n X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

n X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Erik Hildebrandt/U.S. Navy

What Will Replace the Third Offset? Lessons from Past Innovation Strategies

Whatever the name, it’s crucial to have a framework for directing and harnessing advancements in defense technology.

The Trump Administration’s “skinny budget” doesn’t tell defense watchers much they didn’t already know. Among the outstanding questions: what of the Obama Administration’s much-touted defense innovation initiative and Third Offset strategy? If past is prologue, the new administration is unlikely to adopt the terminology of its predecessor, and that’s okay. Savvy defense modernization by any other name would smell just as sweet.  

In late October, CSIS hosted a conference to assess the Third Offset strategy. In many ways, we found it to simply be the latest in a long line of frameworks used by administrations of both parties that seek to use defense innovation to overcome key operational challenges. Its predecessors include the Reconnaissance-Strike Complex, Revolution in Military Affairs, Transformation, Air-Sea Battle, Anti-Access/Area Denial, and several others that never quite achieved marquee status. These ideas are not all the same. Each has a particular strategic and/or operational imperative and scope. Yet they all share the aim of securing a distinct asymmetric advantage for the United States based, at least in part, on technology. The Trump Administration should take the most relevant attributes of prior frameworks, be attentive to their potential misuses, and adopt a framework for using innovation to serve national objectives.

What the Third Offset and its predecessors have done well is identify the strategic imperative for securing a new competitive operational edge through technology. This signaling is critical. It can reassure our allies and deter our adversaries by demonstrating the reliability of future U.S. military dominance. For innovators — whether they are government insiders, denizens of traditional and nontraditional defense industry, or other potential partners — it can serve as a clarion call for bold ideas. The better that warfighters can explain their current and projected operational imperatives, the better the public and private sector can bring compelling solutions to bear. As the details in the budget are filled in, innovators will be looking to see whether the organizations focused on cutting-edge approaches are being given the resources to implement them.

However, the history of defense innovation efforts is not entirely rosy. As the Trump Administration looks to develop its approach, it will do well to learn lessons from past efforts. Four lessons are particularly important.

First, innovation efforts stand the best chance of success when warfighter challenges are clearly described. “Transformation” was infamously all things to all people. Mentioned 89 times in the 2001 QDR, transformation sought to “extend America’s asymmetric advantages well into the future” across virtually every operational and institutional area. The meaning was entirely in the eye of the beholder; Pentagon bosses would routinely tell staff to “sprinkle some transformation” on ideas they wanted senior leadership to fund. The Air-Sea Battle concept better defined the problem it was addressing, which DoD described as “how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains…to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action” including the “development of future capabilities needed for effective power projection operations.” Third Offset began more like transformation—an “ambitious department-wide effort to identify and invest in innovative ways to sustain and advance America’s military dominance for the 21st century”—and evolved over time to a narrow, clearer scope. At the October CSIS conference, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work described Third Offset’s focus as improving conventional deterrence against adversaries with advanced battle networks. Thus defined, Third Offset provides a shared understanding of the problem to be solved and puts potential adversaries on notice that the United States will close critical gaps.

Second, there is an obvious corollary to this first lesson: the Trump Administration should acknowledge that there are many important operational problems requiring solutions, even if they are not the leadership’s current priority. For instance, Air-Sea Battle, Anti-Access/Area-Denial, and Third Offset all suffered from the appearance of ignoring current and projected ground-force challenges. There was a China bias inherent, if not always stated, in each. It took Russian actions in Crimea, the Donbass, and Syria to belie the exclusivity of the Pacific and air and maritime-dominant challenges facing U.S. power projection, and Russian unconventional actions against us at home and in Europe to demonstrate that effective deterrence requires more than just military power. The Trump Administration would do well to tailor frameworks to specific operational challenges, but they should also not suffer a failure of imagination on the range of operational challenges—across the spectrum of conflict—for which solutions are required.

Third, the new administration should begin with the understanding that the capabilities needed to meet an operational challenge require more than technology. Many people mischaracterized the Third Offset strategy as a technology-only approach, but Department leadership was careful from relatively early on to acknowledge that innovation requires technology to be combined with intelligence, operational art, and individual and collective skill enhancements. Even so, the most notable “innovation” initiatives undertaken in recent years have a decidedly materiel bent. The other elements of the innovation enterprise—notably concept development, organizational design, and experimentation and full-scale exercises on these—work far harder to glean senior-leader attention and needed dollars. This is particularly self-defeating in a world of rapidly spreading technology, in which one aspect of a comparative U.S. advantage must be the ability to adapt our people and institutions to leverage technology better and more quickly than others.

Finally, the Trump Administration’s defense innovation agenda should look beyond eliminating U.S. weaknesses to furthering our many cost-imposing, asymmetric advantages. Perhaps the greatest of these advantages is the robust, multilayered web of alliances and partnerships that the United States has painstaking forged over multiple decades. One need only read the innumerable complaints from would-be adversaries about U.S. alliances and partnerships to know that these efforts complicate their planning more than almost any other U.S. action. Asymmetric opportunities likewise exist on the hard-power side. The United States has an unmatched ability to operate in multiple domains simultaneously and to unexpectedly reveal new capabilities at times of its own choosing, as it did with its ability to use moving target indication and bunker-busting in the First Gulf War. Looking ahead, the Trump Administration should strengthen current efforts aimed at keeping potential competitors off balance and thus deterred through the complex dynamic of capabilities development and effective strategic signaling.

Today, all eyes may be on the DoD budget topline, but the Trump Administration’s defense innovation agenda still awaits. The global technological playing field seems increasingly to offer a series of jump balls, with possession going to the nation or nations that react fastest. The United States can deter adversaries and win the military competitions it chooses to engage in if it puts a premium on adaptability, builds on U.S. asymmetric advantages, and invests smartly to meet clearly-defined, and clearly important, operational challenges. Whether the Trump Administration adopts the Third Offset label or some other moniker is far less important than demonstrating it has learned these lessons from past efforts.