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The Third Offset strategy proposed by former Secretary of Defense Hagel (through the Defense Innovation Initiative), Deputy Secretary Work, and now Secretary Carter, aims to address challenges to U.S. power projection capabilities around the world through technological innovation. The strategy identifies numerous threats and underlines implications for U.S. military air, sea, and land forces as well as allies and partners to counter increasingly assertive and technologically capable threats. When the decision to use force to attain policy objectives is taken, the continuing challenge for use of force involves going to the war, getting into the contested area, sustaining the force, as well as winning the war and returning home.

Since the Second World War there have been two offset strategies focused on leveraging technological advantages to address strategically significant vulnerabilities to U.S. military operations.  For the Third Offset, technology is again cited as a means to overcome critical operational problems, such as large surface combatants and carriers vulnerable to tracking and targeting from extended ranges, defending close-in regional bases from attack at the onset of conflict, limits in identifying and targeting mobile missile launchers, non-stealthy aircraft, and the lack of strategic advantage in space as satellites become increasingly vulnerable.

Many offset analyses depict advanced technologies as the most important aspect to re-establishing U.S. power projection, citing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities as the greatest threat to power projection. For example, in Toward a New Offset Strategy, Robert Martinage of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments provides a technology-centric vision focused on leveraging U.S. “core competencies” in unmanned systems, stealthy aircraft, undersea warfare, and complex systems engineering to counter adversary investment in A2/AD capabilities and project power differently. But buying more technology does not, in itself, address the challenges of warfare.

While the Martinage paper identifies emerging technological threats and offers a technology-centric offset, the focus on A2/AD greatly limits the flexibility of policy makers and senior leaders with regard to a broader, more comprehensive strategy for competitive advantage. Technology alone cannot achieve sustainable competitive advantage. The technological leaps central to the two previous offset efforts did not always prove enduring, and in neither case were military technologies the source of U.S. relative strength.  A better approach extends the Second Offset, precision against mass, while establishing approaches for research into a comprehensive third offset. This article discusses a vision of offset, and proffers a more comprehensive and balanced approach to achieving enduring U.S. competitive advantage through the inclusion of land power.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work delivers remarks on international security and the future defense strategy during a speech at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., April 8, 2015.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s April 2015 speech at Carlisle Barracks challenged the Army.  He stated:

Now, a lot of this is talking about A2/AD, because enemies will try to keep us out of theater…But once we break into theater, we're going to have to think about AirLand Battle 2.0. We are going to have to think about fighting against enemies which have lots of guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles, and are using informationalized warfare to completely disrupt our heavily netted force. So what does AirLand Battle 2.0 look like? I don't know. The Army needs to figure this out. (Emphasis added).

Indeed, the U.S. Army does need to figure this out.

Maintaining a balance in joint capabilities to meet security challenges today and in the future is an imperative of the joint force. As part of any offset strategy—to identify and invest in innovative ways to sustain and advance U.S. military dominance—the U.S. Army must explore and develop new operational concepts and look to new technologies to sharpen its capabilities. Technology cannot solve all the challenges of warfare. The ability to maintain overmatch depends upon a balanced force, new ways of learning, thinking, deciding, and accelerating new technology.

There is a developing concept, jointly proposed by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, titled Multi-Domain Battle. In an article published at War on the Rocks, Albert Palazzo and David McLain, introduce the term with a description of warfare in the near future. This article was followed by the distribution of draft copies of a coordinated Army-Marine Corps white paper titled, “Multi-Domain Battle: Re-establishing Deterrence and Capabilities for Operating Against a Complex Defense.”

