Recent publications by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) have called for the creation of a Third Offset Strategy. This has led to discussions on what provides the United States advantage in warfare over our enemies and adversaries. Looking for one solution in a third offset, and as described in the first two offsets, is a false choice. Each advantage lies at the various levels of warfare.
First, it is important to recognize the historical precedents of the first and second offsets. The CSBA identifies President Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy focused on long-range bombers and nuclear weapons as the first offset. The second offset is defined by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Under Secretary William Perry’s direction for the Department of Defense to develop stealth, precision strike weapons, and improved command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the 1970s. The latter came into fruition during the wars in Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. While this approach has its merits, the military instrument of American national power is much broader in scope strategically, operationally, and tactically.
Today, the US military holds asymmetric advantages over our adversaries at each of the levels of warfare. For the purposes of this essay, and taking the definition from Joint Publication 1–02, asymmetric is defined as, “the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities, and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.”
Strategic Asymmetric Advantages: The Relationship and Partnership Offset
Maintaining proper civil-military relations enables both a strong military and enables other forms of national power. This relationship ensures a promotion system based on merit in lieu of political favors. Moreover, proper civil-military relations allows the military to focus its training and resources on fighting and winning America’s wars. The US military does not act as an internal police force, or as a means of “regime survival.” Contrasted to nations such as the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, or other nations whose military required an inward focus, the promotion of officers based on political connections and frequent purges of the best and brightest officers, the US has a strategic advantage in the focus and purpose of its armed forces.
Allies and partners are critical to the conduct of military operations in the 21st century. Strategically, maintaining a robust number of allies and partners is critical for the US military to impose its will on adversaries and enemies across the globe. More than just NATO, allies and partners are critical to worldwide basing of forces and equipment, as well as strategic access into zones of conflict. This strategic advantage was critical throughout the 20th century and is essential for the foreseeable future. Indeed, enemies of the US may be able to sneak an agent through customs on a commercial flight, but do not expect Iran or ISIS to stage a battalion on the US border in preparation for an invasion.
The criticality of NATO to counter the Soviet threat during the Cold War is unaccounted for in CSBA’s assessment of the first offset.
The criticality of NATO to counter the Soviet threat during the Cold War is unaccounted for in CSBA’s assessment of the first offset. It was not the fact that the US had long-range bombers and missiles that could strike the Soviet Union, rather the fact that the US was able to place these weapons on the doorstep of the Russian Bear in Western and Central Europe. Indeed Khrushchev saw medium range missiles in Turkey as a greater threat than planes and missiles in the US. Moreover, when the Soviets made use of an ally in Cuba, it was the strategic access offered by the Cubans that was seen as vital threat to US interests, more so than long-range missiles in Siberia. When the US has failed to gain allied support for a war, the consequences have been telling. When the US largely “goes it alone” as we did in Vietnam and Iraq in 2003, we were unable to attain decisive and lasting political results.
Unfortunately, the CSBA calls for a “reduced dependence on close-in theater land and sea bases.” A reduction of these bases reduces leverage and relationships built over time.
Key to allies and partners is building and maintaining relationships over time. In this aspect, the US military acts in concert with other agencies and elements of national power. For example, the Department of State is fundamental in harnessing the globe’s will (and resources) through relationships, both built over time and necessary in a crisis. History provides examples of nations who had military advantages in technology, yet failed to gain support for their cause. Any one nation can achieve success locally, but no one nation can stand against the rest of the world. The success of the allied partnerships is the foundation upon which the third off-set is constructed. Unfortunately, the CSBA calls for a “reduced dependence on close-in theater land and sea bases.” A reduction of these bases reduces leverage and relationships built over time. Although overseas land and sea basis can prove to be a target of enemy and adversary anti-access and area denial systems, striking an enemy still requires overland and overflight access. Overseas bases that enhance allied and partner relationships are critical to US military global power.
The strategic advantage of allies and partners across the globe enables the advantage of global lift. Simply put, the US has the ability to transport and sustain hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground across the planet. This capability was on full display during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may take months to put a force in place; however that force will get there and sustain operations for years if not decades. An infrastructure of long-range air and sea transport allows massive armies to engage our enemies on their home field. Examples to contrast this capability are the Soviets in Afghanistan who could not sustain an army in an adjacent country. For the preponderance of nations, the ability to operate on exterior lines of communication is null.
Nations act in accordance with their self-interests. Maintaining relationships with allies and partners is dependent upon the economic advantages of doing so. The US economy, despite the recent recession remains dominant over the rest of the world. Fueled by Bretton-Woods, the US dollar remains the sought after currency when other nation’s economies flounder. The ability of the US to impose economic costs on enemies and adversaries through means other than military power is leverage few nations enjoy. Moreover, the US economy fuels a technologically savvy industrial base upon which the military can depend. Whatever material an adversary puts on the battlefield, the US can produce more of it, at better quality, for our warfighter on the battlefield.
Operational Asymmetric Advantages: The Joint Offset
In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols act passed its way through Congress to enforce a joint warfighting philosophy on the US military. Jointness is an operational advantage the US holds over its adversaries and enemies, more specifically nation states who may use a military force to oppose us. The use of Joint Force Commanders in lieu of separate service commanders ensures each service contributes to the same objectives and endstates. Moreover, a system of combatant commanders allows for the formation of operational plans that do not press for service parochialism. Throughout history, there are many examples of nations whose navy or air force’s operations were de-synched from the troops on the ground. The ability to conduct joint and combined arms operations is a distinct operational advantage.
