Think Bigger: The Third Offset and Extending the Battlefield


The third offset strategy, the Department of Defense’s attempt to refocus on peacetime military competitions, is not supposed to be about future technology alone. Yet when one peeks into the wargames and service studies seeking to capture defense funds linked to the third offset, it’s clear that the current capability-based requirement system aligning defense budgets has trouble digesting a concept-based strategy. In a recent speech to the U.S. Air Force Association, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work echoed this concern by stating, “offset strategies are not about technology per se, so it drives me crazy when people say, ‘oh, the Third Offset is AI and autonomy.’”

The problem is that, as currently executed, the third offset will fail to achieve its objective: re-establishing a comparative defense advantage and conventional deterrent. Too much time is being spent identifying exquisite technological capabilities absent a unifying concept on how to employ military forces. There is neither a sufficient joint concept nor fully developed service operating concepts to address the future character of war, even if one accepts the premise of the third offset. Moreover, as presently conceptualized, the third offset, tends to overemphasize future capabilities and fails to address technology-enabled irregular threats, the role of civilian populations, or difficulties inherent in urban terrain.

As a new administration takes office, it should review the idea of offset strategies in a dialectical manner (i.e., thesis, antithesis, synthesis) to identify a unifying concept for defense innovation. Seen from this perspective, the United States can develop an offset by extending the battlefield along three axes: 1) enabling partners to field and operate 21st-century battle networks; 2) leveraging commercial off-the-shelf innovations; and 3) winning the fight for information through deception and using Big Data to both identify competitors and influence populations.

Offset Thesis: The Third Offset will usher in a New Era of Strategic Stability

The third offset strategy is based on three assumptions: 1) game-changing technology can create stability in a new generation by extending U.S. conventional military superiority; 2) the U.S. government can drive the innovation process; and 3) the risk of near-peer competition and confrontation is rising. Many of these ideas date back to early Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) initiatives, as well as related Office of Net Assessment and DARPA studies and experiments in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Game-Changing Technology

Third offset concepts enabled by game-changing technologies — ranging from autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to future power projection platforms — are designed to restore U.S. military overmatch. According to Work, “next-generation technologies and concepts….assure U.S. military superiority, but the real focus is strengthening U.S. conventional deterrence to make sure wars don’t happen.” From a competitive strategies standpoint, the third offset helps the United States alter the cost of competition in a manner that creates disincentives for states like Russia and China to challenge the status quo.

Government-Led Innovation

The government can drive the innovation process. Through existing research at service labs leveraging special funding lines linked to the third offset, Work states the Department of Defense will “prepare as many demonstrations on advanced capabilities as we possibly can for the next administration to determine the way they want to go.” Many of these near-term demonstrations build on initiatives such as the Strategic Capabilities Office and the new Army Rapid Capabilities Office that seek creative ways of applying off-the-shelf and rapid solutions.

The Future Character of War: Great Power Confrontation

Underlying the third offset dialogue is a larger assumption that “pacing competitors” such as Russia and China are gaining ground on the United States. In other words, the comparative defense advantage the United States enjoyed since the end of the Cold War is declining. In the extreme, studies like the Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength contend that relative U.S. military power is rapidly diminishing. This problem is only exacerbated by declining modernization accounts as ongoing operational commitments and legacy costs consume service budgets. The third offset is a way to alter the trend and increase U.S. military power relative to near-peer competitors.

Taken together, these assumptions inform how defense thinkers imagine future wars. Defense thinkers envision pitched air-maritime-information battle against a state like China — similar to earlier AirSea Battle studies, but with enhanced robotic, cyber, and power projection capabilities enabling the United States to overcome the anti-access/area denial challenge. The same capabilities extend to images of overwhelmed NATO forces defending against a Russian attack in the Baltics, a scenario captured in an unclassified RAND game and tested in a series of wargames named Sea Dragon 2.0 at Marine Corps University.

Offset Antithesis: The Third Offset Will Usher in a Strategic Mismatch

Rather than preserve U.S. conventional military superiority, critics might argue that the third offset risks arms races and does not sufficiently align ends, ways, and means. Unlike in the development of earlier offset capabilities such as nuclear weapons and stealth, the private sector is driving the current era of innovation. Furthermore, the vision of great-power conflict implicit in the third offset does not match the dominant trends shaping the future character of war toward high-end proxies using urban terrain and information warfare broadly defined, including cyber and propaganda, to deny U.S. power projection.

