war on the rocks

Why the Cold War Offset Strategy was all about Deterrence and Stealth

January 14, 2015

American defense strategy is in flux. It is difficult to square the announcement of a new offset strategy with evidence of tangible strategic investments in military innovation programs aiming to offset specific capabilities ascribed to future adversaries. Further muddling the definition and direction of a third offset strategy is conflating the military innovations central to a new offset strategy with general acquisition reform, manufacturing innovations such as 3D printing, and other innovations that are more about general American competitiveness than military capabilities.

Arguably, most military innovation is reactive in terms of creating an “offset” to negate, overcome, or design around an adversary’s warfighting capabilities – or, more broadly, to overcome a perceived operational challenge. Many innovations considered proactive are often undertaken in reaction to, or anticipation of, a future challenge or capability. Offset strategies, like the military innovation programs they spawn, are about risk mitigation and creating future competitive advantage.

Historically significant examples of military innovation usually involve the fielding of an operational capability in a way that changes the outcome of battle, contributes to winning a war, or alters the decision to go to war in the first case. In the case of altering the decision to go to war, offset strategies are declaratory postures, or signals to adversaries meant to shape expectations about the utility of military forces as an option to achieve political ends. All of this strategizing, signaling, and expectation-shaping occurs in larger political, military, and economic contexts.

As discussed in previous War on the Rocks “Beyond Offset” articles, the Cold War offset strategy was a multifaceted initiative impelled by a specific challenge to NATO and U.S. military capabilities. Qualitative and quantitative advances in Soviet conventional forces were perceived by NATO military planners to have undermined NATO’s capacity to deter Soviet aggression in Europe. The context for the last offset strategy was straightforward: stabilizing or restoring the European deterrence regime.

The Cold War offset strategy is often discussed as a notable example of military innovation that, beginning with the First Gulf War, yielded an American revolution in military affairs and assured that the United States would retain dominance in the conventional spectrum of warfare for decades to come. The United States has continued to dominate in the areas of command and control, battlefield intelligence, precision strike, combined arms maneuver, stealth, training, theater-level campaigns, and other areas despite struggling with counter-insurgency, nation-building, and other so-called stabilization operations.

But it is unclear whether the offset strategy would have succeeded in defending against a Warsaw Pact attack. From one perspective, a fair test of the legacy of any offset strategy is trial by combat against the same adversary that impelled the strategy and investments in the first place. The Cold War ended before “offset” capabilities were fully developed and integrated. And at some point toward the end of the Cold War, Soviet military planners recommended a “pause” in Soviet procurement until they could counter U.S. innovations. They never had the chance to “offset” our offset programs. For students of offset strategies, especially those drawing lessons from the Cold War offset strategy, this means we never really tested the viability of our assumptions about Soviet strengths, or our strategy to neutralize them by attacking perceived vulnerabilities.

From a different perspective, American offset strategies have tended to be focused on deterrence as much as delivering war-winning military capabilities. As such, it is difficult to fully assess the return on investment when deterrence succeeds – regardless of whether we correctly identified their technical, tactical, or other vulnerabilities.

This article reconsiders aspects of the Cold War offset strategy from the perspective of deterrence and how changes in conventional forces altered deterrence stability. It also considers the often overlooked role the F-117 bomber program played in the overall design offset strategy programs. The intent is to inform those considering a “new offset strategy” about the complexity and nuances of creating such a competitive strategy, aiming to yield a U.S. advantage over future adversaries, and also as a cost-imposing strategy, meant to force adversaries to incur additional costs to counter future U.S. capabilities.

Contextualizing Cold War Offset Programs: The Deterrence Imperative

Many Cold War offset programs were conceived and implemented based on the outcome of net assessments examining NATO and Warsaw Pact military capabilities. These assessments departed from other intelligence assessments by focusing on how Soviet military planners thought about the military balance, how a war in Europe would unfold, and what technological and other factors would determine the outcome.

Understanding the mind of Soviet decision makers was integral to understanding what mix of offset strategy and other investments were required to bolster NATO defenses and restore deterrence stability. Multi-dimensional insights into Soviet organizations, decision making processes, and leadership – including what Soviet military planners called the correlation of forces between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations – informed offset strategy acquisition programs.

