Trading Space and Time in the Cold War Offset Strategy


“Strategy,” Napoleon reflected, was the “art of making use of time and space.” The third offset strategy has been described in terms of maintaining America’s military technological edge. Offsetting adversary advantages and restoring U.S. deterrence credibility requires technological and doctrinal innovation that would enable U.S. forces to absorb attacks and retaliate across greater distances in shorter timelines than current capabilities allow.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, American military planners are questioning the ability of U.S. forces to maintain their technological edge over regional powers. Can a new “offset strategy” preserve long-standing regional deterrence regimes traditionally underwritten by U.S. military forces? Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) threats challenge U.S. regional deterrence regimes by increasing the relative cost to U.S. forces operating from forward bases with long supply lines and by placing American forces on the defensive in early combat exchanges.

The third offset strategy, from one perspective, is about the art of making use of time (responding quickly and decisively to a surprise attack or regional aggression) and space (operating in forward areas facing adversaries with relatively more capable long-range strike systems). This is not the first time that U.S. defense planners have responded to battlefield space-time challenges with technological and doctrinal innovations to offset adversary military advantages. At the core of third offset strategy discussions are fundamental questions about overcoming long distances where adversaries have qualitative and quantitative advantages over U.S. deployed forces, which have decreased reaction times to defend against adversary attacks.

A key similarity between second and third offset strategy discussions is the operational problem posed in the relative offensive-defensive balance when regional powers field large arsenals of long-range strike systems. Indeed, in his Army War College Strategy Conference speech on April 8, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work proposed updates to the Cold War offset strategy constructs of AirLand Battle and Assault Breaker as potential components of a third offset strategy. This article explores a previous attempt to update the Cold War offset strategy’s legacy doctrine and defense acquisition programs to compliment Work’s arguments for an AirLand Battle 2.0 and “Raid Breaker” concept.

Current offset strategy discussions are in large part driven by what our adversaries have learned about U.S. long-range precision strike advantages and how to counter them in regional wars, including disrupting American mobilization, resupply, and reinforcement plans. By turning to the first post-Cold War precision strike construct that specifically considered how technology, defense budgets, and emerging regional adversaries might challenge U.S. military advantages, we might be able to learn some lessons.

The June 1994 Defense Science Board Task Force Report on Joint Precision Interdiction is of particular relevance because it was the first assessment of the Cold War offset strategy’s legacy doctrine and weapons systems that specifically addressed the threat to U.S. forces from regional powers armed with long-range precision strike systems. The Joint Precision Interdiction concept was proposed by the U.S. European Command at the end of the Cold War to address “highly maneuverable forces in a situation characterized by ill defined battle lines” and the challenges of “Regional Conflict models and engagement scenarios” characteristic of the post-Cold War “non-linear battlefield.’” As does Work, the JPI report sought to update both the assumptions driving AirLand Battle and Assault Breaker and the programs associated with them.

Joint Precision Interdiction (JPI) was the first operational concept designed to leverage enormous Cold War offset strategy investments by adapting existing and planned systems to address both post-Cold War and post-Desert Storm contingencies. Indeed, the JPI Task Force recognized that precision strike, stealth, and other sophisticated capabilities would soon be available to potential adversaries, greatly changing assumptions about sustaining U.S. “overmatch” advantages in key capability areas. Accordingly, the implementation of the JPI concept would require critical improvements on and adaptations to the Cold War offset strategy’s legacy doctrine and weapons systems, including the Follow on Forces Attack concept discussed in a previous War on the Rocks article.

Both the late 1980s Follow on Forces Attack concept and the subsequent 1990s Joint Precision Interdiction concept traced their roots to a 1983 NATO report entitled Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe. FOFA recommended a deep attack doctrine and a weapons systems acquisition plan to strike 300 kilometers beyond the forward line of NATO forces. The original Follow on Forces Attack (FOFA) construct focused on delaying and disrupting Soviet forces with a combination of stand-off intelligence and targeting capabilities, long-range precision strike systems, and integrated battlefield command and control capabilities. FOFA therefore adapted AirLand Battle doctrine with a more sophisticated, multi-faceted approach to integrating NATO surveillance, targeting, and precision strike to attack deep into Warsaw Pact territory to bolster the defense of the NATO front line. The strategy was to restore deterrence credibility by enabling deep strikes that would influence the close-in fight.

