war on the rocks

Reframing the Third Offset as a 21st-Century Model for Deterrence

March 28, 2016

As a foreign exchange officer to the Pentagon observing the crescendo of activity that the so-called third offset strategy is generating in the open-source press, I can’t help but feel that a lot of effort is being expended with little progress toward problem resolution. The third offset strategy is an ambitious effort to maintain the U.S. military’s technological advantage over future adversaries, but — like most bureaucratic undertakings, is currently missing the mark. At the heart of the current predicament is a failure to clearly articulate and frame the problem we face. To save our strategy from dissolving into a mass of buzzwords, we must pin down the core issue at hand: The third offset strategy should be framed as comprehensive deterrence, under a 21st-century model, in the face of nuclear-armed adversaries opposed to the current international order.

In my 15 years of working directly with the U.S. military, I have always been impressed by the tactical brilliance and ingenuity of its soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. But they need clarity of guidance to move out. Contrary to a recent article at War on the Rocks by Shawn Brimley and Lauren DeJonge Schulman, it looks to me like we have a lot of activity absent a strategy, and the military services are in a rush to show that they are getting behind the effort. To address the challenge that we seek to offset, we have to better articulate the military problem at hand, or else the bureaucracy will just end up answering the mail. To avoid this, those of us working on and thinking about the third offset should elevate our thinking from the tactical and operational levels to the strategic level and nest the military problem within the grand strategic setting. When we do this, the problem looks different, and a path to resolution becomes clearer.

Talking Tactics

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has captured a crucial insight: Man constantly strives to enhance his life by harnessing technology. The future of mankind is undoubtedly robotic and computer-enhanced. Appreciating this socio-technical trend is crucial for the Department of Defense, as we can shape and create the future of combat by being part of the debate. However, the current lexicon of the third offset is a solution looking for a problem. We know that technology will partially close a tactical capability gap, but what exactly is the strategic problem we face?

Technology is more than equipment. It also encompasses the processes behind manufacturing and usage: It speaks to knowledge, know-how, and equipment. Technology delivers significant advantages in war at the tactical level. Similarly, when appreciated and framed within a broader operational approach, it can achieve decisive strategic effect. Take Germany’s blitzkrieg operating concept as an example. While the United Kingdom and Germany competed over their growing quantity and quality of armor, it took the synthesis of the radio, aircraft, tank, and a novel command-and-control structure to deliver a technology advantage that would have strategic effect: the fall of France in a matter of weeks. The British Army had the same equipment, but lacked the innovative synthesis of seemingly disparate entities that the Wehrmacht achieved. This is precisely what the Department of Defense is currently trying to do, under the banner of the third offset, by synthesizing novel concepts, advanced technology, and organizational change.

However, to simply counter an adversary’s tactic is to seek a short-term and reactive resolution to an operational challenge. Technological solutions are necessarily short-term in nature. To pursue a long-term competitive advantage, the successful strategist undermines the approach of his adversary by changing the way in which a contest is conducted to his own advantage. He also seizes the initiative and dictates terms. With this in mind, the Department of Defense should broaden the aperture beyond the quest for tactical advantage. A robust strategy will deliver tactical advantage in turn.

When Narrative Becomes Orthodoxy

The current narrative surrounding the first and second offset strategies, as described in a recent report from the Center for New American Security, addresses the clash between the Soviet Union and United States as a conventional military competition. Unfortunately, this narrative fails to address the broader strategic issue at play. The offsets drove escalation and increased adversarial responses. The offsets were cyclical. Finally, a military lens is too narrow; the offsets were merely one component of a grand strategic competition.

America’s first offset — the development of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War — gave it a clear advantage for some time, but it was soon matched by the Soviet Union. This competition eventually led to the development of the thermonuclear bomb and a Russian test of a 50-megaton-yield nuclear device. Through a series of competing strategies, the United States and the Soviet Union settled into a fairly stable deterrent relationship (although it often did not seem this way at the time), as the use of nuclear weapons threatened to set off reactions that would undo them both and possibly destroy the world. This nuclear standoff did, however, provide a strong incentive to keep conflict below the nuclear threshold.

