war on the rocks

Third Offset Tech: What the Experts Say

May 12, 2015

What types of capabilities and technologies are suitable for a third offset strategy? This was the hotly debated question at a recent off-the-record session hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). This working group was the second in CNAS’ Beyond Offset series, which explores how the U.S. military can maintain its advantage through a period of strategic uncertainty, technological change, and declining defense budgets. The task force included participants from the think tank community, consulting firms, media, defense industry, and a number of government agencies.

The task force’s co-directors, Shawn Brimley and Ben FitzGerald, led the technology-focused discussion. Given a range of contingencies, participants were asked what capabilities or “baskets of technologies” are needed to maintain the U.S. military advantage into 2030. Much of the current debate surrounding the Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s quest for a third offset strategy has focused on long-term trends and big picture thinking. But the Pentagon will eventually need to invest in specific technologies.

Focusing the discussion on technology was an effective exercise, which helped clarify what the military already does well and where innovation is needed to fill gaps and guarantee a competitive advantage. Outside the confines of a working group, however, it is impossible to disaggregate technology needs from strategy, process, and people, a point that was often made throughout the participants’ conversation. A coherent strategy and efficient process should inform what technologies we invest in and how they are procured.

Throughout the discussion, the concerns that guided participants’ prioritization of technological capabilities were the speed of change, adversaries’ ability to adapt quickly at low cost and operate inside the U.S. decision cycle, and the proliferation of precision targeting and guided munitions. A wide variety of capabilities were considered, but the following received the most attention.

Data Collection and Intelligence

Today, the United States is capable of collecting huge amounts of raw data but cannot fully take advantage of it. Our ability to quickly synthesize information and distribute finished intelligence products lags significantly behind our collection capabilities. As intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems become more widespread, participants argued that the U.S. military should maintain a quantitative advantage — by deploying more of these systems — and a qualitative advantage — by driving the point of fusion for intelligence products forward, providing near instant situational awareness on the battlefield. Mass will allow the U.S. military a more resilient collection capability while enhanced data analytics and computing power in the field will improve the quality of information available to those making decisions on the front lines. In short, the Pentagon should leverage the significant ISR capabilities it already has in order to guarantee the military’s ability to operate inside an adversary’s decision cycle through superior intelligence analysis capabilities.


Communications is a key area where adversaries are likely to match and easily counter U.S. capabilities due to the proliferation of information technology — the United States cannot guarantee future domination of the electromagnetic spectrum. Participants stressed the need for the military to seek out resilient and/or alternative methods of communication while ensuring functionality in a degraded environment. The group suggested a variety of options to bolster operational survivability from technological, training, and deterrence centric perspectives.

Speaking to existing military communications capabilities, participants argued the focus should be on building redundancy into systems on the receiving end and within network infrastructure. Bolstering receiving end capabilities and arranging backup communications network services — such as satellites — would improve operational survivability in the face of attacks ranging from signal jamming to the launch of anti-satellite missiles. Forward-thinking research and development should focus on alternatives to GPS and improved undersea communications.

Despite such measures, we cannot guarantee our systems’ resilience to attack. Part of the military’s communications training should emphasize operations in degraded communications environments. If the U.S. military is able to operate at similar standards in a degraded environment, it will effectively limit and even deny adversaries’ ability to impact operations by targeting communications systems. Alternatively, participants suggested that developing a secure space to operate on civilian communications networks could deter adversaries from targeting these systems all together. The political cost of taking down civilian infrastructure would likely be more than most adversaries would be willing to bear.

Cyber Capabilities

While participants agreed that cyber is an important area where the United States needs to improve its defensive and offensive capabilities, the discussion didn’t draw out too many specifics. Interestingly, the discussion of cyber defense focused more on reducing vulnerability to socially engineered attacks as opposed to enhancing network security, intrusion detection, or attribution. Discussion about developing offensive cyber capabilities gained slightly more traction within the group. In particular, participants highlighted the advantages of non-attribution and the use of cyber-attacks to gain more control over conflicts by “adding an additional rung to the escalation ladder.”

