The Cold War Offset Strategy: Origins and Relevance

November 6, 2014

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Mark Twain reportedly quipped that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. For students of Cold War history, discussions of a “new offset strategy” certainly have a meter or cadence that resonates with a period of American defense strategy and military innovation that, until now, has been largely ignored. The history of American defense policy during the Cold War is often told by chronologically outlining the waxing and waning of defining ideas or concepts: containment, atoms for peace, open skies, massive retaliation, AirLand Battle, flexible response, détente, entente, various “doctrines” (e.g., Nixon, Carter, Reagan) and so on. Frequently, the idea or concept represents a complex strategy or policy that retains historic significance because of its influence on subordinate defense planning and force structure decisions. In a period replete with acronyms and nicknames, the relatively straightforward “offset strategy” concept has gone relatively unnoticed.

In his book, Lifting the Fog of War, Admiral Bill Owens (retired), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, identifies the architects of the Cold War offset strategy as Harold Brown, Andrew Marshall, and William Perry. For Owens, the capabilities labeled “revolutionary” in the early 1990s were derived from operational approaches and systems “engineered and acquired in the late 1970s through the late 1980s” that made victory in the 1991 Gulf War “inevitable and our historically small loss of life probable.” Writing on the future of military affairs and national strategy in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, former Secretary of Defense Perry argued that the offset strategy, which “sought to use technology as an equalizer or ‘force multiplier,’” was in fact “pursued consistently by five administrations during the 1970s and 1980s.” Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter added that after the offset strategy’s precepts were “dramatically demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm,” they became “key to Washington’s way of waging war.”

The programs and capabilities that originated in the offset strategy, many of which were not fielded until the late 1980s and early 1990s, revolutionized conventional warfare, assured American dominance in large-scale ground combat, and eventually drove potential adversaries to “design around” American conventional superiority by employing asymmetric advantages. The offset strategy evolved concurrently with doctrine – which came to favor rapid, decisive operations to quickly defeat adversaries – but also largely ignored urban operations and counterinsurgency missions.

The offset strategy led to major improvements in stealth, precision strike, battlefield information and communications systems, intelligence systems, positioning and navigation capabilities, and training. Innovation in each of these areas was focused on a single strategic objective: offsetting the Warsaw Pact’s conventional superiority in Europe, and lowering NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons to deter – or in time of war defend against – a Soviet attack.

The pace and scope of military innovation, doctrinal reform, training revolutions, and technology development activities nested within the offset strategy of the 1970s and early 1980s is unprecedented in military history. It coincided with, and in many ways underwrote, the larger historical shifts associated with the information age, including revolutions in information processing, digital communications, geolocation, and systems engineering. Investigation of the Cold War Offset Strategy yields lessons learned about military innovation, acquisition reform, long-range strategic planning, and the challenges of redirecting Service doctrine and programs from irregular warfare or counter-insurgency operations to prepare for future threats.

The Cold War offset strategy discussed here and in other articles from the War on the Rocks Beyond Offset initiative and the associated Center for a New American Security project is finally receiving the attention it deserves. In a series of contributions to the Beyond Offset series, I will offer my views on the Cold War offset strategy.

I place the origins of the offset strategy with the 1973 appointment of Malcolm S. Currie as the Director of Defense for Research and Engineering (DDR&E), and his subsequent direction to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to address the Soviet conventional threat. Currie appointed George Heilmeier to head DARPA in 1974, charging him to counter Soviet military advances by leveraging technology developments – enabling U.S. and NATO forces to field capabilities generations ahead of current systems. Heilmeier worked to develop technologies and capabilities such as: the follow-on-forces attack concept with stand-off weapons, and associated command and control capabilities; programs to bolster U.S. armor against enemy anti-armor weapons; U.S. anti-armor weapons; space-based infrared sensors; and stealth technology. These shaped DARPA’s efforts into the mid-1980s.

In Congressional testimony, Currie outlined a plan where some forty percent of the planned Fiscal Year 1977 research and development funds – more than four billion dollars (15 billion in 2014 dollars) – would be devoted to tactical issues. These investments would drive technology innovation to transform command and control, mobility, precision strike, battlefield surveillance and targeting, anti-armor, night fighting, and interdiction capabilities. Related programs focused on precision navigation with what evolved into the modern GPS constellation, stealth aircraft, and the integration of new sensors and precision strike systems. Currie also secured billions of dollars for innovation in naval combat systems and new ship designs, including the Sea Shadow concept demonstration. DARPA subsequently created an unprecedented portfolio of research and development programs that provide important lessons that can inform the new offset strategy.

Leadership was a crucial factor. In addition to believing that existing R&D programs could be merged to more effectively address the strategic challenge of raising the nuclear threshold in Europe, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Bill Perry also understood that developments in microchips and computer processing were creating new opportunities at an unprecedented pace. Again, the aim was to enable existing systems and capabilities through integration, multiplying their individual combat power. In the 2000s, similar arguments cohered around the term “horizontal integration,” in the form of additional investment in long-range precision strike concepts and technology.

