A Strategy to Save U.S. Military Superiority

Toward a third offset strategy
A Strategy to Save U.S. Military Superiority
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Facing an uncertain period of fiscal austerity, the U.S. military nevertheless confronts a range of worsening security threats around the globe. Dealing with emerging threats is increasingly difficult as traditional sources of U.S. military advantage are being undermined by the maturation and proliferation of disruptive technologies—most notably, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Secretary of Defense Hagel recently cautioned that, “disruptive technologies and destructive weapons once solely possessed by only advanced nations” are proliferating widely, including to highly advanced and unsophisticated militaries alike, as well as even some non-state extremist groups. Most prominently, China and Russia are “pursuing and funding long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs,” to include fielding an array of capabilities “designed to counter traditional U.S. military advantages—in particular, our ability to project power to any region across the globe by surging aircraft, ships, troops, and supplies.”

Faced with this multifaceted challenge, Secretary Hagel has announced a new “game-changing offset strategy” akin to President Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy in the 1950s and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s “Offset Strategy” in the 1970s. In both instances, the mechanism for affordably “offsetting” the numerical conventional force imbalance relative to the Soviet Union and its satellites was the same: leveraging U.S. technological advantages. In the 1950s, it took the form of increasingly numerous and varied nuclear weapons, long-range delivery systems, and active and passive defenses. Roughly a quarter-century later, the United States made a series of “big bet” investments exploiting the U.S. lead in information technology to revolutionize battlefield command, control, and communications networks; develop more capable tactical surveillance and strike systems to “see deep” and “shoot deep” into Warsaw Pact territory; exploit space for precision navigation, communications, and reconnaissance; and apply stealth technologies to combat aircraft.

While it is unlikely that a disruptive U.S. capability advantage comparable to that conferred by nuclear weapons in the wake of World War II is in the offing, five important lessons with contemporary applicability can be discerned from the development and implementation of the “New Look.”

First, and importantly, is the need for a strategy that provides U.S. leaders with options that can be tailored to address a wide range of anticipated threats. While this lesson may ostensibly seem at odds with the “massive retaliation” moniker often coupled with the “New Look,” it should not be forgotten that NSC 162/2 also called for “ready forces of the United States and its allies suitably deployed and adequate to deter or initially to counter aggression.” Nuclear weapons provided a cost effective “backstop” for outnumbered conventional forces—not a wholesale replacement for them.

Second, the global air warfare capability that emerged from the New Look provided valuable strategic freedom of maneuver, complicating the Soviet Union’s defensive planning while reducing basing vulnerability.

Third, the threat of asymmetric punishment—the capability and willingness to strike outside the theater of operations chosen by an adversary with flexible means can further increase an adversary’s uncertainty, enhancing deterrence.

Fourth, when used prudently, covert operations can provide an affordable option for achieving national security objectives.

Lastly, alliances matter—not only for burden sharing, but also for complicating an adversary’s operational planning and imposing costs upon them.

Turning to Secretary Brown’s “Offset Strategy,” at least four key lessons can be drawn with relevance for today.

First, technology can multiply the combat effectiveness of a smaller force such that it “offsets” a larger, but technically inferior, force.


Second, rather than competing “tank for tank” or “missile for missile," technology advantages can be used to shape the competition, shifting it into areas where the U.S. military can compete more effectively.

Third, it is important to retain sufficient “low-end” capabilities to maintain a forward-deployed, combat-credible presence around the globe to affordably address an array of contingencies short of total war.

The final lesson from this period is the importance of strategic continuity and institutional commitment. While DoD initiated several technology development programs in the late 1970s, they never would have been fielded if not for enduring bureaucratic support in the Pentagon, in successive administrations, and on Capitol Hill.

