How the U.S. Army Remains the Master of Landpower


There is a famous story attributed to Albert Wohlstetter and Andrew Marshall about a medieval knight. The knight finds a modern assault rifle with a bayonet on the battlefield. Clearly, the weapon offers greater range and lethality than anything the knight has. Yet, what does the knight do with it? Does he use it to bludgeon his adversaries as he would a sword or does he experiment, firing the rifle at targets over a hundred yards away, and realize the potential for new forms of warfare? Without experimentation and a vibrant intellectual discourse on the future of land warfare, the United States risks becoming the bludgeoning knight. This experimentation should include, but must not be limited to the pursuit of new technologies.

In a September 10, 2015 London speech, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, a former Marine artillery officer and alumnus of the Office of Net Assessment, warned that the United States faced a new era of strategic competition resulting from a decline in its “margin of technological superiority.” Deputy Secretary Work and a growing chorus of leading defense thinkers in Washington worry that near-peer competitors are making large investments in precision capabilities and advanced weapons while the United States is still working to reorient itself from costly campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan while facing budget cuts and government shutdowns. As the U.S. Army fielded Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles to protect soldiers against improvised explosive devices, Russia and China developed longer-range precision ground attack, sea, and air attack capabilities that create a multi-domain anti-access/area-denial threat.

To address this gap, in November 2014 the Pentagon launched the Defense Innovation Initiative (DII), commonly referred to as the Third Offset Strategy. As other War on the Rocks contributors have noted, the strategy calls for the United States to pursue “breakthroughs in the most cutting-edge technologies and systems – especially from the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.” Much of the focus has been on Air-Sea battle. With respect to land warfare, Deputy Secretary of Work called for a “doctrinal revival like that of the early 1980s,” namely “an Air-Land Battle 2.0.”

How we frame the offset concept with respect to the future of landpower is an important question for the U.S. Army, a service whose budget and programs are often organized more around personnel than platforms. In this first of two articles, we begin by defining offsets and linking the concept to foundational ideas in economics and long-term competitive strategy. We then use this framework and illustrative historical examples to explore how landpower offsets can emerge from operational problems and new ideas about war. We find that technology can drive offsets in some cases, but it is not the only source of change. Through reflecting on ongoing operations, experimentation, studies, and war games, the Army can take a more evolutionary approach to capability development.

What are Offsets?

Offsets refer to investments in disruptive technology that maintain relative force superiority. In the “third offset strategy,” the United States is investing in technological quality to counter adversary force quantity. Like the 1950’s ‘New Look’ strategy leveraging nuclear weapons and the Offset Strategy of the 1970s that relied on emerging precision strike capabilities, the Defense Department is committed to finding a new series of game-changing systems that maintain a generational lead in weapons development.

In its current manifestation, the DII program focuses on specific investments in new capabilities that have a significant potential to sustain the United States’ military advantage. According to Secretary Carter, candidates for investments include “high-speed strike weapons, advanced aeronautics, rail guns, and high energy lasers” as well as new “innovative operational concepts that would help us use our current capabilities in new and creative ways.”

This logic of offsets has an intellectual foundation in the economic concepts of comparative advantage and long-term competitive strategies. Applied to defense, each military actor has a comparative advantage over another in a particular domain. Some states have cheaper labor costs and pools of potential recruits that might allow them to field mass conscript armies. Other states can build tanks or recruit a network of hackers at lower relative marginal costs thanks to endowments ranging from preexisting industrial investments to an educated labor force. With respect to the second offset, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown noted that, “If the United States looks for comparative advantages against a potential Soviet adversary with superior numbers of forces, one of the most obvious is the relatively lower cost of incorporating high technology into U.S. military equipment.”

Offsets as Matching Strengths to Weaknesses

Because they adjust relative marginal costs, offsets are a critical aspect of long-term competitive strategies. In U.S. defense circles, long-term competitive strategies are heavily informed by net assessment, which is historically associated with Andrew Marshall.

Considered through the lens of net assessment, the ideal offset allows you to map ways of matching your strengths, areas where you have a comparative advantage and/or lower marginal costs, against your adversary’s weaknesses.

Bradford Lee offers several offset logics. First, an approach could be cost imposing. The United States could find a way of increasing the marginal costs of its primary competitors during peacetime. This characterization matches the earlier offsets and much of the current Defense Innovation Initiative, in which analysts call for the United States to maintain its advantages in areas like undersea warfare and robotics. The logic is that potential competitors like Russia and China will face higher relative costs to match the United States in these areas and hence avoid future confrontations. In theory, offsets have the potential to deter.

Second, the U.S. military could offset by denial. Denial implies attacking an adversary plan (ways) in a manner that limits the probability that the adversary reaches its objective (ends). This idea has a long history. Sun Tzu called for attacking your enemies’ plan. Robert Pape used historical cases of coercive airpower campaigns to show the benefits of denial strategies. In modern defense discussions, examples include developing a capability to deny adversary A2/AD capabilities.

Third, an offset can bait an adversary to take on excessive burdens or engage in self-defeating behavior. Here again, there is a long history. In Derrick Yuen’s new interpretation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, initiative can also be striking second. It is sometimes better to get an adversary to make an unfavorable move and capitalize on its misstep than to strike first. During the 1980s, through the Strategic Defense Initiative and military modernization, the United States forced the Soviet Union, already struggling with declining oil prices, to invest additional funds in its aging military at the expense of social programs.

