The Navalist

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Upsetting the Third Offset

Upsetting the Third Offset

With the imminent departure of Bob Work from his position as Deputy Secretary of Defense it is logical to ask about the future of the term “the third U.S. defense offset,” or as some proponents write it (in caps), “the Third Offset.”  Third Offset is closely associated with DepSecDef Work, who has routinely articulated its particulars as the Department of Defense’s “happy [intellectual] warrior.”  Bob Work is an enthusiastic speaker—the guy you really, really want to come to your defense conference—and the particulars of the third offset are indeed logical: to maintain U.S. defense advantages through advance research and development in emerging technologies.  If the term, however, seems Revolution in Military Affairs-ish, that’s only because it is.

As a term, Third Offset is a little like the Renaissance.  Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli did not know they were in a “renaissance.”  That was a concept and term invented by European historians of the 1800s to characterize a past period that they interpreted as a dramatic expansion—a “rebirth” if you will—in art and science following “darker” ages.  In reality, Leonardo et al were trying to make a living as creative geniuses, and they were the ones that—intellectually at least--rose to the top of their professions.  Similarly, President Dwight Eisenhower did not know he was creating a “first offset,” and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and his Undersecretary for Research and Engineering William Perry and their immediate predecessors and successors did not know they were creating a “second offset.”  They were all trying to solve a very practical problem: how to defeat an enemy that has superior combat power now.  In Eisenhower’s case, he also wanted to reduce defense spending while deterring an enemy that was continuing to spend much more of its gross domestic product (GDP) on weaponry and manpower.

As Third Offset proponents tell it, Eisenhower’s turn to the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its “technological advantage” (the first offset) to deter the larger Soviet forces was a stroke of genius.  Overall, the U.S. would rely on massive strategic nuclear retaliation to deter the Soviets.  In Europe, NATO would rely on the threat of tactical nuclear weapons.  Thus, Eisenhower could reduce, or at least not increase the defense budget, yet still keep the peace.  The fact that the Soviets responded by building an even larger strategic arsenal—one that could threaten the U.S. homeland—and a larger tactical nuclear stockpile in Europe (unavoidable since Russia is located in Europe) is interpreted by Third Offset-ers as meaning that the Soviets recognized our technological advantages and the fact that they had been “outpaced.”   In short, they had to race to catch up and were deterred as they did so.

They did catch up—and actually surpassed the U.S. in terms of quantity.  But, additionally, less than a year after Eisenhower left office, they put nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, something that would appear to upset the offset.  Political scientists interpret the resulting Cuban missile crisis as the most dangerous point in the entire Cold War, with the U.S. Navy—a military capability in which the U.S. was actually superior—facing down the Soviet ships bringing in the additional missiles, and President Kennedy threatening to invade (stated in a vaguer manner than we remember).  We traded NATO missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba, and at that point we knew (if not admitted) that nuclear weapons were no longer our advantage.

In reality, the “first offset” was not an effort to maintain a technological advantage as much as an effort to maintain defense on the cheap.  …Not necessarily a bad policy, per se, but not quite in keeping with the interpretation of the Third Offset-ers.  Our subsequent reliance on the threat of flinging tactical nuclear weapons around Europe--in the face of a still obviously conventionally-superior Warsaw Pact ground force--seemed to scare our Allies even more than it scared the Soviets.  The balance in Europe was still dicey, and we did our best to distract the Soviets but confronting them elsewhere (such as in Vietnam), suggesting that we accepted them as a peer in international affairs (detente), and pretending conventional superiority didn’t matter.  In practical terms, the “first offset” (such as it was) lasted about seven years until it gave way to other efforts.

The “second offset” of the mid-1970s is characterized by the initial development of precision weapons and stealthy systems to create non-nuclear technological superiority.  This was the famed modern RMA that RMA-ers trumpeted about.  And these weapons certainly worked well in the First Gulf War (1991).  But what Brown et al were facing was Soviet conventional military, tactical nuclear, and strategic nuclear superiority now.  In those years and extending deep into the 1980s, thoughtful military officers believed that NATO would lose any war with the Warsaw Pact short of resorting to a nuclear exchange (and lose that too).  One might recall that retired British General Sir John Hackett’s bestselling, pseudo-novel/analysis The Third World War, published in 1978, ends with the Warsaw Pact owning all European territory up to the Rhine.  

It was Ronald Reagan, who gets no credit for an offset, who forced the Soviets to conclude that they could not compete against the U.S. in technology (nor prosperity).  President Reagan did not do that by a technological offset allowing for modest defense spending, but by adding a significant increase to defense spending and a major military build-up to deter the Soviets and force their belief in the inevitable triumph of communism (a religion in a post-religious era) to crumble.  Clearly this build up was centered on the new technologies developed, which, in turn, allowed for the development of more comprehensive operational planning such as Air/Land Battle and The Maritime Strategy.  However, it was not the technologies that forced the Soviets to back away—they could build some pretty sophisticated stuff in small quantities.  It was the realization that mass force was no longer dominant, and that they could not outspend or even afford to spend what it took to keep up.  Their real economy was a fantasy—or as the joke goes, based on the premise that “we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”  The Soviets were defeated economically, not militarily.

