Technology strategy then and now – the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program


Editor’s Note: This article is part of an exciting new program in partnership with the Center for a New American Security called “Beyond Offset.” 

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has called for a new offset strategy to help maintain the United States’ military technical superiority. But is a third offset strategy the best approach for the United States today and can we successfully implement one? Previous offset strategies addressed massive Cold War threats by leveraging clear U.S. technological advantages. Today, the U.S. does not face such significant threats nor does it hold unique access to new technology. If done well, pursuing a third offset strategy could provide the Department of Defense an opportunity to set the United States on a more sustainable footing for ongoing military technical superiority. However, it could also see a regression into old thinking focused on a single, state based threat and the pursuit of exquisite weapons systems.

Reviewing the analysis, planning and context for the previous strategies offers insight into which aspects we can leverage from old concepts and what new thinking we must undertake to develop and maintain technological superiority in the 21st century. It is particularly interesting to do this when the DOD is explicitly referencing prior initiatives, such as Secretary Hagel announcing in Newport that Bob Work and Frank Kendall will be leading a new Long Range Research and Development Planning Program.

The second offset strategy was premised on leveraging information technology to “offset” Soviet numerical superiority in conventional military capability. The strategy was pre-dated and heavily informed by the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP) in 1973-4. That effort, led by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became DARPA) and the Defense Nuclear Agency, identified the concepts and technologies that made the offset strategy possible – the utility of a conventional deterrent created by using force multipliers like global positioning systems (GPS), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and platforms and “smart weapons” like precision munitions.

At a high level, the task given to the original LRRDPP still pertains today, but there are a number of critical differences that must be considered in order to replicate prior success. Most notably, the challenge facing technology strategists in the 1970s was much clearer than it is today. The DOD’s current offset initiative must be driven by clear strategy, not exquisite new technology, to avoid costly distractions. Similarly, the staggering array of potentially relevant technologies today will require the discipline of a clear strategy or face the risk of making bad investments and missing opportunities. Finally, the nature of technological competition has changed markedly with the United States no longer enjoying clear technical and financial advantages over state-based and commercial competitors.

When considered together these challenges reinforce the need for an effective long-range technology planning effort today, but also call into question fundamental aspects of the prior approaches. Is an offset strategy still the most appropriate approach for the United States? Can a single offset strategy also provide technological superiority as in the past or do these approaches need to be decoupled? Can the current approach to defense acquisition support a new technology strategy? While drawing inspiration from the past, the DOD must not seek to follow prior approaches too literally.

Strategic needs

The original LRRDPP’s purpose was to “assess…what possible shifts or emphasis in the U.S. Defense R&D program were implied by the strategy of Flexible Response.” The team analyzed seven potential conflict scenarios to assess the needs and opportunities for new technological solutions. From these seven scenarios, four types of responses, coded alpha to delta, were developed.

Technology strategists today, fortunately, are not forced to mitigate a clear, imminent and catastrophic threat from another nation state. While less dangerous, today’s task is more complicated. There is no simple equivalent to a strategic statement like Flexible Response or Containment. If, as a hypothetical shorthand, the LRRDPP were to base it’s planning on Chairman Dempsey’s summary of challenges and threats to the United States (using his mnemonic of two, two, two and one, referring to threats from China and Russia, Iran and North Korea, Al Qaeda and Transnational Criminal Organizations and Cyber threats in general) the initiative would need to address as many distinct strategic challenges as the original LRRDPP had planning scenarios. More than that, the range and sophistication of these various threats calls into question the wisdom of the prior practice of optimizing military-technical solutions for a ‘pacing threat,’ such as China, and considering other challenges as ‘lesser included.’

Offset strategies are not necessarily the most effective method for addressing all of these threats. While there is clear value for offsets in dealing with formal state-on-state conflict, the past 15 years have aptly demonstrated the limits of this approach – especially in terms of financial cost. While the use of force multipliers has yielded tactical success in recent Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorist and criminal networks have shown that they require more than the application of kinetic force to be defeated. Applying the expensive technologies conceived by the second offset strategy against these threats is tantamount to a self-inflicted cost imposing strategy. The strategic precepts for cyber are still being defined, but it is clear that the size of one’s force is not the key determinant of victory. If future strategies rely on more than offsetting numbers, this calls into question the relationship between offset strategies and the more general technological superiority the United States and its allies require to achieve their military objectives.

Whatever the strategic precepts, an LRRDPPis a worthwhile activity. In fact, the previous LRRDPPpreceded the formal development of the second offset strategy by several years. Today’s LRRDPP must examine common needs and opportunities across a highly disparate range of threats to identify common technologies and capabilities that will support U.S. strategic objectives.

Technology opportunities

The original LRRDPP centered on a primary intellectual and technical breakthrough: that the use of highly accurate, smart weapons could be as effective a military deterrent as tactical nuclear weapons. It identified ten technologies that, when integrated, could provide such an advantage. Those technology areas were:

  1. Sensors for weapons guidance
  2. Correlation guidance – the systems used to locate reference points for precision munitions using optical, microwave or radar means
  3. Data links
  4. Data compression
  5. Sea and land mines
  6. Artillery rocket and launchers
  7. High mobility vehicles
  8. Packet communication – the means of passing digital “packets” of data on computer networks (the early basis of what is now the internet protocol suite or TCP/IP)
  9. Large-scale integration technology – integrated circuits such as the microprocessor
  10. Cruise missiles and remotely piloted vehicles

Reviewing the LRRDPP report, and considering the nature of conflict over the past 40 years, shows the power of these types of analysis when done well. The technologies identified in the report fulfilled their potential and are recognizable today in far more powerful versions. The technologies’ strategic utility, when integrated, was also accurately predicted—so much so that key enablers like correlation guidance and packet communication are now taken for granted.

