Exploring a New Offset Strategy: What the Experts Say


Editor’s Note: This article is another addition to our Beyond Offset series, a rich collaboration with the Center for a New America Security in Washington, DC. Read more about offset strategies here! And watch a short interview with Ben FitzGerald on offets below and check back for more interviews with more experts in the coming days. 

Just before Thanksgiving, a diverse group of experts convened at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) to discuss what the United States has to be thankful for: its military technological edge. But how can the Department of Defense (DoD) maintain it in an environment fraught with strategic uncertainty, rapid technological change, and declining defense budgets? Participants included academics, journalists, representatives from the think tank community, industry professionals, and government employees.

This working group was the first in a series of discussions designed to advance one of the project’s key goals, which is to build a community-of-interest that will examine the challenges related to implementing a new offset strategy. Leading the discussion were Beyond Offset co-directors Shawn Brimley, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies, and Ben FitzGerald, Director of the Technology and National Security Program. While the conversation was off the record, the group reached some important findings I can share that should spark further debate.

The conversation at CNAS followed close on the heels of outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s keynote address at the Reagan National Defense Forum in which he announced a new Defense Innovation Initiative (DII) that “will draw on the lessons of previous offset strategies and ensure that America’s power-projection capabilities continue to sustain our competitive advantage over the coming decades.” Participants discussed a wide range of relevant strategic, political, and economic issues, identifying similarities and differences between the current environment and that surrounding the nuclear and guided munitions based offset strategies.

Recurring themes throughout the conversation included concern about defining the threat or adversary the new offset strategy should counter, uncertainty on whether a purely military-technological solution is the answer, and the importance of reforming institutions and processes to ensure long-term success. Reassuringly it appears that the DII, as described by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, will attempt to address many of these concerns.

What is the threat a third offset strategy should counter?

Both the outgoing Secretary and the Deputy Secretary of Defense recognize in their public remarks the uncertain threat landscape faced by the United States. From the continued spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, the United States is confronted with a broad spectrum of strategic and operational challenges. In the context of developing a new offset strategy, we do not have the luxury of an obvious adversary as our predecessors did during the Cold War.

That said, much of the conversation at CNAS focused on countering China and its development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities against the United States. For example, China’s growing arsenal of missiles is a major concern. Therefore, a key focus of a new offset strategy, some argued, should be to guarantee U.S. power projection in the face of an A2/AD strategy. It is essential that the United States be able to operate and maintain its position in any strategic space.

While some participants argued that a clearly defined objective like countering A2/AD should be the primary focus of a third offset strategy, others disagreed, highlighting the agility and adaptability inherent to the pursuit of more general goals. However, the discussion also included a warning: if a new offset strategy becomes a universal solution to all of the military’s problems, it will follow the path of other DoD movements like transformation or the revolution in military affairs (RMA), eventually becoming so watered down it is nothing but a catch phrase.

Is technology really the answer?

The two previous offset strategies relied on building a military-technical advantage but participants were unsure whether or not this is possible given that military technology is increasingly available in the commercial marketplace. In a technological environment with such low barriers to entry, it is possible the United States’ true advantage lies in human factors like alliance structure, international institutions, and institutional knowledge of how to fight wars. If the purpose of an offset strategy is to ensure enduring military superiority, then the problem becomes how to create and maintain a unique advantage in the battlespace, whether or not that advantage is technical. In reality, can a sustainable U.S. military advantage be predicated on technological superiority or should it be derived from more effective strategic planning rooted in the capability to rapidly adapt to an evolving threat landscape?

As military-technical systems proliferate and reliance upon them increases, it may become more important to maintain the ability to function efficiently without them, in a degraded technical environment. Thus, in the context of the DII, the focus should shift from the development of exquisite systems to improving training, logistics, and readiness. While not all participants agreed on this point, most acknowledged that the U.S. needs to approach a new offset strategy with a new mindset. The first and second offset strategies countered opposing forces’ superiority in numbers with technology; this formula does not necessarily apply in the current threat environment. Military-technical systems are clearly an integral part of 21st century warfighting but they should not be emphasized at the expense of human factors.

Long-term success depends on better processes.

The current environment of strategic uncertainty, rapid technological change spearheaded by commercial industries, and declining defense budgets all mean the existing DoD model of developing and acquiring new systems is no longer relevant or effective. At this point in time, it is as important, if not more so, to fix our processes than it is to develop a specific technology, platform, or capability. Participants argued in favor of reforming the defense acquisitions system and export control regulations in order to ensure sustainable, long-term success both in terms of fostering innovation and adapting new technology to military needs.

Defense acquisition system reform should pair long-term strategy with short-term cycles of innovation in order to capitalize on the speed with which technology advances in the commercial sector. The old model of investing in specific exquisite systems to be developed according to a set path is no longer viable. A more open process in terms of innovation and development will produce more relevant military-technical systems that exploit advances in technology as they happen. Reforming the process in this direction will decrease reliance on the defense industrial base as it currently exists and emphasize more agile large systems integrators that take advantage of modular construction.

As the United States moves away from relying on the defense industrial base, we also have to reform export control regulations and move beyond the regimes set up to defeat the Soviet Union. The idea that we can prevent other countries or non-state actors from acquiring U.S. technology is irrelevant in an era where the commercial sector leads innovation and cyber espionage is rampant. Allowing U.S. defense industries greater access to the global market will ensure our allies and partners have access to our best military-technical systems, bolstering our relationships and improving interoperability. In addition, these reforms will allow our smaller companies a better chance to thrive and grow, as they will no longer rely on the DoD as their sole customer. The bottom line is the longer we wait to reform export control regulations the more chances we allow countries like Russia and China to exploit the global defense market and build allies.

Where do we go from here?

Although participants discussed a variety of exciting emerging technologies and new areas of research and development, they also recognized that many of the problems associated with developing military-technical superiority and implementing a third offset strategy are not new. Reform has been called for for years but in practice, little has been accomplished. So, how and when do we implement necessary reforms?

As is typical with these kinds of discussions, more questions were often bred than answers. However, there was clear consensus around the room that a new offset strategy will not be successful if it follows the construct of previous models and it will not be implementable under current bureaucratic processes. New and better processes must be prioritized over new and better military technologies. The latter will come naturally if reforms cultivate an environment friendly to innovation and a wide range of partnerships with the DoD.

CNAS’s Beyond Offset program will likely reconvene this diverse group of experts early next year to pick up their conversation where it left off as the Pentagon begins to put the new DII into action. In the meantime, you can follow the discussion as it continues to unfold here at War on the Rocks and through the release of a series of CNAS reports under the Beyond Offset heading.


Alexandra Sander recently graduated from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies with a M.A. in International Security. She is currently a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Research Intern with the Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security program.  

Image Credit: DARPA