The Cold War Offset Strategy: Assault Breaker and the Beginning of the RSTA Revolution


“We had a serious problem,” recalled Frank Kendall, now the Defense Department’s point man on acquisition. He returned to government in 2010 and was vexed by intelligence reports detailing foreign military developments.

American “technological superiority is not assured,” warned Kendall. Potential future adversaries or countries selling weapons to future adversaries, he lamented, “were clearly developing sophisticated weapons designed to defeat the United States’ power-projection forces.”

But is the United States beginning to turn that corner? As Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Kendall is overseeing a new long-range strategic planning effort that seeks to replicate the unprecedented advances associated with the Cold War Offset Strategy discussed in previous Beyond Offset articles. (This new venture was announced last week by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Reagan Security Forum. Read the speech here.)

Kendall is uniquely qualified to resurrect the combination of innovation, program management, and concept of operations development required to replicate the achievements of the Cold War Offset Strategy: He oversaw development of the Follow-On-Forces-Attack (FOFA) capabilities from 1989 to 1994. FOFA aimed to delay, disrupt, and destroy the rear echelons of Warsaw Pact ground.

This article reviews the threat from Warsaw Pact conventional forces that impelled the Cold War Offset Strategy and overviews a key Offset Strategy concept demonstration called Assault Breaker. Assault Breaker, designed to “rip the heart” out of any Soviet conventional attack on NATO forces, illustrates how a rapidly conceived and executed Offset Strategy program informed doctrine and acquisition strategy. Assault Breaker was among a handful of innovative programs that led to the FOFA mission concept.

The Soviet approach to ground combat involved multiple layers, or echelons, of armored forces pushing forward on the battlefield to penetrate NATO defenses. Second and third echelons were intended to exploit any break in NATO defenses. Soviet doctrine and operational art evolved from relatively predictable battle plans in the 1960s, to agile, dynamic operations in the 1970s that included an independent maneuver “shock” force to rapidly penetrate NATO territory. On this dimension, the advent of the Operational Maneuver Group was perceived as a new threat to deterrence stability that rekindled fears of a surprise attack. The Operational Maneuver Group was not merely a reinforcement of the second echelon.

NATO forces on the front lines would face massive waves of Soviet armor with little opportunity to transition from defense to counter-attack. A NATO battalion on the front lines might face as many as 120 advancing Soviet tanks within thirty minutes. Soviet doctrine and military exercises began emphasizing nonnuclear conflicts, leading Western analysts to believe they considered a conventional-only war possible. Analysts further assessed that such a conventional-only war would begin with a surprise attack, without full Warsaw Pact mobilization, to deny NATO the time to mobilize conventional reserves and decision makers to approve tactical nuclear weapons.

There was widespread debate about the likelihood of a Soviet surprise attack, and, if one occurred, how NATO forces would fare against Soviet armor. A number of analysts concluded that spatial and temporal factors favored the Warsaw Pact – a function of potential combat power generated over a relatively quick period and NATO’s lack of operational depth. Restoring NATO defensive capabilities meant increasing the lethality of NATO forces by improving weapons, firing rates, weapons precision, and artillery support. Precision munitions became a core focus of American technology development at the same time that military planners adopted a systems approach to identifying Soviet weaknesses and ways to “offset” Soviet quantitative – and in some cases technological – superiority.

The Fallout from the October War

Israel’s victory against Egyptian and Syrian forces in the 1973 October War might be the first time that U.S. defense planners were dismayed by the triumph of a close ally. No, the Pentagon was not upset that Israel won after an Arab coalition made a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, but rather frightened by the implications of new weapons systems. Precision guided munitions and air defense systems made their combat debut on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Desert, raising awareness in the halls of the Pentagon. Their performance challenged prevailing assumptions about combined arms warfare.

Until the early 1970s, the high-velocity main gun on a tank was the only viable battlefield anti-tank weapon – and battle tanks were the coin of the realm in conventional force planning. Alternatives for defeating tanks were awkward to employ, inaccurate, packed too little punch, and had too short a range. The October War suggested that inexpensive, man-portable, accurate tank-killers, like those Egypt wielded to blunt Israeli counterattacks, might render U.S. armor vulnerable to Soviet infantry forces. If tanks were no longer required to kill tanks, then American armor could be engaged by other Soviet weapons systems while Soviet tanks pushed forward.

The only viable counter-measure was NATO airpower, but Egypt’s Soviet air defenses demonstrated during the October War proved highly effective, despite Israel’s overall victory. Soviet forces had integrated large numbers of anti-tank systems into its armored forces. Where increased effectiveness of Soviet ground forces suggested that a surprise attack might cripple NATO’s ability to use ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons, Soviet advances in air defenses suggested that NATO’s air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons might not be effective either.

