war on the rocks

Three Offsets for American Landpower Dominance

November 23, 2015

It is 2030. Russian leaders still use nationalism and threats of external conflict to distract their citizens from corruption at home. Despite a dysfunctional economy, the Russian government still fields a large conventional ground force that conducts snap exercises and threatens multiple NATO member states as part of a “New Generation warfare” campaign to secure Moscow’s near abroad. If conflict erupts, Russian ground forces will rely on massive salvos of precision rocket and artillery fire targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) combined with cyber and electronic warfare capabilities designed to blind and confuse NATO forces. A sophisticated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) system limits NATO power projection in the sea and air through integrated air defenses, theater ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. The Russians retain a nuclear triad and conduct readiness exercises, including long-range air patrols, simulated submarine launches from the Arctic, and dispersion of mobile missile launchers. Agents provocateurs and clandestine operatives are active in Russia’s near abroad, forming an infrastructure for unconventional warfare.

What type of ground combat formations could the United States field as part of a larger joint and coalition force to deter aggression and reassure allies in such a scenario? Building on our first installment, this future scenario allows us to explore U.S. options for a third offset for landpower. Though focused on Russia, the offsets discussed here could be applied to a wide variety of contingencies, from China’s Three Warfare doctrine to Iran’s concept of exporting revolution through asymmetric interventions. In our previous article, we proposed three types of offsets: denial, cost imposition, and baiting. Here, we propose three candidates for future force modernization based on each of these categories. In keeping with our call for incremental experimentation, we deliberately based each offset on off-the-shelf capabilities packaged in novel ways. Each option we propose focuses more on doctrine and organization linked to the Army Operating Concept than on future technology.

Offset by Denial: Inverting the Anti-Access Challenge

Increasingly, the proliferation of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) systems creates challenges for U.S. freedom of maneuver. Anti-access weapons deny U.S. forces entry into the theater by holding them at risk, while area denial weapons make movement within the theater difficult, if not impossible.

In this scenario, Russian forces field coastal artillery units that can fire supersonic anti-ship missiles and advanced air defense systems capable of denying air and sea space to modern American fighters and ships. Combined, these platforms erode U.S. conventional deterrence through denied access, isolating forward deployed forces and increasing the risks associated with power projection. The challenge for the United States is to find a way to counter adversary artillery, rockets, and anti-access systems to alter the balance of risk sufficiently to deter Russia.

Offsetting by denial meets this challenge by confronting future adversaries with multiple dilemmas and limiting their expected gains. Ground forces using traditional artillery tubes modified to fire smart projectiles can conduct counter-raid missions, shooting down enemy cruise missiles, UAVs, and rockets to set the theater for the joint force. They integrate with joint fires to limit the effectiveness of enemy missile raids and UAV swarms, shielding coalition forces as they deploy in the early stages of a crisis. In a Russia scenario, ground forces participate in this counter-raid mission and reduce Moscow’s anticipated first-move advantage in a crisis. Simultaneously, they provide deep attack options that allow the coalition to hold critical Russia ground units at risk.

Instead of trading space to buy time as part of classic strategic depth, NATO forces threaten the enemy’s space as part of a strategy to create time for additional U.S. and allied forces to mobilize. In our future Russian scenario, this offset by denial approach enables NATO to hold Russian conventional units at risk in the early stages of a crisis. The mobility of these same units forces Russia to expend significantly more intelligence resources to resolve its new targeting dilemma.

Current rotational force constructs propose making smaller forces look like larger forces. In Atlantic Resolve, the series of exercises designed to deter Russia, the adage is “make 30,000 look and feel like 300,000.” Offsetting by denial takes a different approach. The goal is a Thermopylae force that survives. Like the famous stand of the outnumbered Greeks against the Persians in 480 BC, the goal should be to provide smaller formations with weapons systems that enable them to fight like larger armies and hold the line while a larger joint force assembles.

Leonidas at Thermopylae.


In the Russia scenario, this proposed offset by denial increases the credibility and capability of conventional deterrence. The goal is to win without fighting, keeping future crises from escalating. You deny by changing the cost calculus short of any escalation involving nuclear forces.