Failing to operate jointly has had consequences in previous conflicts. Recent international conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, provides an example of how a nation’s air force or navy can operate completely independent from a nation’s land forces. Moreover, failure to fight in a Joint manner has led to disastrous consequences, as displayed in the battle of Tarawa during World War II. For the US, the attempted rescue of hostages in Iran, and blue on blue casualties in Grenada and Panama. In the latter two examples, the US was fortunate to be fighting wars against arguably two of the weakest nations on earth.
The ability to operate in a joint environment allows each component in the air, maritime, and land domains to complement each other actions. Since the Korean War over 60 years ago, when a soldier or marine on the ground looks up into the air and sees an object, he or she is assured that it is a friendly aircraft. Moreover, dominance and superiority are not unique to the air domain. Eleven Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) that roam the seven seas provides a capability no other nation possesses. While the Chinese and other nations posses aircraft carriers, they do not represent the capability of a CSG. Command of the seas has been the goal of empires and nations since the time of Thucydides; the US has ended this game with a final score of 11–0.
Superiority in the air and maritime domain has been and will remain a given for the US — what is and will be continued to be challenged is the US advantages in the land domain.
Superiority in the air and maritime domain has been and will remain a given for the US — what is and will be continued to be challenged is the US advantages in the land domain. As discussed by LTG H.R. McMaster in the recently published Army Operating Concept, to counter overmatch capabilities of the US, adversaries will seek to avoid US strengths, disrupt our advantages in communications, long range precision fires, and surveillance, emulate US military capabilities, and expand their operations into the US homeland. Employing each component of the joint force in a synchronized manner to defeat adversaries is an advantage few nations can employ.
Tactical Asymmetric Advantages: The People and Technology Offset
At the tactical level of warfare, the US has built up asymmetric advantages at the individual level. Simply put, the US sends the very best soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines into combat. This offset is built through training, education, and leadership of our men and women in uniform and working as DoD or service civilians, as well as the technology employed against our enemies. A global surveillance and strike concept that the CBSA envisions is unattainable without investments in the right people to operate and capitalize on technological advancements and overmatch.
Leadership is fundamental to success in combat. Most nations, especially in the West, have built highly educated officer corps. The US stands apart with the development and trust of the enlisted ranks, specifically through non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Moreover, the trust, training, education, and leadership experience of our NCO Corps provides an advantage against most nations, as our NCOs are as good as, and arguably better than, officers from adversary nations. Indeed, the trust and decision making with which the US empowers our NCOs is greater than what most nations entrust their officers. Certainly, the quality of the individual in combat provides an offset to numerical advantages in an adversary. Moreover, the trust and confidence the US places in individuals at the lower echelons to operate high-level technology are unparalleled. Global surveillance and strike systems become limited in their effectiveness when those available to operate said systems are limited in supply.
The proposal by CSBA for the third offset focuses on greater use of unmanned and autonomous systems. Clearly the ability to strike an enemy at any time of our choosing is a significant advantage of the US must maintain over our adversaries, but the risks these systems entail are legion. First, enhancing the physical distance to the battlefield, and eliminating risk to humans, creates situations where the decision to go to war is easier and without a robust national dialogue. Nor are these systems a panacea to the world’s problems. It is easy to strike Yemen with drones, but they are without a national dialogue or consensus over the killing people in a foreign nation…and without decisive results.
Investing in people or technology is not a dichotomy that our nation’s leaders face. The tough choice presented is where to focus the limited resources and available funding.
Investing in people or technology is not a dichotomy that our nation’s leaders face. The tough choice presented is where to focus the limited resources and available funding. In past conflicts, such as World War I, nations invested in people rather than technology, believing the human will and spirit could overcome machine guns and entrenched defensive positions on the battlefield. Moreover, recent conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war demonstrated how a false belief in the human will could overcome advanced technologies. The overwhelming technological edge was on full display in both 1991 and 2003 when the US accomplished in a few short weeks what the Iranians failed to do over eight years of conflict. Investing in people over the development of technology cost millions of lives. The US, to maintain military advantages over enemies and adversaries must weigh how it will invest its capital, careful to avoid a dichotomy between people and technology. Each of these investment choices complements each other. Indeed, as those familiar with the military acquisitions process understand, material solutions alone will not win a war, rather the suite of all institutional solutions should be considered.
The United States enjoys asymmetrical advantages over adversaries, and has done so since our awakening on December 7th, 1941. As the US looks to the future, maintaining these advantages at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare is critical to both global security and the security interests of the US. Investments in people and the technology they employ must go hand in hand if the US chooses to maintain its global leadership role.
Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the US Army, a Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace & Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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 Martinage Robert. 2014. Toward a New Offset Strategy Exploiting U.S. Long-Term Advantages To Restore U.S. Global Power Projection Capability. Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
 Ibid (page 17)
 Murray, Williamson and Woods, Kevin. 2014. The Iran-Iraq War ; A Military and Strategic History. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
 Easterbrook, Gregg. 2010. “Waste Land.” The New Republic. Accessed 3 March 2015.http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/79066/waste-defense-spending-america-pentagon
 The United States Army Operating Concept. 2014.
 Murray, Williamson and Woods, Kevin. 2014. The Iran-Iraq War ; A Military and Strategic History. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.