A Tale of Two Offset Strategies

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A Tale of Two Offset Strategies

The Pentagon’s new Offset Strategy is modeled on two very different historical examples.

A Tale of Two Offset Strategies
Credit: DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

In what some are rightly calling “one of the most important [speeches] by an American defense secretary in recent years,” over the weekend the U.S. Defense Department unveiled its new Offset Strategy aimed at perpetuating America’s military superiority.

In a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum (and accompanying memo), Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Pentagon’s new “Defense Innovation Initiative.” In Hagel’s words: “This new initiative is an ambitious department-wide effort to identify and invest in innovative ways to sustain and advance America’s military dominance for the 21st century. It will put new resources behind innovation, but also account for today’s fiscal realities – by focusing on investments that will sharpen our military edge even as we contend with fewer resources.”

Hagel said the Pentagon would focus its efforts on the “the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing.”

The new initiative, which was many months in the making, is being undertaken primarily in response to China and Russia’s military modernization programs. As Hagel explained in the speech, “While we spent over a decade focused on grinding stability operations, countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge.”

As a result, the U.S. military’s superiority is increasingly being challenged and, as Hagel explained, “America does not believe in sending our troops into a fair fight.” Thus, the U.S. military intends to invest in new capabilities to ensure its dominance over near-peer rivals like China into the future.

The Defense Innovation Initiative, which will be headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, is being modeled off of two previous eras where the U.S. pursued an offset strategy towards the Soviet Union.

First, during the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look strategy built up America’s nuclear deterrent as a means of countering the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority in Europe. At the time, U.S. nuclear primacy over the Soviet Union was indisputable, which President Eisenhower exploited. This allowed him to reduce the defense budget by a whopping 40 percent between fiscal year 1952 and 1956. Even after U.S. nuclear primacy began waning starting in the 1960s, and despite the best efforts of successive presidents, the U.S. continued to rely heavily on nuclear weapons to offset the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority in Europe.

Starting in the 1970s, however, under Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry, the U.S. military began investing in new capabilities that would lead to its second offset strategy. Specifically, as Hagel explained over the weekend, they began investing in “extended-range precision-guided munitions, stealth aircraft, and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.” These investments would continue during the Reagan administration, and began coming to fruition in the 1980s in time for the First Gulf War. These investments have also anchored America’s military superiority during the post-Cold War era.

Based on what the Defense Department and think tanks where Deputy Secretary Work was previously employed have said, the third offset strategy seems to be focused primarily on robotics, autonomous systems, and undersea capabilities. Many of these steps, of course, are being taken in response to the proliferation to numerous actors of the precision-guided munitions that anchored America’s second offset strategy.

One of the key measures of the offset strategy’s success, as Alex Ward and James Hasik have noted, is whether the U.S. can find technological areas where it can maintain its advantages over time. What made the second offset strategy so successful was the fact that other powers struggled immensely to match the U.S. in precision-guided munitions. As Barry Watts has observed, “Not widely foreseen in the mid-1990s was that nearly two decades later long-range precision strike would still be a virtual monopoly of the U.S. military.”

Compare this to the first offset strategy. Although Eisenhower’s nuclear investments allowed him to drastically reduce defense spending in the early to mid-1950s, the Soviet Union had largely caught up a decade or so later. Consequentially, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a maddeningly costly nuclear arms race that resulted in the dangerous status-quo of a mutually assured destruction world. Eisenhower’s successors struggled to escape the MAD world, or at least America’s heavy reliance on nuclear weapons to prosecute a European war, but failed until the second offset strategy emerged.

In that sense, lumping the two previous offset strategies together, while not without merit, can be highly deceiving in guiding America’s future defense strategy.