war on the rocks

Superiority at any Price? Political Consequences of the First Offset Strategy

October 30, 2014

Military strategies serve political ends. Judgments about their effectiveness cannot be separated from the historical and geopolitical context in which they exist. The first U.S. offset strategy met the demands of strategic competition, but in its political context, failed in crucial respects. Any attempt to replicate this past “success” is therefore potentially valuable, but also fraught with hazard. Given the emerging trends in the global security environment, it makes eminent sense that the United States seek ways to offset its strategic vulnerabilities. In so doing though, it must be honest about what did not work in offset strategies past.

The Pentagon’s search for “technological superiority” and a third offset strategy is explicitly premised on the perceived successes of two previous offset strategies—nuclear deterrence in the 1950s and the guided munitions regime in the 1970s. The success the Pentagon wants to replicate is reasonably clear: military-technical advantage in long-term competition with any would-be adversary. At present, this means being able to project power despite anti-access/area denial strategies by adversaries. This aspiration is logical and laudable. Even those who think of international politics as more than competitions in military power surely recognize the strategic constraints imposed on any decision-maker by technological and financial resources. But the flaws of the first offset strategy deserve attention as well, if only to avoid replicating them.

Political Fallout from Nuclear Strategy

In the 1950s, Eisenhower initiated the “New Look,” which represented a shift in military-technical strategy away from principal reliance on mass, maneuver, and mechanized warfare to one that rested on deterrence through U.S. nuclear superiority. The logic of New Look, and the associated doctrine known as “massive retaliation,” was that the United States’ technical advantage in nuclear weapons could be used to offset Eisenhower’s planned drawdown of conventional U.S. force structure, and resulting shortfalls in U.S. ground forces. Eisenhower reasoned that fewer troops and tanks would be necessary to counter adversary conventional forces if deterrence and compellence could be achieved through the threat of overwhelming nuclear attack.

For all its persuasive rationality, this nuclear-reliant offset strategy led to several interrelated political and military consequences: a strategy that the United States acknowledged was premised on a “wasting asset,” nuclear proliferation and incentives for a Soviet first strike, and questionable credibility and constrained policy options during real-world crises.

Even as the Eisenhower administration advocated for a nuclear-centric strategy, military planners knew that nuclear weapons were a “wasting asset,” meaning that the strategic and political value of U.S. nuclear weapons were threatened by others developing them. The ability to rationally coerce others with its nuclear arsenal, based on the thinking at the time, depended on U.S. nuclear primacy, which was quickly eroding. This pushed many U.S. officials into perceiving an emerging “window of vulnerability”—that is, the United States would soon become vulnerable to adversary nuclear weapons if it did not launch preventive attacks to prevent nuclear parity—which logically led to several figures in the U.S. government advocating nuclear preemptive strikes against nuclear-aspirant adversaries, including the Soviet Union and China.

In addition to generating an internal U.S. discourse supporting preemptive nuclear strikes, a strategy that placed at its center a “wasting asset” inspired nuclear proliferation and bolstered Soviet first-strike incentives. U.S. nuclear weapons and the threat of their use did not just drive an arms race with the Soviets, but also proliferation by China and eventually North Korea, both of whom concluded that U.S. attempts at nuclear coercion necessitated nuclear programs of their own. From the Soviet perspective, the idea that any direct conflict with the United States would inevitably lead to massive retaliation gave strong incentives to the Soviet Union to launch nuclear first strikes for its best chance of survival, especially if it believed conflict was impending.

An offset strategy requiring nuclear superiority had a third consequence: Washington’s ability to manage conflict and crisis in the political world of foreign policy, as opposed to the important but arcane world of defense planning and programming, was hindered. Massive retaliation posed an inherent credibility and crisis management problem for U.S. policymakers. Threatening overwhelming destructive force for any reason, short of direct existential danger, was simply not credible. This made translating nuclear superiority into coercive power both dangerous and nearly impossible.

It also had the effect of constraining policy options available to U.S. decision-makers—including Eisenhower himself. In the Quemoy-Matsu crises with China in 1954-55 and 1958, for example, Eisenhower’s preferred response to the seizure of the Taiwan-claimed Dachen islands by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was nuclear brinkmanship, even though his administration’s doctrine of massive retaliation had not deterred the PRC in the first place. In the end, the PRC inflicted more casualties than U.S. or Taiwan forces, occupied the Dachen islands, and used its instigation of the crises for domestic political advantage. Dubious threats of nuclear retaliation, though considered, did not fit the geopolitical circumstances or stakes of the crisis.