These acquisition programs aimed to increase American military capabilities at the tactical and theater levels of combat. In terms of grand strategy, their larger objective was bolstering NATO’s overall deterrence posture by causing Soviet planners to doubt their own capabilities.

Indeed, some of the most important capabilities to emerge from the offset strategy – including advanced precision strike systems, stealth bombers, battlefield intelligence and information processing, automated target detection, and night vision technology – were focused as much on deterrence stability as they were on the delivery of innovative American military capabilities. Follow On Forces Attack initiatives that integrated over 100 NATO programs, the Joint Precision Interdiction program office, and the Ballistic Missile Defense Office (later renamed the Missile Defense Agency) were as much about deterrence as fielding technology.

Advances in Soviet general-purpose forces in the 1970s renewed debate over the offensive-defensive balance in Europe, and refocused attention on the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Increased Soviet conventional capabilities called for increased European defense spending, but more of the same was not sufficient. American and European military analysts argued for reduced reaction time to counter a Soviet surprise attack in the NATO Military Committee. Qualitative advances were more important than increasing existing weapons and units. This meant increasing the effectiveness of NATO forces to counter Soviet advances in armored forces and precision guided weapons.

More importantly, NATO planners argued that conventional advances were required to bolster the decades-old U.S. nuclear deterrent to dissuade a Soviet conventional attack. In the mid-1970s, defense planners and strategists feared that the American nuclear deterrent would be “decoupled” from Europe.

Changes in the military balance suggested a shift in Soviet thinking about conflict in the European theater. A CIA memorandum on Soviet defense policy from 1962 through 1972 concluded that “the Soviet view of war in Europe had undergone a significant change,” and now reflected a belief “that the initial period of a war with NATO could be fought without the use of nuclear weapons.” As then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had earlier proclaimed in his Fiscal Year 1978 Posture Statement to Congress, “the primary burden of deterrence now falls increasingly on conventional forces, although their effectiveness is enhanced by the nuclear capabilities that underlie them.”

The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War had already begun to impact thinking about conventional deterrence alternatives. The October War fueled the quest for technological solutions to NATO’s European security challenges and informed training and doctrine innovations. During the October War, Soviet air defense systems were employed with alarming success against American aircraft in the Israeli Air Force. In the first 18 days of the October War, Israel lost 100 highly sophisticated aircraft – many to new Soviet surface to air missile (SAM) systems. Whereas increased effectiveness of Soviet ground forces suggested that a surprise attack might cripple NATO’s ability to use ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons, air defenses suggested that air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons might not be effective either.

Russian divisions would advance against NATO forces within a “bubble” of protective air defense systems, including ZSU-23s for defending against low altitude aircraft and a suite of SAMs for higher ones. Soviet forces would be protected by the most advanced, interlocking air defense radar, warning, and fire control systems ever fielded. Mobile air defenses demonstrated in the October War further complicated the task of penetrating Soviet airspace, increasing fears that even tactical aircraft assigned to deliver nuclear strikes against Soviet armored units might fail.

The effectiveness of Soviet air defense systems caused NATO planners to rethink the role that NATO’s air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons would play in defending against a Soviet surprise attack. At the time, the U.S. Air Force was assigned a lead role in blunting Soviet armored attacks. This required the ability to operate in the airspace directly over advancing Soviet forces long enough to deliver tactical nuclear weapons.

Airspace Dominance: The Advent of Stealth

Soviet capabilities directly challenged the U.S. Air Force’s plans; military planners pursued innovations to counter NATO airpower. These included doctrinal changes that focused attacks on NATO command and control facilities and airbases, including insertion of special operations forces into NATO territory prior to any attack. Soviet war plans integrated both clandestine and airborne insertions, artillery and missile barrages, and massive waves of ground attack aircraft sorties to attack NATO command and control, air defense, airfields, aircraft bunkers, and aviation support facilities.

One of the key aspects of the Cold War offset strategy was a competitive strategy to offset this Soviet advantage in seizing control of the airspace in the opening phases of a war.