Offsetting by denial requires new ammunition and operating concepts. Simple chemistry solutions that allow existing artillery systems to fire rounds capable of hitting targets ranging from traditional ground targets to UAVs and cruise missiles is not science fiction. With minimal investment and experimentation, the U.S. Army could make the leap. Second, the Army would need new concepts that change how officers think about existing equipment and missions. New hardware requires new software. In this case, the Army would need to revisit what it means to “set the theater” by integrating fires, intelligence, and logistics in new ways that enhance the combat power of forward deployed forces. The future force might be a composite of forward-deployed units and “set the theater” assets (i.e., intelligence, reconnaissance, fires, and force protection) that form the nucleus for follow-on maneuver elements. The Army would also need to consider significant increases to the number of forces deployed forward in Europe.

Offset by Cost Imposition: Autonomy Isn’t Just for Robots

The proliferation of cheap, precision strike platforms and the rise of gray zone conflicts that exist between war and peace undermine U.S. conventional force capabilities. It is too costly to match each adversary weapon for weapon and politically untenable to escalate a crisis. The United States and its allies also face a risk imbalance. Gray zone adversaries assume that higher degrees of risk will limit U.S. options in the early stages of a crisis. These adversaries enjoy the advantage of not having to tell the truth either domestically or globally. The U.S. military fields expensive units in large formations that irregular adversaries can tie down with increasingly lethal fires. These enemies also field large fighting formations able to target U.S. and coalition forces with precision fires. The challenge is how to change this risk equation and impose costs on the enemy to deter future aggression.

Offset by cost imposition entails leveraging U.S. comparative advantages to present the adversary with a more costly competition. Core U.S. strengths exist in the areas of readiness and the use of unmanned systems. To offset future adversaries, U.S. forces can develop new doctrine for distributed operations and fielding manned–unmanned teams at lower echelons.

The U.S. military is at the forefront of manned–unmanned teaming, which is the integration of robotics into traditional missions. Since 2013, Army aviation has experimented at the National Training Center by pairing unmanned scout drones with attack helicopters. As part of the larger counterterrorism effort over the last decade, specialized units conducted remote split operations allowing local special forces and drones to engage targets supported by global intelligence and mission command forces.

In a future Russia scenario, the U.S. Army could deploy squad-level vehicles that allow infantry to either ride into battle or use the systems as autonomous ground scouts. These ultra-lightweight vehicles increase mobility and allow smaller squads to become part of an integrated sensor and shooter network. These distributed formations would take an indirect approach to occupy key terrain or threaten critical assets with direct and indirect fires. Highly mobile forces would make it more difficult for the enemy to concentrate their forces. Tactical mobility enables operational-level effects. The Russians have to defend a larger front for a potential counterattack in a future crisis.

Paratroopers assigned to 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, drive Light Tactical All Terrain Vehicles through a familiarization course on Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo credit: Sgt. Eliverto V. Larios)

These manned–unmanned teams could be further enhanced by exploring machine learning. As unmanned systems harvest data, they “learn” and become increasingly autonomous. Rather than pursue full autonomy, which has more cultural and policy hurdles than inherent technological challenges, the Army could put humans in the loop to check and modify the lessons artificially intelligent unmanned systems propose. For example, machine algorithms shifting through terabytes of terrain data propose new ways of detecting possible IEDs that human analysts could verify or modify. The initial goal should not be to take humans out of the loop, but to find the optimal pairings of people and software. The longer-term goal may well remove humans from the loop to reflect the increased speed and complexity of the future operating environment.

Smaller formations only work if we train agile and adaptive leaders. Through expanding the Adaptive Soldier / Leader Training and Education (ASLTE) initiative, focusing on creative problem solving, and giving units greater input into their training schedules, ground forces operate at a higher tempo and adapt to changing circumstances. Units able to observe, orient, decide, and act faster than regular or irregular adversaries gain significant advantages.

To offset by cost imposition requires material investments in mobility and manned–unmanned teaming alongside a commitment to readiness. First, we need to ensure light units are mobile on the future battlefield. Second, the Army should accelerate existing experiments with manned–unmanned teaming and expand the program to ground combat units. Third, units with higher states of readiness are cost imposing. The Army needs to protect its ability to send units to realistic combat training that grooms agile and adaptive leaders at each echelon.