Game-Changing Arms Races

Does “gaming-changing” technology lead to strategic stability or create dangerous arms races? Not always. Consider the dreadnought. In 1906, the British initiated a revolution in maritime affairs by launching of the HMS Dreadnought. The oil-fired, turbine-powered all-gun battleship was faster and outranged all previous battleships. Rather than accept British naval mastery, a condition that existed prior to the launch of the first dreadnought, countries responded by significantly increasing their naval investments in armored cruisers and battleships. The launch of the dreadnought sparked a naval arms race. It did not produce strategic stability. Why would we expect the third offset to be any different?

Government-Led Innovation Revisited

Who leads military technological change, the private or public sector? Unlike the Cold War, government research labs and defense contractors are not in the lead in key areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, there are important historical cases that counter the idea of public-sector led military innovation. From the internal combustion engine to aircraft and radar, underlying components of the major military innovations in the early 20th century often emerged from the private sector or through publicly funded scientific research. Radar is an especially interesting case. From 1915 to 1923, Robert Watson-Watt, a meteorologist working for the British Meteorological Office, pioneered the use of radar to track thunderstorms. In 1935, he worked with the Committee for Scientific Survey of Air Defence to test applying his storm tracking techniques to identify aircraft.
Take the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft that Gen. Dwight E. Eisenhower argued was central to the Allied victory in World War II. Higgins Industries, a small business operated by Andrew Jackson Higgins in New Orleans, designed and built the craft in 1926, but had trouble getting the military interested. It took over ten years for the services to become interested in a commercial ship originally designed to transport goods around the shallow drafts of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The Future Character of War Revisited: Information Warfare and Irregular Threats  

Do the technologies under consideration as part of the third offset match the current or anticipated future character of war? That is, if the first act of judgement is to understand the war you are fighting, the second is anticipating the next war.  Major studies show that civil wars occur with much higher frequency than interstate conflict. While great power conflict is the most dangerous future, the more likely scenario is something like Syria. Irregular adversaries will be stronger as they learn to leverage social media and drones alongside precision anti-air, ground, and ship weapons.

More than systems that match next-generation Russian long-range artillery or Chinese fifth-generation fighters and missiles, U.S. forces will need to counter near-peer competitors challenging the United States using information warfare, from cyber to propaganda designed to influence local elections. The U.S. future force will also need to counter irregular actors leveraging social media and drones while bolstering the capabilities of local security forces in missions ranging from counterterrorism to responding to contingencies like the Ebola outbreak in Africa.

Offset Synthesis: the Extended Battlefield

If a battlefield is contested due to entrenched defenders or obstacles, you maneuver. That is, you seek a position of relative advantage in which the costs and risks associated with engaging your adversary shift in your favor. You extend the battlefield in time or space to set the conditions and define the tempo. For example, in seeking to counter numerically superior Soviet forces in the late Cold War, the Army Airland Battle doctrine called for attacking rear areas to disrupt the enemy’s second-echelon forces. They defended by extending the battlefield.

Offsets, as a form of competitive strategies, should distribute costs and shift risks in a beneficial manner. They should turn adversary strength into weakness or match friendly strengths against enemy weaknesses. The third offset, if defined in terms of extending the battlefield, has the potential to achieve these ends.

The Game Changer: Extend Partner Capabilities

What is the primary source of American strength? Is it military technology or alliance networks that enable power projection from Europe to the Pacific? Strategic competitors such as Russia and China will find it much more difficult to match America’s alliance networks. Through espionage, they can play a second-mover game and let the United States incur the sunk costs of developing new capabilities. Why invent a fifth-generation fighter when you can steal the blueprints to the F-35?

Stability arises more from political alliances than from military hardware. Deterrence requires a reputation for resolve and alliances that change how actors view the distribution of capabilities. Therefore, ensuring deterrence in Europe or the Pacific is not about capabilities as much as it about signaling the credibility of your alliance network.

