Ash Carter: Invest in the 3rd Offset Strategy

Ash Carter: Invest in the 3rd Offset Strategy
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Ashton Carter, the newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of Defense,  will need to  articulate his vision of how he intends to lead the Pentagon over the next two years. He would do well to communicate his strategic vision quickly and tie that vision to particular choices.


There are two compelling reasons why Carter will need to move quickly. First, unless Congress changes the Budget Control Act, sequestration level cuts will be implemented in 2016, requiring the Pentagon to pursue another round of deep spending cuts. Working with congressional leaders to help reduce or eliminate the cloud of budget uncertainty over the Pentagon should be a priority.


The second reason why Carter must move quickly is the need to slow the erosion of America’s military-technological edge. The United States has enjoyed several decades of technical dominance, but not by accident. In the 1950s, military leaders invested in nuclear power, nuclear weapons and missiles to offset the quantitative advantages the Soviet Union had in Europe. As that advantage began to erode as the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity, in the 1970s and 1980s, DOD invested in the microprocessing revolution that was then in its infancy. The result was a set of technologies – stealth, guided weapons and the global positioning system, among others – that gave the United States a renewed qualitative edge, this time powered by information technology.


America’s technological edge is therefore not a given, but rather is the product of a steady series of calculated investments in key technology areas throughout the latter half of the 20th century. But as Deputy Secretary Work outlined in a speech last year:


“While the United States fought two lengthy wars, the rest of the world did not sit idly by, they saw what our advantages were back in 1991’s Desert Storm, they studied them, and they set about devising ways to compete. Today, many of those earlier innovations that were spurred by the intense military-technical competition with the Soviet Union … have proliferated widely. Unsophisticated militaries and non-state actors are seeking and acquiring destructive technologies and weapons that were once the province of advanced militaries – and the price of acquiring these weapons is dropping.”


We are approaching an era in which guided munitions, stealth and the other pillars of the last offset strategy are widely proliferated, with a much broader range of players now fully invested in the same game-changing technologies that gave the United States a dominant military-technical edge for a quarter-century. U.S. defense planners must assume that future adversaries will employ sophisticated battle networks and advanced guided munitions to both deter and defeat U.S. military forces.


Carter must direct the Pentagon to revitalize its procurement and modernization efforts in order to enable U.S. forces to deter and defeat adversaries who employ guided weapons of their own, even approaching a degree of parity with the United States in some scenarios. At the same time, Carter must drive the Pentagon to accurately assess the technology landscape, much of which is now driven by a commercial revolution in information technology, to continue to invest in emerging areas to renew U.S. advantages.


Fortunately, Work is already pursuing just such an effort, which he has termed a “third offset strategy,” following the first two technology strategies to offset the Soviet Union through nuclear weapons and, later, precision strike. Carter will surely embrace this effort, given his background and his close association with former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who is credited with leading the second offset strategy in the late 1970s.


Although two years is not sufficient time for such a strategy to succeed completely, Carter could increase the odds of success by focusing his attention on key defense programs that constitute the “weight-bearing” pillars of the new offset strategy. Specifically, Carter should ensure that the Pentagon prioritizes:


1. A penetrating long-range bomber: The United States needs a successor to the B-2 bomber, a new long-range strike aircraft that can operate from long ranges, carry nuclear or conventional guided weapons and operate in and around contested airspace.


2. Unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft: America’s aircraft carriers are increasingly at risk from long-range guided ballistic and cruise missiles that can target the carrier well beyond the range of its aircraft. In order to ensure that the aircraft carrier remains relevant across the range of plausible military contingencies, the U.S. Navy must buy back the range of its air wing. The best way to do that would be to procure a long-range penetrating unmanned aircraft that can operate and persist in contested airspace.


3. Undersea dominance: A military designed to project and sustain striking power in a world of guided munitions will require greater investment undersea, where forces can get close to an enemy’s shores undetected. From replacing the Ohio class of ballistic missile submarines to investing in unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and semisubmersibles, the United States should move assertively to not only sustain its historic advantage undersea, but leverage the undersea environment to project power.


4. Emerging technologies: A number of new capabilities are well along in their development; hypersonics, electromagnetics, directed energy and various aspects of cyber have “gamechanging” potential that have not been fully anticipated by plausible U.S. competitors. Carter should work quickly to ensure a strategy-driven approach to research and development spending by DOD and a detailed demand signal communicated to the broader defense industry, which desires greater clarity from Pentagon leaders.

Carter is one of the best-prepared to take the role of Secretary of Defense since the position was created, but his success will be measured by what he can accomplish in the short time allotted to him. He needs to focus on a few key decisions and investments. The long-range bomber, unmanned combat aircraft, a new generation of manned and unmanned submarines, and a strategy-driven approach to investing in emerging technologies should be at the top of his list. 

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