Both the original AirLand Battle and Assault Breaker constructs leading to FOFA were fundamentally about overcoming Soviet space-time advantages in Cold War NATO vs. Warsaw Pact scenarios. AirLand Battle and Assault Breaker were driven by the need to create so-called time-critical, long-range precision strike capabilities to delay and disrupt Soviet military forces. Follow on Force Attack and Joint Precision Interdiction focused on adapting U.S. military innovations designed to overcome the spatial and temporal challenges of Cold War Europe to the post-Cold War era.

At the end of the Cold War, the temporal and spatial realities of the modern battlefield impelled new thinking about command and control, the role of tactical intelligence, protecting rear supply depots and resupply and replenishment units, and sustaining combat power in situations where units could not rotate “off” a front line during a pause in fighting. Given the ranges and capabilities of long-range strike systems, there might be no operational pauses on the future battlefield. This spurred American innovation across multiple paths, including improved target identification and location, precision delivery of advanced munitions with warheads that were lighter and more lethal, and new electronic warfare capabilities designed to help deceive and disrupt enemy command and control systems.

A key tenet of both AirLand Battle and Follow on Forces Attack was the interdiction of successive waves of Soviet armor pushing forward to NATO’s forward defensive lines. If these follow-on forces could be delayed, NATO’s forward forces could regroup, consolidate defenses, and in an ideal situation push forward by transitioning to the offensive. This required planning NATO strikes to battlefield depths of 150 to 300 kilometers, which, in turn, required improved intelligence, command and control, and precision strike capabilities. Targeting at such ranges required near real time intelligence to be exploited and disseminated to commanders and fire support centers. It also required defeating Soviet theater-level deception plans.

With renewed emphasis on interdiction, planners believed that a window of time would open in which NATO forces would have an opportunity to halt the attack and stabilize a new front. This reinforced the focus on temporal dimensions of planning, designing new weapons systems, and revising doctrine. As Army Chief of Staff General Don Starry argued in his April 1983 testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services, the operational challenge facing NATO forces required new thinking about what is best considered the “space-time” problem addressed by Follow on Forces Attack: creating a “window of opportunity” in which enemy forces would be degraded such that the United States could transition to the offensive. Conceptually, the effects of JPI capabilities and the ability to attack deep into enemy territory were described in terms of bolstering NATO’s defense.

The conceptual and doctrinal implications of focusing on specific time windows paved the way for rapid dominance and decisive operations discussions in the 1990s. Important changes ensued. Military planners recognized that key assumptions underlying Follow on Forces Attack and AirLand Battle had changed.

Whereas Follow on Forces Attack focused on striking deep to influence the close-in fight, the JPI concept focused on striking deep to influence deep. The definition of “precision” in the evolutionary JPI construct retained elements of target location and tracking and precision delivery of strikes while incorporating a new emphasis on capabilities to enable theater commanders to identify, select, and attack targets dynamically based on the military significance at the time.

Additionally, military planners turned their attention to war with limited objectives, something that concerned planners at the end of the Cold War when Moscow linked the stability of the European theater to other regions. American and Soviet forces, or their proxies, competing for influence outside of Europe might spark a confrontation leading to a potential attack in Europe. What if Moscow attacked with limited objectives, occupying NATO territory to achieve gains or concessions? Without sufficient deterrent capabilities, planners warned that a “bolt from the blue” surprise attack could result in minimal Soviet losses and political pressure to concede to Soviet demands.

Where Follow on Forces Attack assumed access to NATO infrastructure, airbases, and other support capabilities, JPI assumed post-Cold War regional contingencies would require greater U.S. regional combat generation capabilities with limited access to forward bases and the potential for adversaries to attack ports, airfields, and logistics lines preventing rapid reinforcement and resupply of U.S. forces. Paralleling current debates on countering adversary Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, earlier AirLand Battle and Follow on Forces Attack constructs required the integration of weapons platforms and precision munitions along with innovations in logistics, electronic warfare, stealth, battlefield deception, and unmanned systems.

