The Pentagon has a problem. After concentrating on guerrilla warfare for the last decade and a half, the U.S. military is entering a brave new world — one filled with new adversaries. Russia, China, North Korea and others have been building up air, space, ground, and naval forces over the last 15 years, and their progress is showing.
Russia is aggressively building new ships, tanks, and aircraft, while China is rapidly modernizing its air and naval forces. North Korea is honing its nuclear weapons program and constructing new long-range missiles, now capable of hitting the United States. The Pentagon needs a new strategy to deal with this.
Fortunately the military has one, and it’s called the Third Offset Strategy. The First Offset Strategy, initiated in the 1950s, involved countering Soviet superiority in conventional ground forces with cheaper nuclear weapons. The Second Offset Strategy was conceived in the 1980s and involved using American technological superiority to compensate for greater Soviet numbers.
The Third Offset Strategy is about retaining America’s lead in military power in the face of potential challenges by Russia, China, North Korea and others. The strategy takes aim at enemy vulnerabilities and weak spots with plans to exploit them in wartime. It leverages existing American strengths, such as the tanks, fighters, and ships that we already have, and uses our technological lead to give them new capabilities.
Just last week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced a number of new capabilities the U.S. military was funding. Carter is serious about preserving America’s technological lead: While the overall defense budget remains roughly flat, the research and development budget will rise for the second year in a row, to $71.4 billion.
The Department of Defense will continue to push existing programs in line with the strategy. New weapons such as the Long Range Strike Bomber, the KC-46A Pegasus tanker, and the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines will do very well. Advances in drones, electronic warfare, networked weapons and sensors, and exotic technologies such as lasers and railguns will play a key part of the military’s future.
Other programs won’t fare so well. The Littoral Combat Ship, a frigate-sized ship designed to operate near coastlines and shallow water, is having trouble justifying its existence in the context of major conflict. It has had a difficult development period, with its key systems reliant on technologies that just haven’t panned out. Secretary Carter has already taken an axe to the program, cutting 12 of 52 ships, and there may be further cuts.
Upgrading existing weapons with new technologies is another part of the strategy. One “new” weapons system Carter revealed is the Arsenal Plane. The Arsenal Plane takes an older plane — likely the venerable B-52 bomber — and stuffs it to the gills with long-range missiles. Flying behind the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — both of which can only carry a limited amount of weapons to stay stealthy — the Arsenal Plane could back up both planes with tremendous firepower.
Another program will upgrade naval guns and army howitzers so both are capable of shooting down long-range ballistic missiles. The upgrade involves taking the hypervelocity projectile designed for the electromagnetic railgun and adapting it the U.S. Army’s Paladin howitzer and 5-inch guns found on all U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers. The yet-unnamed system will let hundreds of existing guns destroy ballistic missile warheads traveling at tremendous speeds.
Still another project will allow fighter planes to act as miniature aircraft carriers, carrying tiny drones into battle and launching them at nearly the speed of sound. The drones could then mimic the electronic and radar signatures of real fighters, acting as decoys and complicating an enemy’s battle plan.
A key aspect of the Third Offset is keeping things as affordable as possible. Barring an emergency, the U.S. defense budget isn’t going up any time soon. Other budget priorities, including the national debt, a decaying national infrastructure, and a tidal wave of entitlements as the Baby Boomer generation ages out of the work force, will ensure that. Meanwhile, China’s defense budget increases 10 percent annually.
Jacky Fisher, the former head of the British Royal Navy, was once said to utter, “Gentlemen, now that the money has run out we must start to think.” Fisher went on to innovate and thus preserve the Royal Navy’s dominance over the new German Empire, ensuring British naval superiority.
For the Pentagon, a similar moment is now.