war on the rocks

Land Power and a Third Offset through a Wide-Angle Lens

May 21, 2015

Over the last year, leaders of the U.S. defense establishment have offered a helpful new concept to guide defense strategy—the so-called “third offset,” intended to counteract a perception of waning U.S. power projection capabilities. It builds on what proponents have defined as two earlier “offset” strategies (Eisenhower’s New Look and the investment in precision strike technology in the 1970s and 1980s) that helped the United States counteract rivals’ strengths. Yet the challenge facing U.S. strategy is not limited to constraints on power projection. The right way to view the offset concept is as part of a comprehensive vision for competitive advantage—one in which land power, often minimized in offset analyses, can play a central role.

Thinking on the third offset is premised on the recognition that American global primacy faces growing challenges. “Traditional sources of U.S. military advantage,” one leading analysis contends, “are being undermined by the maturation and proliferation of disruptive technologies—most notably, A2/AD [anti-access, area-denial] capabilities.” Offset analyses tend to depict the most important aspect of this challenge as a threat to U.S. power projection capabilities from advanced technologies. “It’s become very clear to us that our military’s long comfortable technological edge” is wearing down, Undersecretary of Defense Robert Work has said. “Our perceived inability to achieve a power projection over-match, or an over-match in operations, clearly undermine, we think, our ability to deter potential adversaries. And we simply cannot allow that to happen.” This line of thinking leads most offset analyses to embrace a range of high-tech systems designed specifically to refresh U.S. power projection capabilities. These include unmanned systems, long-range penetrating stealth aircraft, electromagnetic weapons, and stealth undersea.

A Comprehensive Strategy for Competitive Advantage

These insights are valid, and such capabilities would add significantly to U.S. ability to deter and if necessary defeat adversaries. But as many of offset advocates recognize, it is not only power projection that faces more contested environments, but the U.S. global posture in all its economic, diplomatic, and informational guises. Geopolitical constraints on U.S. power are intensifying, including fiscal shortfalls, resentment of U.S. power, and diffusing technological advances in areas like robotics, sensing, and precision strike.

Limits on U.S. power might not be so worrisome if it were not for a parallel trend in world politics—the growing threat to the rules-based liberal international order. The major focus of U.S. foreign and security policy since World War II has been the creation of a set of norms, institutions and regimes to help build more predictability and stability into the international system. The resulting order—from international political and economic institutions to standard-setting bodies to global human rights and environmental accords—has helped to shape states’ preferences and behavior. It has created a presumption against territorial aggression partly responsible for the notable recent responses to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Today, however, many of the norms behind this system are fraying, as aggressive quasi-revisionist states aim to shape international order to their advantage and as non-state actors without meaningful stakes in the system grow more adept at destabilizing it.

It is the collision of these two historical forces—constraints on the U.S. global role and mounting threats to the rule-based order—that creates the fundamental challenge for U.S. national security strategy. The United States needs an agenda for sustaining global order, but needs to do so in innovative ways that do not demand resources or influence that the United States no longer enjoys. And these considerations point to the continuing, indeed growing, role of land power in underwriting such a broader strategy for competitive advantage.

To get a sense of what such a strategy might look like, we can discover hints in previous offsets—the New Look and the 1970s-era Revolution in Military Affairs. The technological leaps central to those efforts, for example, did not always prove enduring. In the New Look, nuclear weapons were quickly recognized as a “wasting asset,” and the integrity of massive retaliation came under question essentially from the inception of the doctrine. The precision strike initiative of the 1970s offered more lasting advantages, but only for a certain type of conflict and not always in ways that tied directly to political objectives.

But in neither case were military technologies the source of U.S. relative strength. They represented a means to forestall Soviet aggression long enough for the real competitive advantage—U.S. economic, social and political vibrancy—to outlast the Soviet system. Something similar lay behind the 1970s Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA): the operational concepts made possible by the “second offset” are thought to have helped deter Soviet conventional superiority long enough for the true advantages of the West to do their work.