However, the technologies that might provide technological advantage today and tomorrow have become every bit as diverse as the range of strategic challenges facing the LRRDPP. Should a new research effort focus on more information technologies, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, human performance and synthetic biology, or all of the above? What is the unifying theory amongst this range of technologies that will yield strategic advantage? More technological options bring greater opportunity to develop powerful capabilities but also heightened risk of focusing on the wrong things, wasting time and money on bad choices or failing to invest in important areas.

Today’s LRRDPP will need to display restraint and elegance in its analysis to avoid relying too heavily on technology of the past or placing too much hope in the technology of the future. A balanced approach would identify a variety of technologies. This would increase the range of strategic options and mitigate risk, but it seems unlikely that a wide range of technologies would all apply to a single strategy, further calling into question the relationship between offset strategies and more general technology superiority.

The technology environment

The introduction to the Advanced Technology Panel component of the LRRDPP states:

To those who worry that the Soviets will also turn to the development of smart weapons, our response rests on the fundamental premise that the superior competitive and creative capability potential of the U.S. will maintain U.S. superiority of contemporary weapons if adequately supported by DOD and Congress.”

Such a premise was sound for many years but could only apply to a very select number of technologies today, such aselectromagnetic rail guns or solid-state directed energy weapons. While the United States is still a world leader in these niche areas, other nations and businesses have matched, if not bettered, U.S. competition and creativity across a wide range of other technologies. Sequestration has also proven that Congress and DOD today cannot reliably fund almost any given aspect of the defense budget, especially long-term oriented research and development. But most importantly the technology environment today is simply bigger and more competitive than the one in which DOD is structured to operate.

The LRRDPP was asked to identify the necessary funding for the various technologies it identified. The requests were initial, apparently incomplete and requested across varying timeframes but totaled roughly $2.7 billion – about $12.1 billion today. This sum represented 27% percent of the then DOD Research, Development, Technology and Engineering budget, which stood at $8.6 billion in 1975 ($31.6 bil in today’s dollars). At the time, DOD had significant influence over technology research and development domestically. U.S. research and development far outpaced that of other nations. But even then the trend to commercial advantage was beginning. When discussing large-scale integration technologies (i.e. microprocessors) the report describes a scenario that has become all too familiar:

…at the same time when many commercial products such as pocket calculators demonstrate emphatically the advantages of LSI, much of the newest DOD equipment uses only SSI [small scale integration] or at best MSI [medium scale integration].

The report concludes that, “…the basic deficiency lies in the government and contractor management of associated procurement procedures and processes, rather than in the LSI technology itself.”

Today this pressure from various business sectors is felt across almost all military technology areas and is the result of increased commercial capability, not just poor management by government. Today, the DOD RDT&E budget stands at $62.9 billion, nearly double its level in 1975, even adjusting for inflation. This growth is miniscule, however, compared to the rapid growth in global R&D spending, now estimated at $88.7 trillion, meaning that DOD influence and competitiveness has decreased significantly. This trend is not new; DOD R&D funding was overtaken in the early 1980s, but the impact and consequences are increasingly pronounced. Relatedly, in the era of the LRRDPP, DOD-related research was seen as highly prestigious, providing the greatest opportunity for the brightest minds to work on the hardest challenges. Other sectors provide that challenge today and have for many years.

There are several implications of the changed technology environment for a new LRRDPP. The Department of Defense will in most cases not have unique access to new technology, nor will it be able to as effectively influence the development of new technology or limit its proliferation. Effective strategy and concepts of operation will be even more important for success, as well effective cost management. New solutions will likely hold unique advantage for a much smaller period even while the nuclear and conventional technologies of the first and second offset eras remain in the arsenals of militaries around the world.

Technology strategy today

Today’s LRRDPP will be challenging in different ways than its predecessor, broader in scope, with a greater array of technologies to consider, including those of prior offset strategies. Even more than prior efforts, current technology strategy is about making choices, including: which threats to design for and which to consider as ‘lesser included;’ whether only offset strategies can guarantee technology superiority or not; which technologies to focus on; where to invest Department of Defense R&D funds; and where to leverage the private sector to name a few. However, this difficulty provides more impetus for strong technology analysis, not less.

To be successful, today’s analysis must draw inspiration from prior efforts but should not attempt to develop as neat and tightly bound a solution, return to Cold War era thinking or focus solely on competition with China to the exclusion of everything else. In fact, today’s LRRDPP should be viewed as what it is: an opportunity for the Department of Defense to develop new strategic solutions to endemic challenges from the consequences of commercial innovation to the uncontrolled growth in the cost of military technology, thereby establishing a more realistic and sustainable approach to maintaining U.S. technological superiority.


Ben FitzGerald is the director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He co-directs the “Beyond Offset” initiative at CNAS.