Emerging ‘Offset-X’ Strategy Addresses Chinese Threat
The People’s Republic of China has emerged as the United States’ top strategic competitor, and the pacing challenge for the U.S. military.
In the words of the recently published 2022 National Defense Strategy, China aims “to target the ability of the Joint Force to project power to defend vital U.S. interests and aid our allies in a crisis or conflict” as part of its “endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences.”
The situation is further complicated by the rapid development of numerous emerging technologies that are changing the character of war, creating opportunities for both China and the United States to develop new ways to employ force.
If the United States does not meet this challenge with bold and deliberate action, the consequences could be dramatic — a global shift in power, and an upending of the relative peace, development, and stability that the United States has underwritten in the Indo-Pacific for almost 80 years. The U.S. military needs a competitive strategy, grounded in its asymmetric strengths to develop, deploy and employ capabilities that will restore its military-technological superiority.
Meanwhile, new military capabilities, enabled by artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, the development of creative ways to apply them and intensifying geopolitical rivalries are changing the character of war.
At the strategic level, new technologies are enabling persistent disinformation operations, the theft of intellectual property at a massive scale and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, creating a sense of a persistent conflict. The proliferation of sensors, mass collection of shopping, dating, career networking and even biometric data, is enabling adversaries to develop individual targeting packages — moving all of us toward an individualization of war.
As technologies enabling persistent conflict and individualization develop, the United States will often be ethically constrained in its deployment and employment of these new technologies, as it is guided by a set of principles, U.S. and international laws, as well as the Defense Department’s regulations and ethical guidelines. The United States cannot, and should not, expect the same from its adversaries, as has been demonstrated by Russia in Ukraine or China in Xinjiang.
At the more operational level, the proliferation of emerging technologies is creating new ways for military force to be applied. Mass produced and collected data, combined with powerful, AI-enabled software that can make sense of it, can help military leaders reach a level of understanding of the battlefield that was not previously attainable.
At the same time, while the battlefields may become more transparent, discerning truth from fiction will become harder. Deep fakes and other technology-generated disinformation will enable adversaries to disseminate falsehoods, often at scale, to inject uncertainty and confusion into decision-making processes. And as military capabilities and operations become more reliant on software infusions, new pressures and opportunities will likely emerge for militaries to accelerate adaptation by updating, uploading, disseminating and implementing new software as quickly as programmers can develop it.
China appears poised to leverage these trends. For more than two decades, the People’s Liberation Army has closely studied the “American way of war” of guided munitions and battle networks warfare, which they refer to as informatized warfare, and has worked relentlessly to adopt it for its own purposes. It has also developed a theory of victory centered around the idea of systems confrontation, whereby it would seek to destroy the battle networks of its adversaries. This doctrine of system-destruction warfare aims to disrupt the flow of internal information, the time sequencing of control-attack-evaluation systems and essential components of an adversary’s operational system through kinetic and non-kinetic means.
China’s military has also sought to chart a path to leapfrog the United States in readiness for a potential confrontation by capitalizing on the growing capabilities of AI, big data, advanced computing, 5G and supporting technologies to shift from informatized warfare to “intelligentized” warfare. Civilian and military leaders in Beijing believe that the effective integration of people, alongside weapon platforms, will be a deciding factor in the outcome of a potential conflict. If successful, China’s military would become the first great power to harness this new way of war, and in doing so, they hope to hurdle the United States and become the global military superpower.
While the magnitude of today’s challenges may be new, the U.S. military still enjoys asymmetric advantages that can be leveraged to great effects. Traits derived from combat experience, from the democratic nature of America’s institutions or from long-standing organizational practices are difficult to replicate, even with exquisite technology.
For example, the U.S. military enjoys demonstrated experience in joint, combined arms, expeditionary and networked operations. The U.S. military promotes a culture that empowers warfighters at the tactical level. It has a long track record of conducting complex expeditionary logistics. And along with the Department of State, it manages a large network of allies and partners that creates opportunities for a global posture and power projection.
Finally, the U.S. military operates within a resilient democratic society and government, rather than defending an authoritarian regime. Using these asymmetric strengths to shape how the military deploys and employs its capabilities would make it difficult for China to replicate U.S. performance, even if it reproduces the underlying technology.
