The Defense Offset Strategy Needs A Big Idea

26 April 2015 • 0 Comments

There is no mistaking what’s foremost in Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s mind these days. Twice in two days last week, he used a tangential speaking obligation to underscore the key tenets of his call for a new offset strategy. At the Pentagon endorsing the implementing instructions for Better Buying Power 3.0, Work said the impetus for the offset strategy is “an urgent concern . . . [about] a steady erosion of our technological superiority that we have relied upon for so long in all our defense strategies.” The day before, the Deputy Secretary had implored students and staff at the Army War College to join the initiative’s campaign “to identify the technologies, identify the operational and organizational constructs . . . to fight our future adversaries.”

The time is surely right for the Pentagon to focus its attention on retooling military capabilities. The counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, of necessity, imbalanced our forces’ readiness for other kinds of conflict. And the flat outlook for US defense spending will continue to impose trade-offs that test priorities. But the occasion for this initiative also arises from historical changes on the landscape of economics and technology. And while there is plainly an appreciation of how the distribution of economic power and diffusion of technologic know-how is transforming the threat, too little is being said about how these factors also will shape the particular leverage America and the West can employ to offset adversaries’ comparative advantages. Simply put, I believe that our reflex to gain that leverage from still another technological revolution is misguided.

By invoking the term offset strategy, the Deputy Secretary is harkening to two historical precedents. Early 1954, President Eisenhower announced the results of a “New Look” at US force posture in Europe, where the Warsaw Pact enjoyed an overwhelming advantage of conventional forces. To counter Soviet superiority without bankrupting the West, the New Look traded manpower for nuclear warheads and their delivery systems, in which the US enjoyed a decisive technological advantage over the Soviets.

By the mid-1970s when the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons and adaptation of its conventional forces again called into question the credibility of European defenses, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown initiated what came to be regarded as the second offset strategy. Given its clearest expression in the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDP) run from William Perry’s directorate for research and engineering, the resulting strategy set out to achieve decisive military advantage by the employment of precision-guided weapons orchestrated through a network of command, control, communications, and intelligence.

New Look marked a lethality revolution in US defense planning, and the LRRDP is credited with instigating a precision revolution that has differentiated US military capabilities from the Gulf War in 1991 through today. So, what kind of revolution in US military capabilities will Bob Work’s turn of the offset-strategy wheel produce? To answer that question, the Pentagon carefully will need to discern the most problematic military challenges adversaries present and, in turn, the comparative advantages from which our society can gain leverage.

At Carlisle, Work proffered a three-pronged challenge confronting US military forces: The proliferation of precision munitions amplified through an “informationalized” operating concept and employed by a diversity of fighting formations. Sharpening that formulation into a problem statement as compelling as the ones Ike and Bill Perry had to work from would go a long way toward focusing the work of the initiative, which today seems diffused across a too-broad range of objectives. Unhelpfully, in my view, the Deputy Secretary now speaks of not one but several offset strategies encompassing a multitude of potential competitors each of which is “probably going to require a different approach and a different strategy.”

More importantly, realizing an effective new offset strategy also will require a new understanding of the sources of America’s comparative advantage in the 21st century. As currently articulated, the initiative seems to assume that the sources which were decisive in the two strategies to offset Soviet military power—superior economic and technological resources—can be relied upon again to overcome contemporary military challenges. But they cannot: Economic power is today broadly distributed and most advanced technologies are accessible around the globe.

If America’s economic and technological resources are no longer truly discriminating, from what sources are we going to find the leverage needed to fuel the strategy? Will the third offset strategy mark a revolution in military adaptation that leverages our society’s nearly unique capacity to absorb and prosper from change? Will it harness America’s still-dominant media and entertainment industries to overmatch adversaries’ attempts to command the narrative of conflict? Or, will the third offset strategy be remembered as a revolution in operating and organizational constructs that exploits the American propensity for business-model innovations that build “blue oceans” of uncontested market space?

These are the big ideas at the heart of the problem facing the Pentagon’s offset strategists, and which I hope the Pentagon will address before setting out simply trying again to invent our way to a third offset strategy.

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