Pentagon Mulls Strategy for Next Arms Race

By Sandra I. Erwin
The democratization of technology should be something to celebrate. Not so much at the Pentagon, which is seeing its stranglehold on cutting-edge weaponry slip as more countries and potential adversaries stock up on shiny objects that used to be only available to the U.S. military.

The idea that the United States might see its overwhelming dominance in weapons technology erode is hard to comprehend, however, given the enormous spending gap between the Pentagon and everyone else. In fact, notes the Defense Department’s chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall, U.S. superiority has now become a double-edged sword because it has made the country — and its policy makers — complacent.

“When I talk to people on the Hill and I mention that I’m concerned about technological superiority — particularly modernization programs of countries like China and Russia — I get a reaction that is sort of surprise, first, and disbelief perhaps as well,” Kendall tells an industry gathering. He is especially worried about China as that nation is determined to invest in armaments that could neutralize current U.S. advantages in areas such as electronic warfare, stealth and space. “China’s budget is growing about 12 percent a year,” Kendall says. “It’s not as large as the United States’ by any stretch of the imagination, but at the rate it’s growing it will be before too many years go by.”

So what does the Pentagon plan to do about this?

It is not entirely clear yet. The Defense Department for various reasons has struggled to get its modernization house in order. Budget cuts and short-term funding measures have slowed things down. A lack of vision also has been a problem. Programs are championed one day and canceled the next. Internecine rivalries at the Pentagon complicate efforts to develop cohesive modernization plans as money invested in one program might come at the expense of another.
How the Pentagon will spend its annual $150 billion to $160 billion weapons modernization budget is now at the center of a sweeping review of defense programs led by Deputy Secretary Robert Work, a long-time analyst and historian of military technology.

Work suggests that the military’s current technology challenge demands big and bold investments by the United States in order to jump way ahead of everyone else. This was done during the Cold War, when U.S. planners figured out how to “offset” the Warsaw Pact’s much larger conventional forces with nuclear weapons. That advantage did not last, though, as the Soviets quickly moved to build their own nukes.

The next wave of innovation came in the 1970s when Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Undersecretary William Perry pushed a new offset strategy built around the use of digital microelectronics and information technology to counter conventional forces. The strategy set off a wave of innovation in smart weapons, sensors, targeting and control networks. Work credits the second offset for propelling the United States into unchallenged superpower status. 

Today, the destructive technologies and weapons that were once the province of wealthy Western militaries are within the reach of almost any country.

“Our forces face the very real possibility of arriving in a future combat theater and finding themselves facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that could turn our previous technological advantage on its head,” Work reminds military officers at the National Defense University.

What a third offset strategy might entail has been the subject of several editorials, white papers and beltway panel discussions just within the past few months. Work has called for a “sense of urgency” in crafting a new strategy, but so far it has been an ivory tower exercise.

Some of the proposals that are entering the conversation, not coincidentally, were conceived at think tanks where Work resided before joining the Obama administration. One is by former Pentagon official Robert Martinage, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Martinage says the third offset strategy has to be grounded in today’s fiscal reality. “We should exploit our existing advantage in unmanned systems, stealth, undersea warfare and complex systems engineering,” he says in an interview. Martinage suggests the foundation of future technological supremacy is a “global surveillance and strike” network that would help U.S. forces stay a few steps ahead of its enemies.

A mix of advanced drones, unmanned submarines and stealth bombers would be connected in a seamless network, a technology feat that would be tough for any country other than the United States to achieve, he says. Another element of the offset strategy would be to find alternative technologies so the military becomes less dependent on vulnerable assets like communications and navigation satellites. U.S. forces also need novel weapons such as electromagnetic and laser guns that are relatively cheap and versatile, says Martinage. 

He cautions his approach is not meant to be a comprehensive national security strategy, but a vision for how to modernize the military at a time of uncertainty.

Shawn Brimley, of the Center for a New American Security, has a similar take. “We need to determine how to employ emerging technologies like directed energy (critical for sustainable defense against salvos of guided missiles) and improved power systems and storage, to harness the potential of robotic systems to stay in the air or under the ocean for long periods of time,” he writes in a white paper. Unlike the offset strategy of the late 1970s, Brimley points out, the Pentagon needs to figure out how to better share technology with U.S. allies. “In a world where advanced technologies are widely available and proliferating rapidly, the United States requires a more liberal approach to exporting defense technologies.”

There is no shortage of opinions on what the offset strategy should be. What it ultimately becomes is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that it will influence Pentagon buying decisions for years to come.

Topics: Business Trends, Defense Department

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