After the offset strategy jelled as an overarching vision for U.S. defense planning in the late 1970s, the initial steps to implement it fell to technologists and strategists. They worked closely with intelligence analysts to refine acquisition programs and also with training and doctrine activities to transition capabilities into the Services. Congressional leaders, from a bi-partisan coalition that believed technology investments in conventional forces could restore America’s deterrence umbrella in Europe and offset the Soviet threat, supported increased funding. By the end of the 1970s, the core elements of the offset strategy were adapted and extended to address regional threats, including forming the capabilities for the new Rapid Defense Force that became the U.S. Central Command. Of note to today’s defense planners, it was in this period that then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski coined the term “arc of crisis” to characterize regional security and stability challenges he later defined as “everything east of the Urals from the Arctic Sea through the Urals down to the Caspian Sea down to Iran.”

Working closely with Service counterparts – and drawing on studies like the 1976 Defense Science Board summer study, and Joe Braddock’s analysis of Soviet weaknesses and how to defeat them – the research and development community benefited from insights into crucial operational requirements. Intelligence analysts informed the process from the beginning by tailoring their assessments to inform defense acquisition planning and Service doctrine. Areas of emphasis included: standoff precision strike; stealth aircraft; and real-time command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, designed to interdict adversary forces throughout the depth of the battlefield. By the mid-1980s, a combination of programs and initiatives that integrated operational concepts, doctrine, and a new “systems-of-systems” approach cohered, leading to disruptive innovation. Important for current discussions is the fact that these advances combined both convergent and divergent innovation, a topic I will discuss later in this series.

During the 1970s, as the threat from Soviet nuclear and conventional forces increased, attention returned to flexible response – which remained NATO’s declared strategy – and on the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Planners feared that increased Soviet conventional capabilities and indications that Soviet forces were training to fight a conventional war in exercises that no longer ended in escalation to nuclear exchanges suggested a doctrinal change toward conventional-only conflicts. This amplified concerns that a surprise attack could result in Soviet penetration of NATO defenses before NATO decision makers approved tactical nuclear weapons to halt Soviet advances. Conventional defense and retaliation options were the only viable solution to restoring the deterrence equilibrium.  A new period of thinking about non-nuclear strategic strike ensued. Soviet military analysts subsequently concluded that American military capabilities associated with the offset strategy amounted to a revolution in military affairs – with battlefield and force employment consequences similar to the nuclear revolution in military affairs Soviet analysts first wrote about in the 1950s.

As the decade unfolded, national security planners pursued alternate paths for stabilizing deterrence and constraining Soviet expansionism. Among them were arms control agreements, regional security cooperation forums, new tactical nuclear systems, surveillance and warning systems, improving war reserves and pre-positioning programs, and developing NATO’s overall advanced conventional capabilities. There was also greater realization in Washington that national security was tied to global economic affairs. Thinking about the linkages between economic security and military force, especially the role of forward presence, matured, and the U.S. bolstered its presence in the Persian Gulf and other strategically important regions. Post-Vietnam antipathies to funding modernization also waned, clearing the way for vast increases in defense in the Reagan era. In sum, the Cold War offset strategy was pursued in concert with other initiatives to shape the global security environment. Any future offset strategy must similarly align military research and development programs with non-defense elements of national power.

In 2014, the resurrection of offset strategy thinking signals an attempt to identify core gaps in U.S. defense strategy, align innovation and acquisition efforts, and focus long-range planning activities. The history of this critical period in U.S. defense strategy and planning has been largely overlooked in post-Cold War discussions of U.S. defense transformation. It is therefore encouraging to see initiatives like Beyond Offset at War on the Rocks and the Center for a New American Security.

It is high time to revamp our approach to long-range strategic planning and programming. While military reform debates occurred in the 1990s and 2000s, they did not unfold in the same strategic context as proposed by Secretary Hegal’s new offset strategy construct. The first effort to revamp the American approach to defense planning and programming after the Cold War began in March 2001, some six months before the 9/11 attacks. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued memos outlining a transformation initiative. His plans were disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, and Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. In the mid-2000s, the contours of the Cold War offset strategy were adopted and refocused on the challenges of counter-insurgency warfare, but the underlying capabilities related to precision strike, intelligence, training, and agility remained. Secretary Gate’s rebalancing initiative, and Secretary Penetta’s attempts to continue rebalancing under the constraints imposed by sequestration, did not lead to the required overhaul of planning and programming.

The Cold War offset strategy should inform ongoing discussions of a new offset strategy and highlight key elements of the thirty-year transformation in American military capabilities. Subsequent articles will address in more detail the contours of the post-Vietnam offset strategy, the Assault Breaker program focused on precision targeting and strike, the pursuit of a nonnuclear strategic strike construct, and the important legacy programs that continue to shape defense transformation and our approach to military innovation.


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.

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