These lessons have great value as we consider the situation facing the United States today. The U.S. military has enjoyed a near monopoly in the precision-strike revolution ushered in by the second offset strategy for nearly a quarter-century, but it is beginning to slip away. Prospective adversaries are fielding their own reconnaissance-strike networks to challenge the U.S. approach to power projection. More specifically, the U.S. military now faces four core operational problems:

1. Close-in regional bases (e.g., ports, airfields, and ground installations) are increasingly vulnerable to attack in a growing number of countries around the world;

2. Large surface combatants and aircraft carriers at sea are becoming easier to detect, track, and engage at extended range from an adversary’s coast;

3. Non-stealthy aircraft are becoming more vulnerable to being shot down by modern integrated air defense systems; and

4. Space is no longer a sanctuary from attack.

These growing operational challenges have problematic strategic ramifications: heightened crisis instability; waning credibility of U.S. deterrence threats and allied confidence in the U.S. military’s ability to meet its security commitments; and increasing cost imposition on the United States, undermining its ability to compete with prospective rivals over time. As Secretary of Defense Hagel recently declared, “If we don’t take these challenges seriously now, our military could arrive in a future combat theater facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that thwart our technological advantages, limit our freedom of maneuver, and put American lives at risk.”

Given the scale and diversity of these global threats, trying to counter them symmetrically with active defenses and countermeasures, or competing “missile for missile” is likely to be both futile and unaffordable over the long run. The United States also cannot afford to simply scale up the current mix of joint power projection capabilities. Indeed, owing to ballooning personnel costs, especially with respect to medical care and retirement, manpower levels will likely shrink over the coming decades.

What is needed, therefore, is a new offset strategy for projecting power effectively and affordably across the threat spectrum. While it must take account of America’s fiscal circumstances, at its core it must address the most pressing military challenge that we face: maintaining our ability to project power globally to deter potential adversaries and reassure allies and friends despite the emergence of A2/AD threats. This can be achieved by leveraging U.S. “core competencies” in unmanned systems and automation, extended-range and low-observable air operations, undersea warfare, and complex system engineering and integration.  As used here, a core competency is defined as a complex combination of technology, industrial base, skilled manpower, training, doctrine, and practical experience that enables the U.S. military to conduct strategically useful operations that are difficult for rivals to duplicate or counter.


U.S. conventional deterrence credibility would also be enhanced by adopting a strategy that is less dependent upon the threat to restore the status quo ante through the direct application of force against an adversary’s fielded forces. Instead, the United States should focus more on decreasing an adversary’s perception of the probability of achieving its war aims in the first place (i.e., deterrence by denial) and increasing the anticipated costs of attempting to do so by threatening asymmetric retaliatory attacks (i.e., deterrence by punishment). The former would require both a high degree of situational awareness and the ability to apply force quickly to derail an adversary’s campaign in its opening phases regardless of the threat situation or basing availability. It would, therefore, put a premium on survivable, forward persistence such as that made possible by undersea platforms, and upon global responsiveness made possible by fast, long-range aircraft. The latter would require the ability and willingness to identify and destroy high-value targets regardless of where they are located or how they are defended, which would place a premium on survivability and lethality.

As part of a new offset strategy, the above-mentioned U.S. capability advantages (i.e., unmanned systems and automation, extended-range and low-observable air operations, undersea warfare, and complex system engineering and integration) could provide the basis for a global surveillance and strike (GSS) network that would be:

- Balanced in that it would comprise a mix of low-end and high-end platforms aligned to widely varying threat environments—including advanced A2/AD challenges;

- Resilient in that it would be geographically distributed with less dependence upon close-in bases, have greatly reduced sensitivity to enemy air defense capabilities, and be significantly more tolerant of disruptions to space-based systems;

- Responsive in that a credible surveillance-strike presence could be generated within hours of the direction to do so; and

- Scalable in that it could be expanded to influence events in multiple locations around the world concurrently.

While many elements of the U.S. military would have important roles to play in a future GSS network, such a network would emphasize air and maritime forces capable of operating far forward in denied areas largely independent of support forces. In particular, it would emphasize autonomous unmanned systems given their advantages in terms of ultra-long mission endurance and relatively lower life-cycle costs. In the event that deterrence fails, GSS forces could quickly mount strikes against fixed, mobile, hardened, and deep inland targets to thwart an aggressor’s war aims; conduct asymmetric “punishment” campaigns, if necessary, against multiple adversaries simultaneously; and, if required, set the stage for a large-scale, multi-phased, combined arms campaign by “rolling back” an adversary’s A2/AD defenses.