Autonomy and Robotics

Participants continually emphasized the importance of and advantages yielded by deploying unmanned systems, non-lethal and lethal, across all domains — air, land, and sea. Sensor proliferation was identified as the primary use for non-lethal unmanned capabilities, whereas the utility of lethal systems varied from swarming payload delivery systems to ground-based mercenary systems designed to supplement and/or replace the infantry.

The U.S. military already fields advanced unmanned aerial vehicles as platforms for ISR packages and payload delivery systems; it is likely that the military will similarly benefit from ground- and sea-based systems. However, developing air-, ground-, and sea-based unmanned systems will be a long-term endeavor, as it requires advances in the ethically and technologically complicated fields of autonomy and robotics.

While the use cases for unmanned systems are broad, the majority of participants referenced their utility in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) settings. Capabilities like sensor proliferation and unmanned payload delivery allow the U.S. military to both monitor and respond to adversaries’ activities from standoff distances. In this sense, counter-A2/AD becomes less about guaranteeing U.S. access to territory and more about denying an adversary the ability to control their own space.

Agility and Sustainability

Throughout the working group, participants highlighted the need for the U.S. military to improve its agility and sustainability in manufacturing and deploying new systems, deploying forces, arming allies and partners, and providing assistance to other groups. Though this is a diverse set of capabilities, participants’ discussion of supportive technologies primarily focused on improving U.S. competitiveness through better deployability.

Presently, deploying U.S. forces requires a relatively heavy logistical lift. This lift can and should be lightened. Participants suggested adopting modular methods of manufacturing that emphasize interoperability. Core utility platforms could be deployed and modified with a range of packages that, in theory, would be produced in the field by a 3D printer. Where this kind of manufacturing clearly improves agility, it also enhances sustainability: 3D printing could simplify field maintenance and cut demand for new supplies. Modularity and interoperability also have tactical benefits, as adversaries can no longer predict with certainty the types of systems the U.S. military will deploy. As a result, they cannot develop specific countermeasures.

Participants also agreed that the Department of Defense needs to better train and equip U.S. allies and partners. As the United States’ adversaries achieve parity in more capability areas, our ability to rely on our allies and partners becomes increasingly valuable. To be more effective, participants argued in favor of developing and sharing high-end systems with greater capacity that require less training time and are less expensive to maintain. All of these characteristics increase the speed with which allies can deploy our systems and use them effectively.

However, the more complex end of the technological spectrum should not be neglected. Innovating and sharing precision-guided systems, such as hypersonic missiles, was only briefly discussed in this context. In particular, participants stressed the need to improve the reliability and mobility of ballistic missile defense systems.

In addition to arming allies and partners, participants argued for better methods of arming groups involved in conflicts where loyalties are fluid or when we fear our equipment could end up in the wrong hands. To this end, they suggested developing weapons systems that can be remotely disarmed. Such a mechanism would speed up the decision to intervene in rapidly evolving conflicts, heightening the chance U.S. assistance would have a significant impact.

A Challenging Task

The working group conveyed the difficulty of the task faced by the Department of Defense when it comes to investing in new technology in an era of rapid, global growth and change. Consensus was rarely gained and technologies that seem highly consequential, such as precision munitions, received less attention than expected while the group of experts sought to unpack higher order strategic concerns. The Pentagon is undoubtedly facing these same challenges and more.

The Department of Defense will need to find alignment between the various people, concepts, experimentation, processes, and technology elements of the Defense Innovation Initiative to craft an effective strategy. Though, in the final analysis it will need to articulate its technology priorities in order to build meaningful capability.

Targeting a specific set of technological needs is no simple task given the wide range of threats the United States may have to respond to over the next few decades. Where previous offset strategies had the advantage of an obvious adversary, today, prioritizing new technologies will require discipline on the part of the Pentagon and Congress in the face of a rapidly evolving strategic environment and concomitant disagreement on threats and national security objectives. Any prioritized list of technology investments will be imperfect and open to criticism but is a prerequisite in allowing the Department of Defense to allocate scarce resources to strengthen the U.S. military’s technological advantage in the most crucial future contingencies.


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