The Third Offset Strategy (TOS) is
’s great hope for future warfare, according to our
current leaders. We’ve consciously and
deliberately ceded the advantage of numbers (quantity). We seem to have no interest in bigger and
better explosives (witness our stubborn refusal to upgrade or replace Harpoon
until just recently), supersonic missiles, or wide area effect weapons like
major caliber naval guns. Our quality
edge is eroding at an incredible pace with the Chinese having either caught up
or on the verge of doing so in the areas of stealth, armor, ballistic missiles,
etc. The Russians have leapfrogged past
us in the area of electronic warfare as evidenced in America . That only
leaves us a possible advantage in networking, data sharing, and autonomy,
according to our leaders. Hence, the
Third Offset was born. Ukraine
What is the Third Offset Strategy? According to its principle architect, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work,
“The Third Offset is really kind of simple at its core,” Work said. (The first offset was nuclear weapons, the second smart weapons). “It basically hypothesizes that the advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy [are] going to lead to a new era of human-machine collaboration and combat teaming.”
Shades of Battlestar Galactica!!!
Somehow, in some unexplained way, this human-machine collaboration is going to overcome numerical and explosives deficits.
What does human-machine collaboration mean, anyway? Haven’t we had human-machine collaboration for decades? For example, the Aegis system is a computerized battle system with human interface and oversight in which the human-machine system can operate through the entire spectrum of 100% machine (fully automated) to 100% human controlled. Another example would be the flight control systems of nearly all modern combat aircraft. The aircraft are not flight-stable so computer systems take the pilot inputs (control stick) and translate them into control surface movements that a human could not manage.
So, what does human-machine mean? Honestly, I have no idea. It seems to be more of a marketing thing than any actual technology.
Taking away all the hype and marketing, human-machine and Third Offset seems to be mainly an emphasis on unmanned vehicles and networks. Of course, we’ve already discussed the problems with assuming that networks will work flawlessly in the face of peer level ECM and cyber attacks. We’ve also noted that unmanned vehicles have a disturbing tendency to lose communications and wander off, never to be seen again.
Why we would base our entire future military strategy on such unreliable technology is baffling.
Let’s look a bit closer at the Third Offset Strategy as described by its chief proponent, DepSecDef Bob Work, in a speech he gave in early 2015 (2).
Work notes the temporal aspect of the TOS. The first two offsets gained us advantages that lasted decades until the rest of the world caught up. This is unlikely to happen this time around. Unfriendly countries are hacking our secrets as fast as we generate them. Essentially, we’re doing the R&D for our enemies. Thus, any advantage we might gain from the TOS is likely to be very short lived. As Work states,
“First, it's going to have a much more trying temporal component. In 1975 and in the 1950s, we knew our adversary and we said, "We can pick something where we will have an enduring advantage." We don't think we're in that type of environment right now.” (2)
So, by Work’s own admission, the TOS benefits will be short lived if they ever even exist. His solution to this challenge is to focus on technologies that can be developed quickly – he suggests a five year period. Unfortunately, any new technology that can be developed in five years almost by definition can’t have much of an impact. Look how long it’s taken us to develop a straightforward aircraft, the F-35. Does anyone really think we can develop a world-changing technological capability in five years? Heck, it takes us nearly five years just to generate the requirements list that we can give to industry in a request for proposals!
To be fair, he offers a nod to longer range projects but having noted that we can’t seem to maintain secrets, there appears to be no possibility of reaping any long term advantages.
Work offers a fascinating observation about the source of new technology now as compared to during the previous offsets.
“And the third 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 are being driven by the commercial sector.”
We’ve noted this phenomenon before. Rather than the military driving development, the military is abdicating its responsibilities and depending on the private sector to come up with advances. There are two problems with this.
First, industry is driven by profit and will offer those technologies that can generate the most profit rather than those that generate the greatest military benefit.
Second, industrial technology is highly susceptible to foreign capture. Even setting aside hacking, industry runs on public disclosure of patents, statements of technologies for the benefit of shareholders, floods of technical papers by company scientists, informal networks of shared data, and so forth. Anything industry develops will be known to foreign countries as soon as it happens. It will be impossible to gain any lasting advantage.
Still confused about what the TOS is? Let’s see what DoD Live website has to say. They describe five key aspects (3).