Therefore, the new administration should explore competitive strategies that increase the capabilities of our partners and alliance interoperability instead of pursing game-changing technology. What’s the point of developing new hypervelocity rounds if they can only be targeted by U.S. sensors? It is cheaper to field optional manning solutions and communication platforms that can turn U.S. or allied vehicles into a network of remotely piloted platforms than it will be build next-generation manned systems. Fielding cross-domain fires capabilities that our allies can affordably buy or develop domestically can enhance deterrence without triggering arms races. Better to have Baltic and Polish armies equipped with current precision capabilities than futuristic U.S.-only systems unable to get to the battlefield in a crisis.

Innovation: Extend Off-the-Shelf Solutions

The advocates of the third offset are right to push for deeper integration with Silicon Valley and organizations like the Strategic Capabilities Office that find creative ways to repurpose existing technology. Firms like Alphabet (i.e., Google), Amazon, and Facebook specialize in finding new ways of combing existing technological inventions. They innovate by concept and combination more than they do by new material solutions. The U.S. military should follow their example and improve its ability to  integrate off-the-shelf systems faster than its adversaries. This observation is particularly important in areas such as autonomy and artificial intelligence, where the commercial sector is in the lead. Working through intermediaries like the Army Venture Capital Initiative, In-Q-Tel, and the new DIUx initiative, military professionals should scout emerging commercial solutions they can use to solve tactical problems.

The best way to determine the right combination of commercial technology is through a renewed culture of experimentation. Here, the third offset advocates are right again. Through wargames and field exercises similar to recent designation of a Marine Corps  experimental infantry battalion and Army field tests of the Multi-Domain Battle concept in the Pacific, the military should develop third offset concepts from the bottom up through experimentation. Just as Alphabet gives it employees time to tinker, the military should give military professionals in tactical units the time and resources to reimagine war.

The Future Character of War: Extend the Fight for Information

As currently conceived, the third offset focuses on the capabilities required to deter a Russia-NATO or U.S.-China conflict more so than concepts or systems that enable limited interventions in places such as Libya or Iraq. Yet the diffusion of technology and battlefield adaption appears to favor David more than Goliath. Over the last fifteen years, military forces found that determined adversaries could use populations and complex terrain, whether cities or mountains, to offset precision strike networks. Naval planners worried that a cheap mine or modified Cold War-era ballistic missiles could destroy a futuristic aircraft carrier. This problem is compounded by the proliferation of low-cost precision strike and information warfare capabilities. Adversaries can threaten U.S. forces with precision strike weapons, while at the same time using various forms of media to influence a connected population and deny a desired political outcome.

There is a fight for information on two levels. At the first level, groups will combine cyber and traditional propaganda to manipulate populations. How the Russians operate in Ukraine is a harbinger of the future. At the second level, when everyone possesses precision strike networks, the fight for information is about finding the enemy before they find you and injecting doubt into their network.

The future force will need to leverage the connected world around us to identify emerging threats. Here, the third offset advocates again have it right in their ideas about how to combine social media feeds to identify threats. Yet development continues to lag of a concept for increasing the ability to conduct battlefield deception in multiple domains. Force your competitor to expend their expensive munitions against cheap decoys and reveal their battle network and its vulnerabilities. This logic applies to near-peer competitors as much as it does to non-state actors. Da’esh doesn’t have an unlimited inventory of drones or social media experts.

The importance of winning the fight for information is paramount in contested, connected urban environments. The future force will need to make better use of Big Data than its competitors. Mapping population sentiment helps commanders understand local dynamics and influence political networks required to degrade adversary attempts to mobilize resources and combatants from threatened civilians. One can imagine future intelligence cells, working in conjunction with host-nation police and military actors, integrating fraud detection software, traffic cameras, and consumer data to identify “little green men” or suicide bombers. For a proof of concept, look at the recent capture of terror suspects and mitigation of follow on attacks in New York and New Jersey using a combination of commercial surveillance cameras, police robots, and an emergency alert system.

If the third offset is about game-changing technology discovered in government labs to create a new conventional deterrent, this author is a skeptic. If the Third Offset is about leveraging commercial off-the-shelf technology to extend the battlefield and win the fight for information, I am an unflinching proponent. Deputy Secretary Work did the right thing in pushing the defense community to think about long-term competition and what might be required to create a comparative defense advantage. The burden now is on the military professional to define the future character of war and an appropriate theory of victory.


Benjamin M. Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual appointment at the Marine Corps University and the American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army (Stanford University Press, 2016).  The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect government policy.