieve desired military effects. That changed the very character of war. Nowhere was this better displayed than in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Literally, voices all around the world said: "Where did that come from?"
Stealth and precision allowed the realization of perhaps the most important new feature of warfare — a concept of operations aimed at achieving control over an enemy’s essential systems. It was an effects-based approach recognizing that undermining an adversary’s freedom to operate as desired is as important as, or even more important than, simply destroying the forces he relies on for conquest.
The downside to that success is while the world watched, they also learned what they needed to do to catch up.
Since then, the emergence of China and the reemergence of Russia as challengers to the US position as the world’s sole superpower has us rethinking our current strategy, and now everyone is talking about the need for a third offset.
While we’ve been at war in the Middle East for the last 26 years, China dramatically modernized their military with next-generation fighter aircraft, anti-ship missiles and a modernized Navy. It brazenly claimed most of the South China Sea, which is rich in mineral deposits; threatened the straits of Malacca, in which three billion barrels of oil pass through on tankers; and declared area defense zones across the Pacific by building island bases and landing fields to threaten the use of the global commons and free shipping lanes. China is now building its first military base outside of mainland China on the Horn of Africa, and it has tested anti-satellite weapons, vastly increasing its influence in space and cyberspace.
Russia has not been sitting idle. Hoping to regain their influence in Europe, Russia has modernized its military with fifth-generationlike aircraft, anti-aircraft technology and advances in cyber. It has continued to sell advanced ground-to-air missile technology around the world. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Georgia and re-establishment of bases in the Middle East is an indication of its intent to insert itself as a major influence in world affairs.
The need for a new way of thinking is vital, as we are still engaged in a war in the Middle East, combined with a nuclear threat from North Korea, a hostile Iran and the growing threat of international terrorism. Meanwhile, we can’t spend our way into an advantage.
The Department of Defense asked for $3.6 billion in the 2017 defense budget to begin research and development for the third offset capabilities we will need to meet the new security challenges; however, some of these capabilities exist now, according to Work.
"They’re about technologically enabled operational and organizational constructs that [give] the joint force an advantage — primarily at the operational level of war, but also the tactical — thereby strengthening conventional deterrence. And we’re starting to see examples of both," Work said.
He highlighted an organizational construct of the third offset using the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center as an example.
"It is designed to perform battle management and
command and control
of a space constellation (i.e., satellites) under threat of attack. It has to fight through those attacks and provide the space support that the joint force relies upon," he said. "We’ve never had something like that before because we’ve never needed something like that before, but it is the first step in the third offset to start to readdress and to extend our margin of operational superiority.
"Achieving the third offset and improving the battle network’s performance means exploiting advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy, allowing the joint force to assemble and operate advanced joint collaborative human-machine battle networks of even greater power."
This means we could see more human-machine interaction, plugging every airman, soldier, Marine and sailor into a "combat cloud" network enabling the ubiquitous sharing of information and off-board control of weapons to dramatically increase our joint task force’s situational advantage. This will become the basis for the third offset.
The US Air Force will be front and center of any offset strategy. With major investments to come in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the B-21 Raider, F-35, GPS III, and KC-46, it is vital for the United States to have a strategy that combines these platforms with the command and control our commanders need to stay ahead of and meet the challenges of our enemies.
The Pentagon has dedicated $18 billion in its Future Years Defense Program to the research and development of third offset technologies and operational concepts in the years to come. We agree with pursuing the third offset as described by Work at our conference. We cannot afford to have a Marginot Lineof new weapons systems without a new strategy and new operational and organizational constructs that will be necessary to optimally use them.
Gen. Larry O. Spencer (ret.) spent more than 40 years in the Air Force. He is now the president of the Air Force Association.