A Defense Technology Revolution Could Happen Sooner Than You Think

By Sandra I. Erwin
Hypersonic UAV concept

The Pentagon has been battered by criticism that it is falling behind in the technology arms race. Skeptics point to rising powers and terrorists finding new ways to exploit military weak spots. Hundreds of pages of legislation have been written to prod the Defense Department to innovate.

Amid downbeat talk now comes new data that shows glimmers of a potential technological revolution that could reshape the Pentagon’s weapons arsenal in both subtle and significant ways. 

An explicit innovation roadmap was unveiled in the latest Pentagon budget request, which seeks $18 billion over five years for so-called “third offset” technologies. The phrase officially entered the defense lexicon in November 2014 and it has since been used as an umbrella term for technologies the Pentagon believes it needs to stay ahead of enemies.  

The first offset in the 1950s was about the overwhelming advantage of having nuclear weapons. Precision-guided weapons in the 1980s became the second offset that gave the United States a huge battlefield edge. So far it’s unclear exactly how the Pentagon will parlay the $18 billion third offset strategy into game-changing weapon systems.

According to analysts from the big data and analytics firm Govini, the third offset will have ripple effects across many military weapons programs for years or decades to come. Some of the clues are obvious from the Pentagon’s budget. The company dug deeper, however, using big-data analysis to start painting a broader picture of where defense technology investments might be headed. 

“The Defense Department’s much-discussed third offset strategy represents more than the $18 billion it has budgeted across the next five years,” said the Govini report. “It constitutes a massive overhaul in U.S. military operating concepts and technological investments intended to address emerging capability gaps and deter potential adversaries, primarily China and Russia.”

Arun Sankaran, Govini’s managing director, said companies in the defense industry struggle to figure out the specific programmatic implications of the third offset strategy. “Nebulous or sometimes ill defined concepts like innovation and third offset sometimes are used interchangeably,” Sankaran told National Defense. 

Analysts identified five areas of defense technology — target tracking, guidance and navigation, conventional long-range missiles, directed energy and hypersonic systems — that capture the bulk of the capabilities where the Pentagon will invest its third-offset dollars. 

The five segments accounted for about $27.8 billion worth of military spending between fiscal years 2011 and 2015. Govini predicts the existing investments in these areas combined with future spending associated with the third offset will spur the innovation that the Pentagon desperately seeks. Defense officials have cited gaps in anti-area access-denial technologies, electronic warfare, human-machine collaboration, targeting and undersea warfare that would be addressed under the third-offset strategy.

“The point is that the third offset has the potential to be far more expansive than what’s being currently described by the $18 billion,” said Sankaran. The strategy is about “adapting to a world where we are not the dominant superpower,” he added. That requires a mix of “game changing” capabilities but also incremental improvements. 

Hypersonic missiles and high-power laser weapons would fit into the game-changing, breakthrough category, he said. Investments in technology to make current weapons more precise and less vulnerable to enemy jamming are examples of subtler upgrades that will happen over time. Sankaran noted that much of the innovation the Pentagon wants in areas like cybersecurity, machine learning, advanced computing and big data does not fit into traditional defense programs and will require new acquisition approaches.

“One of the biggest takeaways from the Pentagon’s rollout of the third offset strategy thus far is its desire for a re-alignment of industry and the defense acquisition process,” he said. “Globalization and a growing concentration of innovation in the commercial sector are intersecting with new tactics such as cyber espionage to drive a rapid erosion of the U.S. military edge.”

Of the five areas identified by Govini as drivers of the third-offset strategy, target tracking was the linchpin, accounting for 44 percent of overall spending between 2011 and 2015. Navigation and guidance is the second-largest segment, accounting for 28 percent of total spending. Conventional long-range missiles, the third-largest segment, accounted for 18 percent of market spending, and grew by 14 percent in fiscal year 2015 compared to the average spending in the previous four years. “That’s the stuff that is going to be modernized incrementally,” said Sankaran, “and will be very relevant to the third offset.”

Directed energy, the second-smallest segment by contract obligations, grew by 23 percent in 2015 compared to the previous four-year average. Spending began to increase in 2014, mostly from work related to the maturation of solid-state laser technology. Hypersonic technologies, the smallest segment, saw the most growth of 98 percent. The increase came in the wake of China and Russia successfully completing tests of such technology.

“Eventually more and more things will align to the third offset and maybe explicitly tagged,” said Sankaran. “It’s an overarching DoD strategy that is going to unfold over time and have bigger impact on industry.”

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week brought up the subject during a confirmation hearing for Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, who has been nominated to be the next chief of staff. 

When asked about what next-generation technologies he viewed as important to the Air Force, Goldfein departed from the traditional script. He said the innovation comes from “tying together three grids in new ways.” The first is the sensor grid from platforms across the air, land, sea, space, cyber and undersea. The Air Force needs technology to be able to “pull those sensors together and fuse that information and use machine-to-machine and autonomy to be able to produce decision quality information for a commander.”

The sensor grid would have to be integrated with the “effects grid,” which is the combination of all forces in the battlefield, Goldfein explained. ‘It goes to our special forces, it goes to what we're doing at sea, it's tying those together and what effects are we trying to create.” The third grid, command and control, is crucial, he said. “It's how we tie this all together, old and new, manned and unmanned, penetrating and standoff.”

Goldfein’s take on what the third offset might bring speaks to the vast challenges the Pentagon faces that can’t be fixed in a conventional Pentagon procurement fashion. 

This is where the discussion about third offset becomes one of procurement methods and willingness to tear down barriers to nontraditional vendors. “A fair number of segments in the third offset are aligned with the traditional view of how weapons are developed,” said Sankaran. For advances in big data processing and analysis of the sort discussed by Goldfein, “They’re going to have to reach out to commercial companies and the acquisition process will have to be adapted to make it friendlier.”

Other analysts, meanwhile, have expressed serious doubts about the Pentagon’s third offset plan. The strategy “resembles a high-tech version of the casting call for the tryouts for America’s Got Talent; even the producers have no idea who will show up or how they will perform,” wrote Dan Goure, of the Lexington Institute, a defense industry supported think tank. 

Goure speculates that the third offset is an orchestrated attempt to “obfuscate the fact that the U.S. is not spending enough on defense” and that the Obama administration has drastically reduced the size of the military. “The hope is that the third offset strategy will do for the military what is already being done for parking garages, fast food restaurants and retail stores: reduce the need for human beings,” Goure opined.

“The bigger danger is that DoD will become enamored of its new offset strategy and cut current programs and forces in anticipation of great results emerging from its investments in automation, big data and robots. There is a long history of the Pentagon and the White House promising huge leaps forward in military capabilities for future systems that are just PowerPoint slides, but cutting real capabilities now,” he wrote.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Defense Department, Defense Innovation

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