Offset by Baiting: The Fight for Information

Because the United States is often the “away team” in any given conflict, U.S. forces often lack an understanding of the dynamics of local environments. This is something traditional satellite imagery and signals intercepts cannot fix. Furthermore, U.S. forces often respond to a crisis as opposed to pre-empting it, which compounds the information challenge. The adversary has the initiative and can dictate the terms and set conditions, enabling it to operate faster than coalition forces can react. The challenge is how to win the fight for information.

Offset by baiting refers to altering the balance of information in the battlespace. Fog and friction are part of the enduring nature of warfare. Although the United States cannot eliminate its own uncertainty, U.S. forces can increase the amount of uncertainty the adversary faces. U.S. forces can also increase their understanding of local dynamics through data mining social media and publicly available communications. Analysts fuse official and crowdsourced intelligence. Wide-area security requires wide-area intelligence. Just as commercial firms target their ads based on analyzing online habits, U.S. forces can target their messaging and track population sentiment as a form of atmospheric intelligence.

For example, during the 2011 NATO air campaign in Libya, the cell phone became a weapon. Networks of local informants uploaded GPS-tagged pictures of Libyan fighting positions. In Ukraine in 2015, digital activists support Kiev by using social media to identify Russian forces fighting in the Donbass.

In a Russia scenario, big data provides the United States real battlefield advantages. While the larger U.S. intelligence enterprise harvests data from the environment and collects sensitive information, military intelligence would connect these analytical efforts with tactical reconnaissance and surveillance. U.S. military units would simultaneously provide information to host nation police forces identifying possible Russian unconventional operations. The goal is to isolate the little green men before the shooting starts.

In addition to big data, offset by baiting involves increasing enemy uncertainty. First, in the event of an escalating conflict involving conventional forces, increased tactical intelligence and targeting capabilities would enable small forward-deployed teams to fight for information at the lowest level, seeking out enemy collection assets and neutralizing them in the opening stages of a conflict. A smaller force must blind and confuse its adversary to gain a position of relative advantage. Unlike the AirSea Battle concept of operations, which relies on an operational blinding campaign targeting national-level intelligence systems with air and naval fires, offset by baiting starts local, targeting forward Russian forces’ intelligence and communications, and limits the escalation potential. It incurs less political and operational risk than committing modern aircraft carriers, a scenario in which one enemy missile strike could kill 5,000 U.S. personnel.

Second, the ability of U.S. forces to blind and confuse the enemy is further reinforced by integrating deception equipment sets as well as cyber and electronic warfare at the tactical level. The adversary is at once faced with multiple potential threats degrading their home field advantage. Deception equipment sets and rotating forces keep the adversary guessing and make it more difficult to concentrate forces.

In World War II, the Allies made widespread use of offensive deception during the invasion of Europe. As part of the 1944 Operation Fortitude, the Allies created two phantom armies in England that ostensibly threatened Norway and Pas de Calais to convince the Axis that Normandy was a diversionary attack. In the future, modern deception sets could be employed as part of a broader conventional deterrent. The enemy has to assume significant risk to find out which threats are real.

Dummy RAF aircraft, WWII. (Source: The National Archives)

Offsetting by baiting and winning the fight for information requires a willingness to invest in the intelligence enterprise. The Army should explore integrating cyber and electronic warfare assets at lower echelons. The Army will also need to make new investments in analysts, sensors, and maneuver units that allow it conduct a reconnaissance and security fight at the company level. Deception sets will need to be fielded and integrated into future operating concepts and training alongside coalition allies. The Army will need to ensure it can conduct intelligence reach missions connecting forward-deployed units with civilian analysts and U.S. Army Reserve units conducting mission support in lieu of traditional training. Soldiers trained in fields such as operational research and big data will need to be developed to harvest the latent signature of the 21st-century battlespace.


Like the later stages of the Cold War, the risks of nuclear exchange in a crisis with Russia puts a premium on fielding a credible conventional deterrent. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army responded with AirLand Battle, demonstrating a capability to fight and win outnumbered in Europe. This doctrine was a key piece of a larger deterrent puzzle. Forward-postured ground forces experimenting with new technology and concepts were key components of national military strategy.

The Army of 2030 can develop along similar lines to field a credible conventional deterrent. The three offset frameworks proposed all seek to win before the first shot is fired, holding Russian capabilities in check on the strategic chessboard to buy time for diplomatic options.


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 a Donald L. Bren Chair 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: The U.S. Army