Ever since former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced in November 2014 that the Department of Defense would pursue a third “offset strategy”—an effort maintain the U.S. military’s qualitative technological edge—there has been a great of discussion of what the initiative would entail. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has given speeches on the subject, discussing attempts to innovate through greater use of big data, machine-learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The implementation of the ideas by the U.S. military remained to be seen though.
As Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a recent piece for RealClearDefense, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget request provides a few hints about investments in the offset strategy.
So what are the specifics of the Third Offset strategy in next year’s budget? There is a combination of small new-start research programs, “black” work in the classified world, and significant accelerations of existing developmental programs. The total investment in this new strategy is $18 billion over five years, with over $3.5 billion being spent in 2017. Over $6 billion of all money shifted to the third offset will be spent on classified programs.
The key to understanding offset investments is that it’s not only the many experiments and small bets being placed by the Secretary’s Strategic Capabilities Office. It is also a massive acceleration of dozens of programs that constitutes a significant shift in internal funding priorities. Still, close to $1 billion in direct offset funds are controlled by the Strategic Capabilities Office, which repurposes existing weapons to create asymmetric advantages.
Eaglen then lists the various portfolios in which investments will be made under the request. If approved, the budget would provide $1 billion for overcoming anti-access and area denial threats; $489 million for guided munitions; $508 for antisubmarine capabilities and unmanned undersea vehicles; $201 for human-machine teaming, $309 million for cyber and electronic warfare capabilities and countermeasures; and $155 million for wargaming and development of new operational concepts.
The last investment might be the most important. Deputy Secretary Work has highlighted the need for better wargaming as part of a broader search for innovation in the U.S. military, going so far as to suggest it might need to become a mandatory—rather than elective—course in Joint Professional Military Education curricula. And political scientist Stephen Rosen found in his research on military innovation that wargames can have salutary effects. “Simulation of the impact of new capabilities has helped military envision the shape the next war might take and how military innovations could affect,” Rosen wrote, “Analysis of the current environment can narrow the range of possible futures, but imagining the future involves asking a series of ‘what ifs?’ and thinking through the implications of the answers.”
That wargaming and simulations are important to concept development, however, says little about whether a new concept will be accepted or implemented by the military services. Bureaucracies are generally happy to accept new technologies that help them accomplish preexisting tasks, according to James Q. Wilson. Military organizations are no exception, and the U.S. military may in fact be the exemplar. As Israeli political scientist Dima Adamsky discussed in his study of the effect of cultural factors on military innovation, American culture, and the U.S. military as product of that culture, often sees technology as an end to itself. Adamsky writes,
American strategic culture viewed technology as a panacea in global affairs and sought ways to expand its scope and apply technical solutions to strategic issues… This predisposition to technicity—to the exaggerated significance of the technical—was characteristic of American defense policy makers, as well… Technological romanticism engendered visions of a mystical silver bullet promising decisive victory.
However, whereas it readily accepts new technology, the military is more likely to resist new concepts for using that technology if it might threaten existing doctrine or cause changes in organizational hierarchies. That problem was evident in the last major attempt the U.S. military made at “transformation.” The supposed revolution in military affairs (RMA) stemming from advances in information technology—which Adamsky examines in his work—was supposed to lead to new doctrines and force structure. Instead, the military services worked to incorporate RMA technology into existing structures and missions.
The experience of the RMA suggests more is needed to implement the offset than investments in technology and concept development. Eaglen notes at the end of her piece that the Pentagon’s budget request does provide some tradeoffs to provide for investments in innovation. She also rightly wonders whether Congress will “accept those present-day tradeoffs for an overdue bet on the future.” Yet Congressional parochialism is not the only worry, and military organizational prerogatives must be taken into account if investments in the offset are to matter for anything.