Countermeasures to the radar detection and tracking capabilities at the core of SAM systems traditionally involved overpowering, spoofing, or jamming the radars themselves. Such electronic countermeasures (ECM) techniques had been central to air power developments since World War II. But Soviet innovations were occurring faster than NATO countermeasures, leaving open the possibility that additional SAM developments would provide the Soviets with a window for technological surprise. Without air power, NATO forces would be even more vulnerable to a massive armored thrust.

Another way to defeat enemy radar and associated air defenses was to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross-section (RCS). In 1974, DARPA asked General Dynamics, Northrop, McDonnell Douglas, Grummen, and Boeing to study the feasibility of an aircraft with an extremely small RCS, and to build test airframes to demonstrate design options. Lockheed was not included, but later joined and eventually won the competition to design and prove the feasibility of a low-RCS aircraft able to penetrate Soviet airspace without being picked up by Soviet radars.

In April 1976 Lockheed won the competition to build a prototype what became a special access program known as HAVE BLUE (later named SENIOR TREND). Pentagon planners considered stealth a potential game changer against the Soviet integrated air defense system. As an offset strategy program, it focused on undercutting the effectiveness of Soviet radar, tracking, and warning systems, and would be a “force multiplier” by penetrating and attacking Soviet command and control, radar, and SAM sites. If it worked, stealth would be a silver bullet that could tear open large gaps in Soviet air defense networks. A later program evolved into the B-2 bomber.

After successful test flights in 1979 the HAVE BLUE program was accelerated as part of the offset strategy, with an aggressive delivery schedule outside normal development and testing processes. Initial delivery of operational aircraft occurred in 1982 – designated the F-117. Fifty-nine were in service by the end of the Cold War. In addition to the aircraft, a new 2000-pound bomb was developed to penetrate hardened bunkers. A highly classified mission planning and guidance system was created to position the aircraft during flight and select routes that optimized its stealth characteristics.

Lessons Learned

Three types of strategic challenges drove American military innovation during the Cold War: attempts to correct or stabilize real or perceived imbalances in the global nuclear deterrence equation after Russia and China operationalized nuclear weapons; responding to military challenges in peripheral regions that had the potential to escalate into a U.S.-Soviet crisis; and specific operational threats to U.S. or NATO military forces that had strategic implications for East-West stability.

Whereas Assault Breaker, and other offset programs, involved the integration of several technologies and weapons systems into a concept demonstration that informed subsequent systems and operational concepts, the development of Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft was a highly compartmented development project resulting in a relatively rapid transition from an operational prototype to production and fielding.

Many of the offset strategy’s initiatives were openly discussed. Technical characteristics and actual operational capabilities were classified. But the overarching intent, or concept of operations to interdict Soviet follow-on forces and integrate major weapons systems was openly discussed. This was not the case with stealth, which was considered such a game changing capability that even today, after the retirement of all F-117 aircraft, details of the program are highly classified.

At the end of the Cold War, Soviet military planners labeled the capabilities demonstrated by the U.S. military a theater-level “reconnaissance strike complex,” and argued against spending additional funds on new equipment until they could develop capabilities to counter the innovations demonstrated in the First Gulf War. The public unveiling of the F-117 program in the early 1990s was recognized as a game changing capability that would have profoundly changed the nature of a war in Europe. Both the unclassified and classified aspects of the Cold War offset strategy had a common mission and evolved into an integrated or complimentary set of acquisition programs.

In terms of both a competitive and cost-imposing strategy, the Obama Administration’s public declaration to create a “New Offset Strategy” warrants further investigation from the perspective of a signal to future adversaries. In Cold War offset strategies and associated programs there was a logical, deliberate relationship between deterrence stability and research and development, concept demonstrations, openly declared innovations, and classified or compartmented innovations. Indeed, as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter argued, a key component of the offset strategy “was to deny opponents” access to technology “through a system of export controls and protection of technological secrets.” It remains to be seen how the New Offset Strategy will manage sometimes conflicting objectives to openly shape expectations about future capabilities, and to develop classified capabilities providing technology or operational surprise in the opening stages of future conflicts.

One challenge for the third offset strategy will be to develop a planning approach that incorporates competitive strategy and net assessment methods to understand future adversary capabilities in light of U.S. and regional Allies’ capabilities. Another challenge will be developing a viable mix of public or open programs that shape expectations for deterrence regimes in the future, and classified programs that may never be disclosed until they are used in combat.


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.