Planners comparing combat losses during the October War to projected losses on the plains of Central Europe were stunned by the high rate of munitions expenditures and rapidity of battlefield losses, calling into question the adequacy of NATO’s pre-positioned munitions stocks and equipment levels. Combat attrition was indeed staggering; Arab and Israeli forces lost more armor and artillery than the U.S. Army had in Europe at that time. The belligerents went through a staggering amount of ammunition. Some believed that, if similar munitions expenditures and attrition rates occurred in Europe, NATO would have to use nuclear weapons even sooner than anticipated because that would be the only option left.

Something had to be done.

The Precision Strike Revolution

American forces, armed with similar weapons systems enabled by surveillance and targeting sub-systems, might blunt Soviet armor more effectively. General Wiliam E. DePuy, the first Commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, studied the October War. Writing in 1974, DePuy observed that, “What can be seen, can be hit. What can be hit can be killed.”

For the past four decades this has been an underlying mantra in U.S. military innovation. Whereas planners in the 1970s thought in terms of seeing, hitting, and killing targets consisting of large armored formations arrayed on a linear battlefield, today’s planners have extended the mantra to include global persistent surveillance and targeting, prompt global strike, directed energy weapons that travel at the speed of light, and swarming unmanned systems that can autonomously identify, track, and coordinate distributed attacks.

Several important studies, technology demonstrations, and development programs were created in the mid-1970s in the context of the deteriorating military balance in Europe. Studies included the Lincoln Laboratory’s Integrated Target Acquisition and Strike System report and the 1976 Defense Science Board Summer Study on countering a Soviet conventional attack.

Tactical intelligence emerged as a critical gap. Improving battlefield intelligence required addressing many of the same issues planners face today: increased multi-INT integration, better information processing and communication, automated target recognition, tipping and handoff across sensors, and direct, dynamic forwarding of target coordinates to weapon systems. Many of the innovations undertaken in the 1970s aimed to correct this problem, laying the foundation for American military dominance, and helping shape visions of future warfighting capabilities that dominated Cold War military thought – such as information superiority, dominant battlespace awareness, decision superiority, persistent surveillance, and strategic preemption.

Two programs contributing to advanced battlefield information capabilities were the Coherent Emitter Location Testbed (CELT) and the Battlefield Exploitation and Target Acquisition (BETA) initiative. Both contributed to the evolution of American battlefield information superiority by demonstrating, at least in experiments, that intelligence and information systems could be made more relevant to the commander. They are early example of today’s automated sensor-to-shooter systems. Other battlefield intelligence programs during this period included the Joint Tactical Information System and the Joint Tactical Fusion Program.

Other developments involved technology to support global targeting and navigation. In April 1973, the Air Force was designated the lead Defense Department agency responsible for integrating Air Force, Navy, and Army satellite navigation programs into a single development program, initially called the Defense Navigation Satellite System. The resulting system evolved into the Navstar Global Positioning System, known popularly by its acronym, GPS. An Altas rocket carried the first GPS Block-I satellite into space a year later in 1977 and three 1978 launches delivered the world’s first three-dimensional global positioning capability, which today guides missiles and civilian commuters alike.

Around this time, then Deputy Director of Defense for Research and Engineering William Perry argued that precision strike advances offered the “greatest single potential for force multiplication” to meet the Soviet threat in Europe because they had “the potential for revolutionizing warfare,” and would “greatly enhance our ability to deter war without having to compete tank for tank, missile for missile.” Perry’s vision remains central to the American way of war: “to be able to see all high-value targets on the battlefield at any time; to be able to make a direct hit on any targets we can see; and to be able to destroy any target we can hit.” The Assault Breaker concept demonstration was launched as a rapid reaction weapons test in 1978, specifically to evaluate the operational and technological feasibility of what would become known as reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) capabilities.

Assault Breaker

According to a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) history, “the question to be answered was whether developments in sensors, computing, communications, guidance, and munitions allowed for deep precision attack against hard, mobile targets.” American and NATO military leaders had to be able to quickly identify, track, target, and destroy both stationary and moving enemy forces before they could reinforce the first wave of any Soviet attack that was being engaged by NATO’s defensive forces.

Assault Breaker was among a handful of technology programs that encouraged greater Army and Air Force cooperation. Generals Don Starry, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, and William Creech, head of the Air Force Tactical Air Command, supported the effort. Assault Breaker did not threaten either Service’s existing programs. In addition to elements of BETA and CELT, Assault Breaker integrated long-range weapon systems with surveillance and early warning systems. Precision strike required precision munitions. Assault Breaker therefore reinforced the need for both the Air Force’s wide area anti-armor (WAAM) project and the Army’s Terminally Guided Sub-Munition (TGSM) for rocket systems and artillery. The Lance nuclear missile was later adapted to what became the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) used in the first Gulf War.

Assault Breaker leveraged existing airborne surveillance and targeting programs: the Army’s helicopter-mounted Stand Off Target Acquisition System, an airborne targeting system similar in concept and operations to the Air Force’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System. The first production version of the Sentry was delivered in 1975 for testing and evaluation and entered operational service with the 552nd Airborne Warning and Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in 1977. During Air Force demonstration flights in Europe, Sentry operators discovered that autobahn traffic was being picked up on radar, fueling interest in a ground moving target indicator radar.

