The Third Offset May Already Be Here

By Craig R. McKinley
In the April edition of National Defense, I wrote about the third offset strategy being pursued by the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel kicked off this effort in November 2014, and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work provided greater elaboration in early 2015.

The focus of my comments last month were that in seeking the emergence of the third offset from both traditional defense companies and those being approached by the Defense Department in non-traditional places, such as Silicon Valley, the Pentagon needed to carefully consider its existing policies on guiding and expensing independent research and development, and to have realistic expectations of the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental office opened up in Silicon Valley.

At the moment, the strategy remains more a third offset aspiration, as the developments that will make it real — and result in its reflection somewhere in the defense budget and program — are still in the formative stages. Nonetheless, a presentation I recently attended reminded me of the value of attempting to stimulate such an effort.

This presentation from the Defense Department’s policy shop contained a quote from Guilio Douhet, the 1920s Italian air power theorist, and one of the early advocates of strategic bombing — what we would call today “long-range strike” — that stated, “victory smiles upon those who anticipate changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” The briefing also reminded those in attendance that, “the future unveils itself slowly,” and that the “most substantive changes may not be the most obvious.”

Douhet’s observation fits nicely with one made later by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger regarding strategic concepts for the employment of nuclear weapons. As Kissinger noted, “the battlefield is a poor place for improvisation.” Kissinger’s thought, although later directed toward effectively utilizing what Work defined as the second offset, suggests the timelessness of Douhet’s quote, and explains why the Defense Department is thinking about it nearly 100 years later.

It is worth giving further thought to the second observation, that major changes may not be the most obvious. An example would be GPS. In fact, GPS may well have been the “third offset” and we are now looking for the fourth. As originally conceived, the system was merely going to provide a globally available system for precise location of aircraft and ships. However, the development of inexpensive GPS receivers providing precise location data, in either the latitude-longitude or military grid reference systems, quickly pushed the capability down to the lowest level ground units.

Upon seeing the GPS system after Operation Desert Storm, a retired German general who had been a lieutenant in Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps, commented that its existence in 1941 would have doubled Rommel’s combat power because on any given day “a third of the Africa Corps was lost in the Sahara.” An Iraqi general famously commented after the war that his Republican Guards never expected an American attack from the west because, “every time we went out in the western desert we get lost.”

Although little noticed when it arrived on the scene, particularly during Desert Storm, GPS has clearly been a game changer. It tells units down to the squad level their location, and can even be fused with intelligence information to offer a reasonably accurate picture of where the enemy is. It guides aircraft and ships as originally intended, but it also steers precision-guided weapons — even old gravity bombs when equipped with a GPS package. It has also made the wider use of unmanned air vehicles feasible.

So, GPS has been a huge change that unveiled itself slowly. In some ways the revelations continue, and likely will for some time. But the question still remains, what will the third offset actually be? Is it, perhaps, already with us and is as yet unrecognized?

There are many possibilities around, some that we see every day. It may reside in the cyber domain. Clearly the Chinese have invested considerably in this area, as have the Russians as demonstrated in the 2007 cyber attacks against Estonia. Moscow’s next target, after its successful incorporation of Crimea, could be the Baltic States, attacked with some form of hybrid warfare including cyber, some have speculated. And commercially, there are growing concerns about cyber ransom attacks such as the ones that recently have targeted hospitals.

It is equally feasible that the next conflict will either be fought in, or waged with, some other means such as bionic or biometric weapons, or with nano capabilities. And there are continuing concerns expressed about possible attacks using small, dispersed undersea systems targeting the vast amount of critical infrastructure lying largely unprotected on the ocean floors, or space assets attacking equally vulnerable and vital assets orbiting overhead.

The challenge of finding the next offset capability is not new. Clearly Douhet was thinking about warfare in a newly discovered domain a century ago. The original founding of the National Defense Industrial Association as the Army Ordnance Association was motivated, in no small way, by the desire to develop U.S. capabilities for future conflict. But today’s challenge is, perhaps, more daunting as new domains of potential conflict seem to be multiplying quickly rather than contracting slowly. As capabilities mature in one area, we need to be developing the immature ones that may be needed elsewhere.

Doing so requires an American defense capability that is agile, adaptive, clever and well-resourced. Our national capability today bears faint resemblance to that of a hundred years ago, and for that the founders of the association are due enormous credit. 

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Science and Engineering Technology

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