Following Operation Desert Storm, some military analysts foreshadowed a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was under way. The overwhelming victory of the U.S.-led coalition, thanks in part to the U.S. military’s use of stealth, advanced sensors, and precision-guided weapons to devastate Saddam Hussein’s forces, suggested to some that the very character of war was changing. Upon being named secretary of defense for the incoming Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld pushed to fulfill a promise the new president had previously made on the campaign trail to “transform” the U.S. military based on these assumptions.

The results of the “transformation” effort were largely underwhelming, which raises an important question about whether the Pentagon’s current “offset strategy” faces a similar fate today.

As discussed here previously, the Department of Defense has begun making investments in some of the capabilities that will make up the offset strategy in its fiscal year 2017 budget request. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has described such futuristic possibilities as human-machine teaming, increased autonomy, leveraging big data, and the use of additive manufacturing.

Similarly, a Pentagon office stood up in 2012 and, known as the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), has been running conceptual experiments that marry existing weapon systems to cutting edge commercial technologies. The SCO had been shrouded in secrecy until recently, with the Washington Post providing a brief profile of the office, and its physicist director, William Roper, following revelations about the office Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made when announcing the 2017 budget request. And as Politico reported last week, Roper said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the office has “produced 15 projects and 23 capabilities in three years.”

One capability Roper highlighted in particular was an “arsenal plane,” a prototype of which he said can be built and tested by fiscal year 2020. According to the Post’s report:

[The concept] calls for an undisclosed plane to carry a variety of weapons that can be directed by nearby stealth fighters like the F-22. The Pentagon wants to build a prototype next year, and says it could be ready for combat by the 2020s, Roper said.


“We don’t have to develop new planes,” Roper said. “We don’t have to develop fundamentally new weapons. But we have to work the integration and the concept of operation. And then you have a completely new capability, but you don’t have to wait long at all.”

And the new concept of operations is key. The question is whether those who conduct operations—the military services—will accept what Roper is selling. Secretary Carter suggests in the Post story that they are eager to. There are, however, reasons to be skeptical of that claim.

The capabilities and ideas underpinning the RMA and Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation effort mentioned above also emerged from Pentagon offices. The networked computing systems developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which famously served as a prerequisite for the internet, also became the means to near-instantaneous battlefield information collection and communication. DARPA similarly facilitated the development of advanced stealth technologies. Stealth and advanced networked sensors, combined with long-range precision-guided munitions, enabled the overwhelming victory in Desert Storm that supposedly portended a discontinuity in warfare.

Yet technology was only part of the RMA puzzle, as U.S. military force structure and doctrine used in Desert Storm had changed little since the end of World War II. Conceptualization of the hypothesized RMA came from another Pentagon office. Analysts in the the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), working under the legendary Andrew Marshall in the 1980s, read Soviet writings about the revolutionary potential of new U.S. military technologies—what Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet General Staff, termed the “military-technical revolution.” ONA analysts suggested the U.S. military was poised to exploit the new revolutionbut, as political scientist Dima Adamsky notes in his study of the RMA, as an advisory body to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, ONA had little bureaucratic weight to implement necessary force structure and doctrinal changes on the military services.

With Rumsfeld embracing the RMA upon taking over at the Pentagon, theoretically there should have been greater impetus for change. He stood up the Office of Force Transformation under Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, a leading advocate of network-centric warfare. But as they had in previous defense policy reviews, the military services stymied efforts to transform structure and doctrine during the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. The services were happy to accept the new technology that came with the transformation effort, but as they had since the end of the Cold War, they fought back against changes to the doctrine and force structure.

“Transformation” inevitably became a buzzword around the Pentagon to justify the military services desires, as well as a clever marketing device by the defense industry to sell technologically advanced versions of current systems. Does the offset strategy risk falling into the same trap?

William Roper’s efforts with the SCO are admirable and necessary. Finding new ways of using existing system, particularly marrying them to cutting edge commercial technology, is a cost-effective way of dealing with the diffusion of military power stemming from technological proliferation. But his conceptual experimentation will only matter so far as the military services accept it and make the necessary changes to exploit it. History provides reasons to doubt that will happen.