Existing efforts to develop a long-range synthetic aperture radar for the high-altitude TR-1 surveillance aircraft were adapted to modify the radar for an aircraft called PAVE MOVER – which became the basis for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). JSTARS remains a key legacy of Assault Breaker.

Testing of Assault Breaker components began in 1979 and a successful demonstration occurred in late 1981. The demonstration involved integrating a moving target radar system, ground- and air-launched missiles, and sub-munitions to destroy tanks located ninety miles away. The targets represented, albeit on a small scale, the potential to see, target, and destroy Soviet armored vehicles located in the rear echelons – the follow-on-forces.

Upon learning of U.S. advances in stand-of precision strike following the Assault Breaker, then Soviet Chief of Staff Nikolai Ogarkov recommended a “strategic pause” in Soviet military procurement because U.S. and NATO modernization efforts were perceived to be neutralizing the Soviet quantitative advantage.


The successful Assault Breaker concept demonstration was particularly important to defense planners grappling with a perceived increase in tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and an ominous shift in the European military balance. In 1981, the CIA estimated that Soviet annual military spending was roughly double U.S. spending in real terms. Soviet factories were producing three to four times as many fighters and three times as many tanks as the United States. The Soviets also built more attack submarines to disrupt the U.S. Navy’s delivery of soldiers and equipment to reinforce Europe and other theaters.

The conventional military threat to stability seemed particularly grave in light of the 1981 Polish crisis and changes in Soviet troop movements during exercises. Soviet military units practiced radio silence, preventing U.S. signals intelligence assets from reporting on signs of troop movement. Shorter winter days meant less daylight for satellite imagery to warn of changes in troop dispositions or changes in their mobilization. Movements went undetected for days and more, leading to increased fears that a future exercise could be the pretext for a surprise attack. Of note, the Egyptians used an exercise as cover to launch the 1973 War.

Building on the Assault Breaker concept demonstration, key tenets of the emerging AirLand Battle Doctrine, the Army’s Deep Strike Doctrine, and Air Force advanced air interdiction concepts, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) General Bernard W. Rogers proposed Follow-On-Forces-Attack (FOFA) as a new mission concept to organize U.S. and NATO efforts to offset Soviet conventional forces. FOFA was adopted by NATO in November 1984. Among the gaps addressed in FOFA programs were:

  • Lack of suitable ground-launched missiles
  • Inability to operate aircraft at night and in bad weather
  • Inability to acquire and target moving vehicles at night and through clouds
  • Inability to dynamically identify and target armored vehicles moving in and out of urban or other areas (reacquiring lost target tracks)
  • Lack of effective integration of corps, division, and battalion capabilities to support maneuver forces across division control lines
  • Defeating enemy air defenses, including shoulder-fired missiles
  • Ever-increasing demands to increase the depth of sensors, targeting, and deep strike systems
  • Requirements for unmanned aerial vehicles

FOFA attack and AirLand Battle Doctrine focused military planning and weapons development on spatial and temporal dynamics: conceptualizing how to interdict Soviet follow-on-forces located 24, 48, and 72 hours forward from NATO defensive positions; coordinating Army and Air Force Deep Battle and Air Interdiction efforts out to 150 kilometers behind Soviet forward lines (roughly 72 hours from arriving at NATO defensive positions based on Soviet Doctrine); planning Air Force deep strike missions 300 kilometers into Soviet rear areas; and developing technology and doctrine to enable commanders to quickly adapt fire missions and air strikes. FOFA was the first “systems-of-systems” architecture. Nearly 100 current and planned NATO systems were eventually integrated into FOFA attack planning, establishing many of the legacy capabilities in use today.

The Legacy

The first combat testing of the essential conceptual and technological elements of Assault Breaker occurred in the Persian Gulf, not on the plains of Central Europe. During the Gulf War, for example, some thirty-two Army Tactical Missile Systems were used in conjunction with JSTARS. This was the first time that commanders were provided an integrated, near-real time picture of their battlefields that was secure enough to share information from classified sources. Soviet observers viewed the resulting capabilities to be a conventional variant of what they dubbed a theater strategic offensive, with the primary increases in effectiveness coming from a reconnaissance–strike complex.

Assault Breaker, Joint Precision Interdiction, and FOFA programs – all conceived and implemented as part of the Offset Strategy – created the system-of-systems planning and operational constructs broadly labeled reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) capabilities. Future Beyond Offset articles will address other RSTA developments related to the Cold War Offset Strategy, and what today’s defense planners term global persistent surveillance and prompt global strike.


Robert R. Tomes, PhD is President of the MapStory Foundation and adjunct professor of security policy studies at Georgetown University, and provides strategy and technology consulting services through his company, Liminal Leadership, LLC.  His publications include U.S. Defense Strategy from Vietnam to Operation Iraqi Freedom: Military Innovation and the New American Way of War, 1973-2003 (Routledge, 2007), which analyzes the Cold War offset strategy as a case study in military innovation.


Photo credit: Georgia National Guard