After the Cold War, the JPI concept sought to address regional contingencies, including limited wars, as well as fundamental changes in the post-Cold War era that continue to shape defense strategy today. Indeed, the JPI Task Force Report addressed a number of issues that parallel current third offset strategy discussions and reflect Deputy Secretary Work’s thinking about AirLand Battle 2.0 and Raid Breaker.

For example, today’s offset strategy assumes a greatly reduced force-to-space ratio in a conventional warfighting setting without the deterrence backstop to escalation provided by theater nuclear weapons. Regional aggressors may not be deterred by the threat of U.S. escalation to nuclear strikes if U.S. forces suffer battlefield loses. As did the architects of Joint Precision Interdiction, today’s defense planners are grappling with regional contingencies involving fewer U.S. deployed forces (both regionally and globally) and the absence of forward, linear defensive lines enabling the close-in vs. deep-strike construct underscoring the Follow on Forces Attack operational construct. Precision-strike technologies have proliferated. This impels additional U.S. investments to sustain overmatch capabilities despite reduced defense spending and capacity for new program starts. Any U.S. emphasis on offensive, proactive, or “preemptive” capabilities (including doctrine) to transition quickly from forward presence and power projection missions into offensive combat operations spurs adversaries to design around U.S. advantages, leading to additional A2/AD threats, including counter-stealth and adversary deception programs that require additional third offset investments.

The evolution from Follow on Forces Attack to JPI at the end of the Cold War involved more than a reexamination of the post-Cold War security environment and emerging regional contingencies. It also involved an examination of U.S. capabilities. Specifically, the JPI concept recognized that weapons planned for Follow on Forces Attack lacked sufficient range to be effective at the stand-off distances likely required to interdict or disrupt enemy forces. Deployed forces, moreover, would likely lack sufficient deployed, prepositioned, or forward-based assets to sustain combat operations. Adversaries, finally, would likely have more sophisticated air defense and long-range missile capabilities, presenting a challenge to the deep interdiction operational concepts designed to defeat Soviet forces in Europe and demonstrated during the First Gulf War. Then, as now, defense planners questioned whether surface and air-launched weapons had sufficient range to provide stand-off survivability for U.S. forces.

Where does that leave today’s defense planners? Much has changed since the Joint Precision Interdiction concept addressed post-Cold War regional conflicts on a nonlinear battlefield, including the identification of specific operational threats to U.S. power projection and force generation capabilities; fundamental changes in technology, industry, and our thinking about military innovation; the resurgence of expansionist regional powers directly challenging United States and allied interests in multiple theaters; and, the deterioration of both U.S. political and fiscal capacity to agree first on defense spending priorities and then pursue a wide-ranging, diverse portfolio of “third offset” programs. With greater understanding of previous offset strategies and how today’s adversaries responded to them we will be better positioned to transform.

As suggested by Deputy Secretary Work’s reference to AirLand Battle 2.0 and Raid Breaker, it may be that the core space-time operational challenges and operational capabilities inherited from the Cold War offset strategy, which were updated by the Joint Precision Interdiction construct, remain relevant to today’s offset strategy discussions. After all, they were the origins of the U.S. advantages that current adversaries are countering. With insight into the origins, evolution, and relevance of legacy concepts as well as greater knowledge of the capabilities being fielded by adversaries, third offset strategy planners can avoid the temptation of rehashing and repackaging decades-old concepts, concerns, and debates and instead integrate disruptive capabilities and innovations into legacy concepts, doctrine, and technologies.

Hopefully, the results of the ongoing Long Range Research and Development Program working groups and the reinvigoration of the Office of Net Assessment under new leadership will help us move beyond evolutionary concepts like AirLand Battle 2.0 and Raid Breaker to realize a more fundamental break with Cold War offset strategy legacy concepts, programs, and thinking.


Robert R. Tomes, PhD is president of the MapStory Foundation and an adjunct professor of security policy studies at Georgetown University. 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.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder