Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel remarks during the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on November 15, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel remarks during the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on November 15, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt

The Pentagon’s New Offset Strategy Includes Robots

Can the military still innovate the way it did during the Cold War? We will soon find out. By Patrick Tucker

In the decades following the end of World War II, U.S. military efforts to contain the Soviet Union resulted in the creation of breakthrough technologies like GPS and modern computers, as well as capabilities such as global nuclear deterrence. What are the game-changing innovations that will yield similar decisive advantage in the decades to come? What’s the GPS of 2030?

Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Defense Innovation Initiative to find answers to those questions. It’s the next step in developing a long-term plan to "offset," or effectively neutralize, the technological advancements of other foes or nations.

Hagel and DOD officials have been discussing the so-called third offset strategy for months without giving up any specifics as to how they intend to achieve offset innovation. In his speech, Hagel provided a small glimpse into the fields that will attract special Defense Department attention as part of the strategy: “robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including 3-D printing.”

Those fields indicate that when the strategy is finalized, the military’s research and development budget, especially in automation and robotics, could see a boost.

But first:

What is an Offset Strategy?

As national security scholar Ben FitzGerald describes in this piece for the National Interest, the first offset strategy, before it went by that name, was the establishment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and other technologies to offset the numerically larger Soviet force. That remained an effective deterrent to Soviet expansion until the Soviets developed second-strike capability. Suddenly, a new, second offset strategy became necessary in response.

Then-Under Secretary of Defense Bill Perry put in place that encore initiative in the 1970s. It consisted of key investments on the global positioning system and other game-changing spy and guidance technologies to expand the effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal by orders of magnitude (so-called force-multipliers.)

As FitzGerald writes: “The Offset Strategy was a masterful success, ushering in an era of unparalleled U.S. military-technical dominance. The strategy was successful because it responded to a well-understood and directive threat and to a particular military problem: the necessity to create a serious conventional deterrent against numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces. It was also perfectly aligned with the prevailing grand strategy of containment. Further, it capitalized on (and contributed to) a real strength: the advanced state of American technological development relative to the rest of the world. As a major side benefit, DOD investments in [research and development] as part of the Offset Strategy significantly helped the U.S. economy with technologies like GPS, satellites and computer networking, creating entire industries with American companies at the forefront.”

Hagel’s speech Saturday, while short, is significant in the way that it highlights robotics and autonomous systems as keys to achieving a third offset.

“This program will look toward the next decade and beyond. In the near-term, it will invite some of the brightest minds from inside and outside government to start with a clean sheet of paper and assess what technologies and systems DOD ought to develop over the next three to five years,” he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has addressed the need for a third offset strategy in various forums for years. He is considered, in many ways, the patron saint of the effort to launch a new offset strategy.

On Sept. 3, speaking at the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance in Rhode Island, Hagel described Work’s role in crafting the new strategy. “I've asked Bob to move forward with an initiative to develop a third, game-changing offset strategy. As a key part of this endeavor, DOD's Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Frank Kendall, will soon convene a new Long-Range Research & Development Planning Program aimed at assuring our technological edge through the next several decades.”

In that speech, Hagel outlined four components of the new regime:

  • more use of modular and open systems architectures;
  • providing industry with draft requirements earlier;
  • removing obstacles to procuring commercial items;
  • and improving our technology search and outreach in global markets.

“We are entering an era where American dominance on the sea, skies, space and especially cyberspace, can no longer be taken for granted … our future superiority is not a given,” Hagel said. “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.” He called it “a world where America lacks a decisive edge.”

Hagel’s speech in California, like his comments in Rhode Island, reiterated the Defense Department’s concerns about the theoretical threats of obsolescence in the distant future, even while the rest of the world is focused on the brutality of the present.

“While we're grappling with many national security challenges from the crisis in Ukraine, unprecedented threats and turmoil in the Middle East, uncertainty in Pakistan, change of governments in Afghanistan, to growing tensions in the South China Sea -- all we are dealing with today, with this confluence coming together today, we also face a challenge of innovation,” Hagel said on Saturday. “We could easily allow our time and our energy to be consumed by the crisis of the moment, or the day, or the crises of the week, which as we know are abundant ... but we must also stay focused on laying the groundwork that will define the future. We can't focus only on where we are today. We must also think through where we're going tomorrow, and why.”

Work will address the offset strategy and other issues during his appearance at the Defense One Summit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The inclusion of robotic and autonomous systems in the Hagel’s remarks is the clearest indication yet that the Pentagon is rekindling its romance with drones. In 2013, when drone spending was near its height, the Pentagon allocated $5.7 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles. Compare that to $2.4 billion set aside for drones in the FY 2015 budget (as well as a 15 percent reduction in Predators and Reapers.) Hagel’s comments suggest that trend is about to reverse.

But it’s in “autonomous” research where the military could realize its biggest “offset” gains in the next decades. Better radar systems, lasers, decreases in the costs of computer hardware and huge improvements in machine learning algorithms -- allowing robots to compute sensory data, to “see” in effect -- mean that small amounts of research money could result in far smarter armed robots, as John Markoff makes clear in a recent New York Times piece.

This 2012 Pentagon Directive stipulates that commanders must have ultimate control over armed drones. But increasing the level of autonomy in future flying robots would decrease the amount of staff required to manage them, thus, by definition, increasing the number of decisions that robotic system is undertaking with little or no guidance.

The potential gains for the military in terms of doing more with less could be enormous. But they won’t come without controversy.