The second offset was an attempt to challenge Soviet conventional superiority on the plains of central Europe. Crucially, this conventional competition took place under a nuclear umbrella. A conventional clash would be bound by the threat of nuclear retaliation if an adversary threatened to achieve a decisive advantage. While the attractiveness of the third offset’s drive to enhanced conventional military prowess is enticing to the military services, it misses the headline issue: The second offset force was underwritten by a credible nuclear second-strike capability.

Nuclear-armed great powers (those with a credible second-strike capbility) don’t fight nuclear-armed great powers in conventional wars. We can look to the Cold War for a powerful case study. The destructive power of nuclear weapons meant that the great powers could not confront one another directly for fear of nuclear escalation. Therefore, weapons were holstered and not used. As nuclear weapons deterred direct confrontation, arbitration was managed through subversion of weak states or through war by proxy. This insight would warn that future wars will be conventional through proxies (as in the 1950 Korean War or in Vietnam from 1968 onwards) or unconventional (Afghanistan from 1979 or Vietnam before 1964). That said, a secure second-strike capability — the ability to hit back with nuclear weapons after a first, and likely unanticipated, strike — would underwrite all security.

Great powers alone can contest their political aims across the entire continuum of violence. A spectrum of risk does exist. Unconventional wars are less costly and suitable for addressing wars within states. Conventional wars generate more risk of escalation and must be limited in their objectives and ferocity by great power sponsors — they define wars between states. But nuclear war is the sole regime of great powers. To not recognize and articulate the use of the entire spectrum of state violence is to cede advantage to an adversary.

The current focus of the third offset on a conventional deterrent is a strategy best exercised between medium-sized conventionally armed states. In a contest between great powers, it leaves the West vulnerable to nuclear blackmail at one end of the spectrum, or allows the routine subversion of partner states. This observation is not futuristic speculation — one could argue that Putin is evolving both approaches in Syria and Eastern Europe today.

A Deterrence Model for the 21st Century

The third offset strategy should be framed as the establishment of comprehensive deterrence under a 21st-century model in the face of nuclear-armed adversaries opposed to the current international order. It is an attempt to prevent great powers from using violence as a form of arbitration by deterring them from acting with their military instrument. It must recognize that those adversaries will attempt to drive their political agenda to meet their ends and will use violence as a form of arbitration.

We must manage this competition using the plethora of instruments of state. Our new reality is an enduring competition that embraces the existence of a continuum of violence to meet our policy ends; this is the reality of a multipolar international order. We have no precedent in the nuclear age, but the Cold War should be our starting template.

With this framework, we can start to creatively problem solve and articulate a strategy for action. The work that we have done to date will be useful: The investments made in the 2017 defense budget lauded by Brimley and DeJonge Schulman do contribute to ameliorating U.S. tactical shortfalls. But to deliver enduring and meaningful advantage, we need a strategic framework that guides our investments. At the moment, we are doing the opposite.

The strategic nuclear deterrent is sacrosanct — it is the ultimate arbiter in great power competition. But the real advantage that the United States exercised to offset the Soviet Union was her web of alliances and the generation of a global system of trade. As Sir Lawrence Freedman argues, “strategy is the art of creating power” — it is the legitimacy of the international rules-based order that the United State must use to generate power and offset revisionist powers.

This order must be upheld through comprehensive deterrence. A focus on honing only the conventional military instrument, absent setting that instrument in a broader strategic context, is like conducting root canal surgery with a hammer: ultimately ineffective and unnecessarily bloody. For the Department of Defense to successfully sustain a third offset strategy through the next administration, it needs to more clearly articulate the problem rather than simply proposing solutions. Or we can just answer the mail.


Andy Massie is currently serving as an exchange officer in the Strategy Cell of the Headquarters USAF (HAF/ A5SS). Andy is a Royal Air Force pilot, Qualified Weapons Instructor and a graduate of both Air Command and Staff College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. His career to date has included combat experience on the Tornado GR4, MQ9 Reaper, and a tour as an Air Liaison Officer for the UK’s 16 Air Assault Brigade, in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the UK Ministry of Defense.


Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter, U.S. Navy