The United States should not respond to this challenge with despair. It needs to strengthen its ability to deter Chinese military aggression in the Western Pacific, and if deterrence fails, to win a war.
To meet these challenges, members of the Special Competitive Studies Project — a bipartisan initiative working on a series of six special reports — concluded that the United States needs a new competitive strategy — which it terms “Offset-X.”
This strategy would lay the groundwork for the United States to restore its military-technological superiority, and in the process circumvent China’s military advancements, thwart its theory of victory, restore America’s ability to project power in the Indo-Pacific region and position the United States to honor its commitment to the stability and productivity of the region.
This competitive strategy is derived from, and grounded in, America’s asymmetric strengths and envisions the development, deployment and employment of new concepts and capabilities in ways that China will struggle to match or quickly duplicate. Its purpose is to minimize the human and political costs the United States and its allies would suffer during a war with China while driving up the political costs and creating serious dilemmas for the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership.
In our report, we outline 10 recommendations that could better position the United States to triumph in a war with China. Three key ones are outlined here.
First, fully embrace distributed, network-based operations to outlast, out-maneuver and overwhelm adversaries. Hierarchy is a People’s Liberation Army weakness and a vulnerability in today’s wars. The U.S. military should continue to develop and experiment with how it will employ smaller, highly connected, resilient and organically empowered units that practice network-based decision making. Such units would operate in a distributed fashion, inside and outside an adversary’s envisioned battlespace, leveraging U.S. global posture and access arrangements with partners and allies.
Such a network could generate significant dilemmas for adversaries by subverting their operations and creating multiple attack vectors and cross-domain effects.
Second, lead the world’s militaries in human-machine collaboration and human-machine teaming. Essential to the concept of distributed, network-based forces will be an extensive array of low-cost sensors, as well as large numbers of “attritable,” unmanned systems operating at sea, in the air and on the ground to diversify attack vectors, expand attack surfaces and increase lethality. Employing them effectively though will require mastering human-machine cognitive collaboration and human-machine combat teaming. A core concept of these tactics is that humans and machines have comparative advantages and therefore excel in different areas. Augmenting human limitations with machine strengths — and vice versa — can create human-machine collaboration and teaming that outperforms both humans and machines in many of their individual tasks.
Human-machine combat teaming will leverage machines to perform tasks faster, more effectively or at a scale beyond human capacity. It will also allow humans to refocus their mental bandwidth toward gaining situational awareness, understanding enemy plans, developing courses of action and mastering tasks that humans do best.
It could enable the military to generate and employ mass in contested environments and do so in a way that reduces the risk to humans, including threats of collateral damage. Massed machines, assigned tasks by their human teammates, could overwhelm traditional defenses, often at a relatively smaller cost in human casualties compared to more traditional offensive operations. Machines could also serve as the “eyes and ears” of their human teammates, particularly in urban warfare, by helping them gain more information about their environment and taking risks in their place.
And third, gain and maintain software advantage. A military’s ability to deploy, employ and update software, including AI models, faster than its adversaries is likely to become one of the greatest determining factors in relative military strength.
Software is now integral to every component of decision-making and operations, from sensing a target, to planning and decision-making, to targeting and battle damage assessment. The importance of software will only continue to increase. As militaries around the world increasingly rely on platforms with advanced computing capacities, the quality of software will determine a military’s primacy in collecting and analyzing information, developing an operating picture, thwarting enemy attacks, identifying opportunities in time and space to attack most effectively and helping with target selection and servicing.
The recommendations outlined above are a subset of a broader competitive strategy to lay the groundwork for achieving and maintaining military-technical superiority over all potential adversaries. They are not intended to be, nor should they be considered, a one-time fix-all. Significant prototyping, experimenting and wargaming will be needed to validate the applicability and effectiveness of various innovative technologies for specific operational demands. The exact combination of emerging technologies and capabilities will need to be determined through the process outlined above to address specific operational challenges and the changing character of war.
But the pursuit and mastery of emerging technologies and innovation can enable the crafting of new operational concepts that can be tailored to meet specific military challenges.
The Offset-X strategy aims to build the foundation for future operations that can more easily and quickly offset adversarial capabilities.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Luke Vannurden is associate director, Special Competitive Studies Project.
The project’s interim report can be found at: https://www.scsp.ai/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Defense-Panel-IPR.pdf