To realize the GSS concept, the Department of Defense should consider undertaking the following actions:

- Increase space resiliency by, for example, developing counters to adversarial anti-satellite systems and disaggregating satellite payloads;

- Hedge against the loss of space-based enablers by accelerating R&D on alternatives to GPS for precision navigation and timing, fielding a “high-low” mix of unmanned surveillance aircraft with long mission endurance and/or aerial refueling capability, and developing an “aerial layer” alternative to space for long-haul communications;

- Develop and make known counter-space capabilities, especially those capable of achieving reversible effects, to deter prospective adversaries from attacking U.S. satellites;

- Expand the geographic coverage of the undersea fleet by accelerating development of key enabling technologies for unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) including high-density energy storage for power and endurance, undersea navigation and communications, and autonomy;

- Continue expanding submarine payload capacity and flexibility, while also initiating development of larger-capacity towed payload modules, modifying existing missiles to address a wider array of target sets, and initiating development of a submarine-launched, conventional ballistic/boost-glide missile;

- Expand geographic coverage provided by fixed and deployable undersea sensor networks;

- Develop and field modern ground-, air-, and sea-deployed naval mines, as well as a long-range anti-submarine warfare weapon;

- Reverse the active defense versus missile attack cost exchange ratio through accelerated development and fielding of electromagnetic rail gun and directed-energy based systems;

- Develop and field new counter-sensor weapons including directed-energy systems (e.g., high-power microwave payloads and high-energy lasers) and stand-in jammers/decoys;

- Accelerate fielding of aerial refueling capabilities while seeking opportunities to increase automation;

- Continue developing and fielding the long-range strike bomber;

- Develop and field a land-based, penetrating, high-altitude, long endurance UAV for medium-high threat environments, as well as penetrating, air-refuelable land- and carrier-based unmanned combat air systems optimized for distributed surveillance-strike operations (i.e., mobile-relocatable target killers) in medium-high threat environments; and

- Develop expeditionary, ground-based, local “A2/AD” networks comprising short-to-medium range air defenses, coastal defense cruise missiles, defensive mines and UUVs, and mobile surface-to-surface missiles.


Such initiatives would contribute to an effective offset strategy by restoring U.S. power projection capability and capacity, bolstering conventional deterrence by supporting a credible threat of denial and punishment, and imposing disproportionate costs upon prospective adversaries as part of a long-term competition by devaluing large “sunk cost” investments, as well as by channeling competition into areas where the United States can compete more effectively or that are less threatening from a U.S. perspective. Fielding modern air- and sea-delivered naval mines, for example, would likely encourage prospective adversaries to funnel finite resources into defensive counter-mine capabilities, as well as reduce the operational “return on investment” of diesel-electric submarines and diesel-powered surface combatants that must return to port to re-arm and refuel.

To fund development of these and other high-payoff capabilities, DoD should re-double efforts to reduce spending on “tail” as opposed to “tooth” by shedding excess basing infrastructure in the continental United States, restructuring the personnel system to reduce ballooning medical and retirement costs, and reforming ossified and inefficient acquisition processes. In addition, selected allies (e.g., Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom) might be willing to share costs associated with the development, procurement, and operation of GSS capabilities. Allies might also be will to take on additional responsibility for key enabling functions such as survivable basing, logistics support, and communications.

Given the intensifying global threat and need to “offset” the proliferation A2/AD networks with high-payoff investments in areas of enduring U.S. advantage, a strong case can also be made for rescinding the Budget Control Act of 2011 and restoring defense funding to the level reflected in the FY 2012 “Gates” budget as also recommended by the National Defense Panel.  This would restore an average of nearly $100 billion per year to the Pentagon over the next decade.

DoD also needs to rebalance the current defense investment portfolio to put relatively more emphasis on capabilities for projecting power into medium-high threat environments. Reducing force structure and scaling back modernization plans for forces that contribute primarily to operations in more permissive threat environments necessarily means accepting increased risk for some contingencies. It is imperative, however, to rectify the current imbalance between forces able to operate in permissive versus non-permissive environments.

Just as it took well over a decade to field all of the “assault breaker” capabilities envisioned in the mid-1970s, the GSS network would not attain an initial operational capability until the mid-2020s, at best, but only if focused R&D begins now and the Pentagon, the White House, and Capitol Hill stay the course over successive administrations. Given finite and likely declining resources for defense, the nation can neither afford to continue the current “business as usual” approach to power projection, nor plan on having the resources and time to rectify the many operational and strategic problems with the current path once they fully manifest.



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