Earlier this month near Erbil, Iraq, Islamic State (ISIS) launched a cheap commercial drone booby-trapped with explosives across the front line and killed two Peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers) and wounded two French paratroopers. For months, small drones available on store shelves have been used in combat operations from Iraq and Syria to Ukraine. It seemed only a matter of time before they were modified to kill.
ISIS’ drone attack represents a wider global trend. Whether it’s the latest smartphone apps or military kit, new technology spreads globally much more quickly than in previous decades. While the United States military remains immensely capable, the “technology gap” has narrowed. Advances America does make do not necessarily extend the advantage fast enough to compensate for adversaries’ progress. In some domains, like cyberspace, Russia and China can now match America’s capabilities and exploit vulnerabilities. They may not compete well across all domains, but they can use anti-access area denial (A2/AD) techniques to make operating in certain areas, such as the South China Sea or the Baltics, too risky for the US.
Therefore, the military seeks to implement the “Third Offset Strategy”, or an attempt to implement new technological breakthroughs and advance America’s military. Specifically, it seeks to strengthen deterrence against Russia and China’s A2/AD capabilities. The First Offset occurred in the 1950s when the US expanded its nuclear arsenal to counter Soviet conventional forces. The Second Offset started in the 1970s when the US began to develop stealth bombers, smart bombs, cruise missiles, GPS, and other weapons to counter the USSR’s advance in nuclear weapons.
Speaking last Friday about the Third Offset at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned that military excellence is not America’s “birthright”. It must be earned again and again. As nations and terrorists close the technology gap with the US, Carter argues that the new geopolitical competition will be over who can innovate faster. However, he does not know which new devices or applications will provide the next offset. So the Pentagon plans to seed numerous investments to discover which ones germinate and which do not. For instance, the Secretary announced in his speech that the US Army will now have a new missile system (ATACMS) to sink ships, which will make controlling the seas more difficult for adversaries.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work further explained at the CSIS conference the need for a Third Offset. In the coming years America’s technological advancements will last only a few years before adversaries develop countermeasures or similar capabilities. Yet in a world of fast followers, faster leaders can continuously lead. The Pentagon should therefore think like a traditional business, such as Apple or Google, constantly competing with rivals to develop the next product.
Work also emphasized that the Third Offset’s key is not the technology itself but how the military implements it into operations. In the 1970s almost anyone could buy night-vision goggles, but only the US effectively injected them into combat. Similarly, while various adversaries may develop artificial intelligence or autonomous systems, the Pentagon must find creative and effective ways to utilize new technology.
David Kilcullen, Senior Future of War Fellow at New America, expressed concerns that the Third Offset is doubling-down on cyber-related capabilities. America’s enemies already excel in cyberspace, so an over-reliance on these technologies gives enemies more ways to attack the US. (For instance, what happens if enemies take down communication and GPS satellites?) He worries the US is building a new “Digital Maginot Line”. The original Maginot Line comforted the French because they thought it could protect them against the growing German threat, but the series of concrete forts and other defenses proved ineffective in the Second World War. Similarly, the Third Offset may comfort Americans, but the US may not be able to adjust quickly enough once those defenses fail. Kilcullen therefore emphasized that America must learn how to fight “unplugged”.
US Army Major General Walt Piatt sympathized with Kilcullen. Piatt referenced how Russia and Russian-backed forces have used electronic warfare to defeat Ukrainian soldiers, even though they were capable fighters. The modern US military has not faced such an intense onslaught, so warriors must train for those conditions and learn to maneuver and fight without their sensors and other devices. Rear Admiral Mike Manazir also explained that the Third Offset is necessary so that America can fight with speed, but the military must learn how to fight without the advance technology as well.
New America Strategist Peter W. Singer likes the Third Offset Strategy because it recognizes the serious problem America faces. According to him, the success or failure of the nation hinges on how the US responds to these challenges. However, the Popular Science Editor and co-author of Ghost Fleet expressed concerns at the CSIS conference. He fears there is not a shared idea across the different branches of what the “Third Offset” entails. There is an additional risk that it is not implemented as widely as it should. Meanwhile, adversaries like China have already begun to offset our offset with their own new technology. Singer further cautioned that military leaders today may merely “glue” new tools onto existing devices and strategies without fully exploiting them. They may become like the old Navy commanders who promised to embrace aircraft technology and then placed floatplanes onto their battleships. True, they implemented the technology, but they did not embrace the aircrafts’ potential.
Most of the CSIS conference focused on the technologies that Russia and China will develop and their A2/AD capabilities. However, if current trends indicate technology spreads more quickly than before, then other countries and non-state actors will also acquire A2/AD capabilities. Some may buy them directly from Russia, China, the US, or even store shelves. Others may develop their own systems or use cyber-espionage to steal technology. A multitude of actors in a complex environment could then inflict great costs on the US military whenever it pursues its national interests.
Meanwhile, relatively smaller countries, like Ukraine, may also acquire their own A2/AD capabilities and could then more effectively tell a self-perceived great power, like Russia, “No.” With their increased agency, small countries would not be mere pawns for great powers to manipulate. Even if the US, Russia, and China wanted to divide the globe into rival spheres of influence, no one could “give” Ukraine to Russia. The “great powers” would have difficulty manipulating or maintaining their spheres. Subsequent headaches for policymakers may abound over the coming years.
As more countries improve their A2/AD capabilities, some may also overestimate their technological advantages. They might then conclude a military strike would be quicker and more effective than diplomacy. Eventually, someone could miscalculate the same way Austria-Hungary did in its response to an assassination in Sarajevo. The potential knock-on effects from such miscalculations could be disastrous.
ISIS’ use of booby-trapped drones has already demonstrated how actors beyond China and Russia have narrowed the technology gap with the US and pose new risks. Last week the US Air Force announced it used an electronic weapon to disable an ISIS drone, but the technological arms race will continue for years. America must therefore respond to the new environment accordingly. Despite its potential pitfalls, the Third Offset is a key piece to that grand strategy.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and focuses on Europe.
Photo Credit: An F-35 Lightning II Carrier Variant completes a flyover of the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland on October 17, 2016. Both the F-35 and the USS Zumwalt represent part of the U.S. military’s latest technology. U.S. Navy photo by Andy Wolfe.