- Deep Learning Systems – this involves data pattern discovery; the ability to discern patterns from less directly relevant data; an example would be radar detection of stealth aircraft using collated data from multiple sources
- Human-Machine Collaboration – this is the use of machines to aid human understanding and decision making; an example would be fused sensor displays
- Human-Machine Combat Teaming – this is the pairing of UAVs with human platforms; an example would be the Triton UAV paired with the manned P-8 Poseidon
- Assisted Human Operations – this is wearable technology that enhances human capabilities; an exoskeleton would be an example
- Network-Enabled, Cyber-Hardened Weapons – this is the production of weapons that are immune to ECM and hacking
That list is fine but it’s already nearly obsolete as far as providing an enduring advantage. Many countries are already engaged in Deep Learning Systems. Witness the anti-stealth radar detection technology that is based on collating indirect data from multiple sources. By all accounts, unfriendly countries are well advanced in this effort. All countries are deep into Human-Machine Collaboration efforts, developing their own versions of fused sensor displays, for example. Human-Machine Combat Teaming is more advanced in
than it is here. Russian robotic-human pairings on the
Ukrainian battlefield are reportedly well beyond anything we currently
have. Assisted Human Operations are a
technology that has not yet been significantly applied by any country, as far
as we know. Network-enabled, cyber-hardened
weapons are being pursued by all countries. Russia
Clearly, we have no current significant advantages in any of these areas and, in some, we appear to be behind our enemies. Whatever we develop will provide no lasting advantage and, quite likely, will not even provide a momentary advantage. If fact, we may well find ourselves scrambling to catch up to other country’s Third Offset advantages!
As you’ve read this, do you see the military’s focus on technology over training, maintenance, tactics, etc.? The
military has an
almost myopic focus on technology – a belief that technology is the solution to
every problem. US
Consider this radical alternative … What if, instead of focusing on non-existent technologies, most of which will never pan out, we were to focus on these aspects of the military:
Maintenance – What if we had an absolute dedication to ensuring that every piece of equipment works and that we have the best trained technicians in sufficient numbers to ensure that the technology and machines that we have work, work flawlessly, work reliably, and can be instantly and locally repaired when they do fail. Hand in hand with that would go adequate and readily available inventories of spare parts. For example, what if instead of a 50% readiness among our F-22/35 fleet we had a 98% readiness. Or, what if instead of depots full of non-functioning F-18 Hornets, we instead had those 200 or so Hornets out in the fleet? Our air wings would have around 20 extra combat aircraft each! Or, what if instead of having to retire entire classes of ships early due to neglected maintenance and resulting physical deterioration, we took care of those ships? We’d have many dozens more combat ships. Our fleet wouldn’t be shrinking, it would be growing. Imagine a force with that kind of physical readiness – it would be a force to be reckoned with.
Training and Tactics – What if our soldiers and sailors were absolute masters of their craft. What if our Captains and Admirals actually knew how to tactically utilize a multi-carrier battle group? What if we conducted regular and frequent live fire exercises? Not only would our personnel be better trained but we’d uncover the flaws in our weapons before we have to use them in combat! What if we conducted actual and realistic amphibious training assaults? We’d see the flaws in our doctrine and correct them without paying the price in blood to do so. What if we conducted realistic training rather than the silly set-piece training exercises that we do today? Maybe our sailors would be prepared to fight instead of surrendering to any Iranian that wanders by.
Readiness – What if our readiness was always at peak levels? What if our non-deployed pilots weren’t limited to bare flight certification hours like they are now? What if we had actually usable doctrine for surface action groups, multi-carrier operations, amphibious assaults, and so on? What if our non-deployed units were actually surge-ready, unlike now? Readiness ties back to maintenance and training. What if all that was good to go, all the time?
Force Structure – What if we actually had mine countermeasure assets in sufficient numbers to be effective? What if we had offensive mine warfare delivery capability? What if we hadn’t wasted money on the LCS and, instead, had a dedicated ASW vessel? What if we had some SSKs?
Imagine if, instead of wasting time, money, and resources on some nebulous and idiotic TOS, we focused on maintenance, training and tactics, readiness, and force structure. What an enormous and enduring advantage that would give us over our enemies. That alone could be our Third Offset Strategy and it would be infinitely more beneficial than what we’re attempting now. Compare such an impeccably maintained, trained, and ready fleet to the Russians who have major reliability problems. Their fleets of submarines, for example, are barely seaworthy. The level of their ship commander’s training is almost non-existent since they so rarely can afford to put to sea. Their enlisted ranks border on untrained. The Chinese suffer from some of the same shortcomings as the Russians, particularly in the quality of their enlisted ranks and the level of training and experience of their commanders. We could enjoy a perpetual, staggering advantage just from the factors I’ve described.
Maintenance, training and tactics, readiness, and force structure should be our Third Offset Strategy. In essence, make what we have work perfectly before we buy more stuff that won’t work and make the quality of our personnel unmatched in the world. There’s your advantage. There’s your offset.
(1)Breaking Defense website, “Iron Man, Not Terminator: The Pentagon’s Sci-Fi Inspirations”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,
(2)Defense.gov website, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies”, transcript of speech delivered by Bob Work,
(3)DoDLive website, “3rd Offset Strategy 101: What It Is, What the Tech Focuses Are”, Katie Lange,