Drawing upon the Palazzo and McLain article and the white paper, it appears the proposed definition of Multi-Domain Battle is cross-domain operations that create a temporary degree of superiority across multiple domains and allow joint forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. The concept calls for forces at all echelons employing capabilities to influence and/or control multiple domains either simultaneously or in sequence with other elements of the joint force. Multi-Domain Battle proposes to extend the principles of combined arms, incorporating all the services and mission partners. Execution of operations in accord with the Multi-Domain Battle concept requires combined arms and services to apportion capabilities for action across all domains (air, sea, land, space, and cyber) and the electromagnetic spectrum and information environment. The desired effect of Multi-Domain Battle is creating seams in enemy defenses where none exist, and keeping these physical and virtual holes open for tactically and operationally significant periods of time.

The Multi-Domain Battle concept can act as a bridge from the Second Offset to an as yet undefined “Third Offset.” The Second Offset, deterring and defeating an enemy’s ability to mass armored formations in depth and now manifesting as an ability to mass fires, cyber, and electronic warfare, should be extended through a combination of technological buys, reintroduction of capabilities for the joint force (e.g., Air and Missile Defense, Short Range Air Defense, and Electronic Warfare), and reinvigorated training in combined arms, mounted and dismounted. This broad effort will be accompanied by a reintroduction of armored/heavy forces to Europe. The concept of Multi-Domain Battle calls for exactly the same. The reinforcing nature of the Multi-Domain Battle concept is the precursor to re-energizing future joint doctrine as the concept, in some form, will be debated, war-gamed, and ultimately incorporated into joint practice. The additional benefit of extending the Second Offset is the exploration of technology combined with an open discussion of the doctrine required to employ said technology will establish the basis for the so-called Third Offset.

The "Big Five"—Black Hawk, Apache, Patriot missile system, Bradley and Abrams.

Multi-Domain Battle rests upon lessons from earlier doctrinal efforts. AirLand Battle in the U.S. Army combined physical capabilities, the famed “Big Five” (Abrams, Bradley, Blackhawk, Apache, and Patriot), with the doctrine developed to employ these systems. Multi-Domain Battle asserts the Army and land forces will make seams in enemy defenses where none exist in order to seize the initiative and establish positions of advantage. The 1986 version of Field Manual 100-5, Operations states:

AirLand Battle doctrine...is based on securing or retaining the initiative and exercising it aggressively to accomplish the mission...[It stresses] flexibility, the creation of opportunities to fight on favorable terms by capitalizing on enemy vulnerabilities, concentration against enemy centers of gravity, synchronized joint operations, and aggressive exploitation of tactical gains to achieve operational results.[1]

Multi-Domain Battle, as was AirLand Battle, will become doctrine. The application of doctrine in actual warfare will not be perfect as conditions will change as operations translate policy and strategic aims into military terms and action. AirLand Battle as a doctrine, much as Multi-Domain Battle must become, was grounded in the definition of war as an act of force to compel. We must bear this in mind as we engage in the necessary and mandatory discourse on how to refine the Multi-Domain Battle white paper into a concept fit for experimentation and thence into actual “how-to-fight” doctrine. Doctrine is not dogma but a guide to thought and implementation. In this way we can extend the Second Offset while establishing the basis for a Third Offset.

The discourse, research, and war games attending concept development are the necessary conditions for both extending the Second Offset and laying the foundation for a Third Offset. As a recent article on The Strategy Bridge pointed out, joint plus cyber does not equal multi-domain battle. The professional community must engage in deep debate on the parameters of the Multi-Domain Battle concept. We must do this to ensure a broad understanding of the concept before it becomes doctrine.

As the conceptual underpinning for an extension of the existing Second Offset mentality, the proposed Multi-Domain Battle concept will be useful in determining actions along the Army’s construct for addressing gaps in doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities. Following this familiar construct the resultant conceptual discourse will undoubtedly lead to inclusion into doctrine. It will allow focus for the process of determining where to invest the U.S. Army’s research and development monies under straitened circumstances.  