Assessing the Failures of Offset 1

Why did the first offset strategy lead to these consequences? It did so in three ways.

The first was a gap between the needs of policymakers, dealing with political realities as they came, and defense planners who did not seem to give pride of place to political ends—never mind that Eisenhower doubled as policymaker and defense planner-in-chief. U.S. policymakers, including Eisenhower, were constrained in how they could deal with real-world crises by the prior commitments made under the first offset strategy. Nuclear weapons were a suboptimal tool for dealing with the world as it was.

The second was the law of unintended consequences: U.S. decision-makers were wholly inattentive to strategic security dilemmas, failing to consider how its use of nuclear coercion would directly motivate others to pursue nuclear weapons, and failing to recognize the incentives the Soviets had to strike the United States preemptively. It’s unfair to criticize the Eisenhower administration for not predicting all the second and third-order effects of its offset strategy, but even a modicum of “red teaming”—or perhaps empathy for the adversary—should have made these consequences foreseeable.

The third, and perhaps most important, way to account for the consequences of the first offset strategy was the centrality it gave to what was widely recognized in U.S. defense planner circles as a “wasting asset.” Even if translating nuclear superiority into political influence with adversaries was a simple task (and it wasn’t), premising a strategy that would drive defense planning—which inherently involves longer-term timelines—on a specific technology whose superiority is inevitably short-lived seems ill-advised in hindsight.

Lessons for a New Offset

On a basic level, the first offset strategy did achieve what it set out to: it leveraged the U.S. comparative advantage in nuclear weapons technology to permit a military drawdown, and rationalize not flooding Europe with conventional ground forces that the United States simply did not have. But the above discussion also reveals the price—potential and actualized—of that offset. Two major lessons emerge.

The primary lesson is that pinning the country’s security to a specific technology was as problematic then as it is today. It’s not just that such a strategy creates strong incentives for international emulation—and thus arms racing—nor is it simply that such a technical solution makes it clear to adversaries what the threat is, and therefore what it needs to do to counter it. Instead, the problem was that the competitive advantage nuclear weapons technology provided was fleeting and U.S. decision-makers knew it. This made policymakers feel vulnerable, ensured the strategy had little prospect of lasting very long, and even at its best made an arms race inevitable. Today, eroding technological superiority—traditionally a U.S. advantage—is the very reason why Pentagon leadership is calling for a third offset strategy. But even if a technological solution for a third offset strategy is possible in today’s world, it cannot endure for long because of the rapid rate of technological change and diffusion.

The other overwhelming lesson that comes from analyzing the first offset strategy in its political context is that an explicit goal of military-technical strategy should be to improve policymakers’ prospects for preserving U.S. interests, and dealing with the current and future security environment. The goal was never to fight and win a nuclear war; it was to give present and future policymakers the ability to prevail if the unthinkable did happen. Carrying this experience forward, it implies that defense planning and force structure decisions should improve options for current and future policymakers, not constrain them. Sure, strategy is about making choices and setting priorities, but a criterion for assessing those choices should be the extent to which it equips the country to deal with the world as it is and is likely to be.

The above discussion is not intended to argue that nuclear weapons had no value during the Cold War. But as the basis for a strategy to offset conventional advantages of adversaries, they were inadequate to the task of meeting the strategic and political needs of the day. In this case, as with U.S. military culture generally, there was a tendency to treat technology as strategy.

In an era where foreign policy is crisis-driven, Pentagon leadership deserves plaudits for its foresight in seeking a strategy able to surmount its emerging long-term vulnerabilities. A third offset strategy is important because the goal is important. Achieving this goal though requires more than simply replicating offset strategies past, as the history of the first offset strategy cautions.

Technological superiority is valuable when it’s possible, and technology can be crucial to deterrence and defense. But as the Pentagon seeks to create a third offset strategy, it’s crucial to place technology in its political context, being sensitive to the reality that any military-technical strategy will have both political requirements and consequences. Defining those requirements and anticipating those consequences could make the difference between success and failure.


Dr. Van Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. He previously served as a strategist and policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @WonkVJ.