As an aside…  Political scientists (maybe seduced by President Kennedy’s dynamism) long considered Eisenhower a bit of a bumbler as president.  Then in the late 1990s, academic articles began being appearing with such titles as “Was Eisenhower a Genius?”  Perhaps we are overdue for some extended scholarly discussions about “Was Reagan a Genius?”  (At the very least, that would be a new, fruitful area of examination in what may be a chaotic era.)

In any event, in a world in which even insurgents have drones, cell phones, and internet access, it is hard to tell exactly how long (or even what) the “second offset” offset.  U.S. did have an initial advantage in military technology—bolstered by a tremendous and growing advantage in civilian technology—but one cannot discount the overwhelming effects of the defense build-up.  Even if we did not crush Iraq in the First Gulf War (and in the Second or Third—historians dispute how to count them) using precision weapons, we would have crushed them in the training and dedication of U.S. service members alone (which in the first case was well funded and in the latter well inspired).  Would these weapons crush the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a war on the Chinese mainland or adjacent waters?

That is the concern that motivates the search for the Third Offset.  However, Third Offset-ers do not seem to recognize the changes in the circumstances.  It is the U.S. that is the strategically-superior power.  We can get there; they can’t get here.  We can get anywhere; they can be only somewhere, generally close to their land.  We can indeed envision a day when China could be a global seapower.  But at that date, they might even be a democracy (I wish), and we would need to be on (I hesitate to use the term) the fourth or fifth offsets.  So, unlike during the “first and second offsets,” we do not face a hostile, poised, militarily superior opponent now.  Their technology is advancing; our technology is advancing--perhaps even faster (albeit it gets copied pretty fast).  The issue is that with proximity, potential opponents can attempt to defend their “near abroads.”  We can still attempt to penetrate.  That was the same situation we faced against Imperial Japan in the Second World War.  So what exactly are we offsetting?

Now, I actually get what Bob Work and his offset-oriented colleagues want.  They want to encourage research and development that harnesses the entrepreneurial spirit of civilian technology development, such as in the Silicon Valley and in the La Jolla bio-med cluster, to bolster military R&D.  The perception is that military R&D is slower than in the civilian sector (which pays its scientists and engineers a lot more), and held back by bureaucratic requirements (which it is).  In the fields of big data, genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc., there may be—in their eyes--a “game changer.”  (Please see Keith Patton’s previous “Game Changing” article in the Emperor’s New Concept series.)  As Bob Work explained about R&D in a 2015 speech:

...the big difference is that in the 1950s and the 1970s, generally these advances were military capabilities that were brought along by military labs.  But now with robotics, autonomous operating guidance and control systems, visualization biotechnology, miniaturization, advanced computing and big data, and additive manufacturing like 3D printing, all those being driven by the commercial sector.  And what makes it harder for us now is in 1975 when you go back and look at the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP) at that point, people from industry were actually leading the panels.  We can’t do that anymore because it would give some type of unfair advantage to people that we’d bring in.  We must really capture the commercial sector and we’re trying to work our way through this right now.

Therein is identified the real problem: DoD wants to access the intellectual capital of the commercial technology sector, but it does not want to pay for high-risk R&D, perceives that it cannot legally invite selected companies into its R&D strategy development, and can’t rely on patriotism to promote public-private cooperation.  Unlike authoritarian regimes with government-owned high tech industries, it cannot physically compel companies to convert their R&D to defense purposes—which is why there is some reality to the fear that China or Russia can keep pace.   What does DoD have left?  Exhortation.  Political-campaign like promises of future profits through present cooperation.  Creating the image of a grand, bold crusade—a historically-significant endeavor a technologist might be part of--the heroic Third Offset.  Facetiously, one might suggest it could provide for good advertising: “XYZ corporation—official participant in the Third Offset.”  Perhaps not as popular as being the “official” product of a professional sport, but an interesting credential never the less. 

So, again, what are we really offsetting?  In a very real sense, you can say that the “offset” is against ourselves.  That is, it is against a plodding defense acquisition process hamstrung by mind-numbing regulations designed to prevent a single possibility of fraud.  It is against government lawyers fearful of litigation in a system where a frivolous protest can halt the award of any contract.  It is against a risk-adverse government bureaucracy that knows it is going to be slapped by the press or headlines-seeking Congressmen if it makes a mistake, but never truly rewarded for an original, against-the-grain idea.  And it is against officials who refuse to take responsibility for their decisions.

Bob Work is a smart man (and good Marine) who does take responsibility for his decisions.  And he knows the above.  But he has been obligated to try to work around all that.  “Third Offset” was his cheer, derived from defense intellectuals who still champion the RMA concept.  But like RMA, the historical analysis that “Third Offset” is based on is pretty squishy.  Perhaps it is best we let the term die off and focus on the complete upset and recreation of the defense acquisition system.  Now that would really be an offset!

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