Where the Defense Innovation Initiative relies on cost imposing by technology (i.e., hardware), the Army could explore low-cost, low-risk offsets by denial and baiting based on new doctrine (i.e., software). Such an approach would build on the Army Operating Concept. This concept calls for presenting enemies with “multiple dilemmas” and compelling them by putting something they value at risk. This concept parallels Sir Julian Corbett’s idea of a fleet-in-being that denies enemies the ability to concentrate their forces.

There are historical precedents to such an approach. Take the infantry revolution that characterized the Hundred Years War. To counter the heavy armor of the day – French knights – the English developed an integrated force mixing yeoman archers and dismounted men-at-arms that presented multiple dilemmas to the adversary. They could form a “cavalry-missile” combination against opposing infantry in the offense or a “pike and shot” combination in the defense that wore down opposing cavalry as arrows disrupted cavalry charges before they smashed into pike formations. In other words, the English presented their enemy with multiple dilemmas. Instead of leap-ahead cost imposing technologies, the English employed new warfighting concepts and organizational combinations.


Many of Napoleon’s greatest battlefield successes rested similarly on new organizational forms and concepts of employment. After the Seven Years’ Wars, leading French military thinkers like Marshal Maurice de Saxe initiated a wave of military reform. The reforms led to a new organizational form, the independent corps that enabled an early form of mission command. To manage this increased span of control, Napoleon organized a system of reports and staff at his general headquarters. By being decentralized and capable of fighting engagements independently, these corps could be maneuvered to threaten the enemy faster than the enemy’s concentrated forces could respond. These formations allowed Napoleon to use feints, create traps, and divide his adversaries to defeat them in detail. Thus, organizational forms and new staff processes increased operational flexibility. The role of technology was limited at best.


Insights for Future Army Offsets

Looking at these modes of offsetting, some potential parameters for developing landpower offsets start to emerge. First, offsets do not need to be technological. Certainly, new technologies can help, but many of the game-changing capabilities in land warfare were the result of incremental, as opposed to suddenn change. There were few ‘silver bullets.’ Rather, consistent with many of the important innovations in the interwar period like carrier aviation, strategic bombing, and armored warfare, new operating concepts and organizational experiments tend to illuminate offset candidates.

This observation leads to a second important design parameter for future landpower offsets: experimentation and realistic training organized around an operational problem should drive adaptation. Multiple defense analysts and scholars tend to associate Air-Land Battle, the doctrine the Army displayed in part in Desert Storm, with the second offset. Yet, a closer reading of the historical record shows that Air-Land Battle grew as much out of the training and doctrine reform started after the Vietnam War and linked to the 1973 Yom Kippur War as it did new technology. Although technology played a role, it was in support of solving the operational problem of countering massed Soviet formations. Generals Depuy, Gorman, Otis, Richardson, and Starry used doctrinal innovation linked to experimentation and exercises to change the way the Army fought. Operational problems drove the search for new theories of victory, as ways, and technological solutions, as means.

The Army’s Beyond 2025 initiative and current operations like Pacific Pathways and Atlantic Resolve provide the foundation for a new era of experimentation to imagine a third offset as it relates to landpower. Instead of asking what new technology can change the Army, leaders should start with a series of operational problems – such as A2AD in both the Pacific and Europe, hybrid warfare, and the challenge of state weaknesses and extremism in the Middle East and Africa – and then conduct a series of “war games, exercises, experiments, evaluations, and other efforts focused on determining how the army organizes and designs the force.” Based on these experiments, the Army can then identify if there are 1) immediate solutions related to innovations in areas such as training and doctrine that can be explored in lieu of new technologies; 2) technological capabilities that are either commercially available or can be obtained through other military services and can be fielded rapidly and at low cost; and 3) what long-term technological hedges are worth investing in?

Moreover, instead of focusing on offsets only at the strategic level, the Army can proceed by thinking through the entire force, from fire teams to corps. The example of yeoman archers from the Hundred Years’ War shows how new fighting formations and capabilities at lower levels can have a significant, cumulative effect. In other words, offsets need not occur only at the upper echelon. The acknowledgment that manned-unmanned teaming can start at the squad level, for example, raises a host of questions related to technology. What types of cheap, unmanned systems could be used by infantry squads? Replicating success in pairing Apache attack helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles, should tanks pair with their own unmanned aerial vehicle? How can the Army leverage big data and sensors to better understand the local dynamics of war?

Where other services invest in large, strategic capabilities like aircraft carriers, the Army’s strategic effect can come from a tactical cascade, the cumulative effect of increased situational awareness and fighting power at lower echelons. This observation implies that realistic training and readiness as well as carefully studying ongoing operations play a central role in developing offsets for landpower. Furthermore, it implies protecting funds for readiness and exercises that maintain current combat power and enable experimenting with future force multipliers. While game-changing technologies may be on the horizon, successful offsets for landpower start with doctrine and organization. The Army needs a new theory of victory, and fighting formations that allow it to outmaneuver potential enemies.


Paul Norwood is a Colonel in the U.S. Army currently serving as a Military Fellow in the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. Benjamin Jensen, PhD is the Donald L. Bren Chair of Creative Problem Solving at Marine Corps University and a Scholar in Residence at the American University, School of International Service. He is a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve currently serving as a Military Fellow in the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. The views expressed in the article are their own.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Jason Hull, 82nd Airborne Division

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