The latest version of the Multi-Domain Battle white paper poses the following description of the military problem facing U.S. land forces:

Military problem. U.S. ground combat forces, operating as part of a joint, interorganizational, and multinational team, are not sufficiently trained, organized, equipped, nor postured to deter or defeat highly-capable peer enemies to win in future war.[2]

The white paper goes on to state execution of the Multi-Domain Battle concept entails three key components:  creating and exploiting temporary windows of advantage, restoring capability balance and building resilient battle formations, and altering force posture to enhance deterrence. The first component, the tactical and operational need to establish and exploit temporary windows of advantage in an enemy’s defenses, provides a basis for a re-configured extension of the Second Offset. The ability possessed by near-peer adversaries  to mass effects in cyber, fires, and electronic warfare means can be offset by selected technological capabilities as well as training and doctrine, a re-engineered view of a Second Offset. The end result is a means to achieve positions of advantage across domains, the electromagnetic spectrum, and information environment. Positions of advantage enable U.S. ground forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to defeat any enemy.[3]

The necessity of restoring capability balance and building resilient battle formations is an essential part of the proposed Multi-Domain Battle concept. The language in the latest version of the white paper stresses a return to training under challenging conditions including emission control, reduced connectivity, and degraded communications.  This requires a greater degree of reliance on the philosophy of mission command. There is also a requirement to think through the challenge of sustaining formations in contact and under the condition of interdicted lines of supply. The “how” to accomplish this demands approaches to training both units and individuals, another manifestation of the doctrinal and technical Second Offset.

The draft white paper states that altering force posture to enhance deterrence requires a “deliberate examination of the mix of forward stationed, rotational, and sea-based expeditionary forces in certain theaters.”[4] The need to re-visit policy certainly demands professional officers interaction with policy makers. The thinking underlying a return of forward stationed units, in greater numbers and capabilities, demands thorough debate and sound logic.

As General Mark Milley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, said in a recent speech at the Association of the United States Army convention:

[O]ur units are going to have to be combined arms, multi-domain capable. We will still have to fight and destroy land-based enemy units and seize terrain, but the Army, yes, the Army, we’re going to sink ships, and we’re definitely going to have to dominate the airspace above our units from hostile air or missile attack. This is going to require sophisticated air defense capabilities that are not currently in our unit inventories.

A final thought though as the U.S. Army engages in the critical thinking required to turn a draft concept into doctrine, and eventually into trained units and action: the Army and Marine Corps must not solely focus on the tactical level of warfare. Wars are won at the operational and strategic level, which means land force must keep the policy object in mind as they prepare for and fight the Nation’s wars. As Under Secretary of the Navy Janine Davidson said:

First, it is important that we expand our aperture beyond the battlefield. We need to start thinking about multi-domain competition and multi-domain warfare, to include deterrence. Planning for battles or organizing and sizing U.S. forces for a certain type of battle, as we have been doing for decades, is necessary, but not sufficient. It is also dangerous.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley serves as keynote speaker at the Dwight David Eisenhower Luncheon during the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, Oct. 13, 2015.

The Multi-Domain Battle concept paper offers a conceptual thought structure for an extension of the technological and doctrinal Second Offset. This combination can continue to offset any adversary's ability to mass effects in the cyber, information, and electro-magnetic spectrum as well as massed lethal fires. The desired capabilities needed to force seams in enemy defenses and establish temporary windows of opportunity in the physical and cyber domains will serve to set disciplined conditions for a conceptual and actual Third Offset. The joint force must apply the necessary thought to these concepts as we translate concept to doctrine to trained forces and action.

Kevin Benson is a retired U.S. Army officer and currently a seminar leader at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Pages 14/15, FM 100-5 Operations, May 1986

[2] United States Army-Marine Corps White Paper, Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century, draft v0.70 - 250930 Oct 2016, p. 5. Hereafter cited as MBD paper v0.70.

[3] MBD paper, v0.70, pages 7-9.

[4] MDB paper, p. 12.  Emphasis added by author.

In conclusion...

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

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