The forces that shape U.S. national defense strategy have never been more distributed, dynamic, diverse and interactive.
They are distributed because of the changing international landscape in which traditionally stable nations are under stress and rogue nations are emboldened; dynamic because of the reduction in connection between borders and ideology and the increasing mobility and influence of non-state actors; diverse because the range of strategically significant events has expanded to include competitive acts such as cyber interference; and interactive because competitors and adversaries are increasingly acting in concert, generating compounding and potentially cascading negative effects.
The sum of these forces results in an increasing level of global instability that defines a new strategic landscape.
This emerging picture is dramatically different from the one that existed in the era that shaped the “second offset strategy,” which capitalized on adaptive conventional force capabilities enhanced by stealth, intelligence and precision. The view at that time was that these force characteristics would provide the strategic reach, the operational agility and the tactical superiority required to address the expanding range of military operations that included competitors and adversaries acting either symmetrically or asymmetrically.
In the early 21st century, the legacy view of the range of operations was blurred as traditionally symmetric competitors and adversaries elected to operate increasingly asymmetrically. In the case of Iraq, the adversary shifted from uniformed, professional forces to operating on a mechanized battlefield to irregular forces that dispersed into difficult terrain and complex urban environments.
Technology enabled a response as unmanned aerial systems and integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance evolved in real time in the battlespace. Adaptations included deploying systems such as the family of UASs seen today, developing a new approach to processing, exploiting and disseminating finished intelligence, and deploying network environments to support a highly interactive command-and-control environment.
The networks supported interaction between defined groups of participants, addressing the emerging battlespace needs. They were the precursor to the emerging connected battlespace.
More recently, the rapidly evolving international environment, to include the reemergence of traditional adversaries, the emergence of new global powers and the continuous progression of regional stateless actors, have created a new field of competitors, adversaries and global influencers operating across an increasingly wide range of military operations. This environment is dramatically broadening the strategy envisioned within the second offset. In fact, the difference is dramatic enough to cause a shift in strategic thinking around an environment typified by competitors that act simultaneously symmetrically and asymmetrically. Further, it recognizes that competitors may act individually or in sync with others generating widespread, interactive effects.
The substantial differences in the strategic landscape illustrate the need for a modern approach — the third offset in which the United States, allies and partners can move rapidly to deter, constrain or combat competitors and adversaries that act, alone or collaboratively, seamlessly across the full spectrum of cyber and kinetic operations.
At its core, the third offset is a constantly evolving system of strategies that provide continuous global situational awareness, enable consistent presentation of an adaptive deterrent posture and support rapid global response through the delivery of coordinated effects across all domains — air, space, cyberspace, land and sea.
A new approach is required to stay ahead of the curve, serve an expanding strategic landscape and maintain an advantage. The nation can no longer keep pace within a traditional adaptation pathway. Military strategy cannot be constrained by response times. That includes: the strategic level in terms of time to develop capabilities and supporting weapons systems; at the operational level by an operational cycle driven by collection, analysis and planning timelines; and tactically by the inherent delay in centralized battlespace information exploitation concepts. Ultimately, there are three keys to enable realization of the third offset strategy.
First, is the need to accelerate the adaptation curve across the full cyber-kinetic warfare spectrum. This quality is crucial to gaining the adaptive agility required to continuously outflank and/or contain the full range of the competitive space. It requires a shift in the design of effects generation systems from a platform-centric approach that takes decades to affect, to a payload-centric approach enabling rapid adaptation in both cyber and kinetic effects to give the United States, its allies and partners an adaptive edge.
Second, is the need to drive advancements in network technologies that accelerate the operational cycle by linking available command and control; ISR; battlespace awareness; and force application assets in real time to form adaptive mission- and task-oriented constellations.
Within these groups, pre-planned and ad hoc, participants share information, computational resources and advanced algorithm sets forming neural networks within the combat cloud. These neural networks generate intelligent behaviors at the speeds required to favorably alter the battlespace at the local, regional and global level. Organizations can realize these advancements by continuing to reduce size, weight and power and virtualizing to increase density of embedded advanced network devices performing functions organic to distributed knowledge systems. In the modern battlespace, every entity serves in collection, processing, decision-making and effect generation roles. In its ideal state, the system of networks will form an infinite, secure, path-agile mission fabric.
Third, is the need to have designed-in information and communication network resistance, resiliency and redundancy through interleaved data integrity and network security strategies.
Four enabling technologies form the secure information operations environment:
- Advanced encryption methods work in untethered environments to protect information in transit at all levels of sensitivity. This reduces exploitation potential and ensures data integrity.
- Real-time telemetry continuously verifies the connection matrix using advanced, distributed white-listing methods to rapidly build, verify, adapt and collapse the combat cloud-based neural networks. This ensures the validity of mission- and task-oriented constellation membership.
- Network security is enabled by adaptive software security services that work in concert with security responsive hardware to locally detect, quarantine and report threat activity.
- Real-time threat intelligence collects, evaluates and then adjusts the security posture automatically to raise resistance levels across the network, return affected entities to service, and support the offensive order of battle in targeting threat actors.
The third offset will be realized progressively as the necessary sensory, network and effect generating technologies mature. As these technologies evolve, operational concepts will be developed integrating defensive and offensive network-enabled cyber operations into the strategic posture, campaign operational art and tactical techniques and procedures.
In the third offset environment, cyber and kinetic effects orchestrated in real time will change the game. The new levels of synergy will enable commanders to achieve the seemingly contradictory principles of war — concentration of effects and economy of force.
In this emerging operational model, the network is central, it enables defensive and offensive force application functions that limits adversary range of action and expands the friendly range action. As the transition takes place, networks will increasingly be viewed as weapon systems and the principles and practices of their utilization will be raised to the level of operational art.
Dr. Chuck Louisell is a member of Cisco Systems Inc.’s cross-domain strategic solutions team.Image: Getty