The most successful U.S. strategies integrate many elements of influence—political, economic, normative, informational and institutional as well as military—in order to achieve competitive advantage. And despite U.S. military preeminence, history suggests that the most critical areas of advantage are the political, social and economic virtues tied to the U.S. role as architect and defender of the international order. The partnerships, collective security accords, and alliances reflected in this role offer much more powerful relative strengths than any military technologies. The more the United States can pose emerging rivalries as contests between disruptive belligerents and a set of norms, rules and institutions that embody the interests of most states, the more U.S. efforts will be matched by partners, and the more revisionists will suffer the business end of a cost-imposing dynamic.

A more comprehensive strategy of competitive advantage could employ an updated, supercharged, more innovative version of this long-standing U.S. role as sponsor and guardian of a rule-based international order. It would place the United States at the hub of dozens of networks—formal as well as informal, public and private and mixed—that involve states and non-state actors alike, who see their interests reflected in such an order. The competitive advantage would derive from the leverage it grants the United States across a whole range of issues, the partner capacity it brings to bear, and the cost-imposing dynamics it creates for state or non-state aggressors. To make such an agenda sustainable in a more multipolar era, the United States will have to share leadership and decision-making authority in these networks to a much greater degree than it has so far been willing to do.

The Role of Land Power

While the leading elements of such a competitive strategy would be economic, diplomatic and informational, military capabilities would continue to play an important role, including the air, naval and space assets represented in world-class U.S. stand-off strike capabilities and stealthy platforms. But through the lens of a more comprehensive strategy for competitive advantage, land forces emerge as more vital than is typically conveyed in offset analyses. In such an approach, the United States will need military power to underwrite a primarily geopolitical and economic presence, demonstrate commitment, support friends and allies, and respond to a whole series of ongoing contingencies. Land power is ideal for such a wide-ranging set of roles and missions.

Three roles for land power could be especially important. One is the use of Army and Marine units to underwrite networks and partnerships. Under this strategy, the United States would maximize its influence and leverage from its role as architect, sponsor and protector of networks to sustain the international system. Land forces could support this process through their work to train and advise allies and build the capacity of partners, provide logistical, engineering and medical support, stage multinational exercises, and promote the development of more effective military institutions. The Joint force as a whole would support these missions of course, but for a number of reasons—the deep experience of the Army and Marine Corps in training and advising, and the ground-centric character of many partner militaries—land forces could be the centerpiece of this foundational network engagement.

A second role would be the use of land forces to invest in the health and effectiveness of regional or global institutions of collective security. Examples include participation in alliance exercises and activities, in NATO and Asia; logistics, training and other support for third-party alliances and regional groupings, such as the African Union; and enabling, training and logistics support for international institution missions such as United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. Such missions play a significant role in building trust and long-term relationships.

The third and final role would be the most traditional—deterring direct military threats to stability. Land forces underwrite global stability and the rules-based order by playing key roles within an integrated Joint force to help raise the costs and risks of aggression. But land forces offer a unique value in symbolizing a persistent regional presence, and are rapidly deployable to quickly reinforce threatened positions.

Taken together, these three roles of land power offer powerful means to underwrite a revitalized U.S. commitment to a stable international order. Thinking of land power in this way, moreover, offers implications for the U.S. Army in particular. The Army serves the nation through its ability, in times of national emergency, to gather itself, surge forth, and win major wars. But at a time of creeping risk to the global order, it will also do so through its persistent, often unglamorous, but critical day-to-day global presence and engagements. It can be the binding force that unites the disparate elements of a network-centric U.S. global posture: The enabling capability that gives substance to U.S. support for institutions; the forward presence that symbolizes U.S. security commitments; and the advisory muscle that embodies U.S. sponsorship of friends and allies.

In order to play this range of roles successfully, the U.S. Army must build on its promising recent strategic and conceptual statements, and work toward a force that is increasingly adaptive, versatile, and capable of meeting challenges across the full spectrum of conflict. Such an Army must work as hard to build highly-skilled trainers and advisors, regionally aligned forces and strategically deployable air and missile defense as it does to create combined-arms operations specialists. It will need new thinking on career paths, fresh concepts of operations for nontraditional tasks, boosted investments in education, area and language expertise and leader development, and efforts to generate innovation and experimentation across a range of emerging missions. A network-centric U.S. strategy for competitive advantage demands a versatile, innovative Army with a mosaic of capabilities, one built to serve the principal strategic task of the coming decade: Shared leadership to sustain a threatened international order.


Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and associate director of the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.