Over at the Atlantic Monthly earlier this month, big brains Robert Work and Eric Schmidt recapped a longer report from the Special Competitive Studies Project detailing “Offset-X,” an aspirational effort aimed at “achieving and maintaining military-technological superiority over all potential adversaries, thwarting China’s theories of victory, restoring America’s ability to more freely project power in the Indo-Pacific region, and positioning the United States to honor its commitments to the stability of the region.”
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An ambitious agenda. Both entries are crisply written, manageable in length, and worth your time. Pick one, read the whole thing, and come right back!
Offset strategies aren’t strategies in the classic sense of figuring how to deploy economic or military resources on hand to achieve larger goals. They’re more about foreseeing and leveraging the basic character of conflict. Offset-X, say the coauthors, is “a technology-centered strategic approach” to extending current U.S. technological advantages while redressing gains made by the red teams of the world in recent years. Nuclear weapons constituted an early offset strategy. U.S. forces fielded doomsday weaponry to counter the Soviet Union’s conventional weight of numbers in Europe during the early Cold War. Precision-guided arms used in inventive ways constituted a second. The ability to launch deep strikes with precision helped the West keep pace with the Soviets and ultimately prevail during the late Cold War.
Work pioneered a “third offset strategy” while serving as deputy secretary of defense at the Pentagon during the Obama and early Trump years. In particular, he touted “human-machine teaming” as a way to preserve U.S. martial supremacy. Teaming up man and machine, he proclaimed, would enable the U.S. military to field forces made up of swarms of inexpensive platforms and weapons that would work together in a cohesive and agile manner. U.S. forces would bring massed firepower to bear at the time and place of combat more nimbly than prospective foes, and thus would command a significant tactical and operational edge should America be forced to fight. In short, he exhorted the U.S. armed forces to go small, numerous, cheap, networked, and uptempo.
Human-machine teaming figures prominently in Offset-X as well.
Plainly, then, Work and Schmidt, a former chief of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, have a different quandary in mind than do most makers of military strategy. They peer into the future of warfare, discern troubling trends, and lay out a set of measures they believe will help the U.S. armed forces flip the script on antagonists such as China—reinstating unquestioned American military primacy, and deterrence along with it.
In passing, the coauthors describe Offset-X as a “competitive strategy.” That’s a telling choice of phrase in the field of military strategy, operations, and force design. It harks back to Andrew Marshall, the legendary director of the Pentagon Office of Net Assessment who in the early 1970s fashioned an approach to Cold War competition he dubbed “competitive strategies.” Marshall’s big idea was to avoid competing with the Soviets on a brute ship-for-ship, plane-for-plane, tank-for-tank basis. Instead the U.S. military should think asymmetrically, questing for areas of enduring competitive advantage over the Soviets and steering the competition toward them. Better yet, the military should hunt for areas in which it could compete not just effectively but at manageable expense to itself and extortionate expense to the adversary.
Do all that, said Marshall, and you can wrongfoot an opponent into competing both ineffectively and unaffordably. Technical developments like precision arms and new doctrinal and strategic concepts like the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle Doctrine or the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy were 1980s-era descendants of Marshall’s vision of competitive strategies.
What do Work and Schmidt see when they gaze through a glass darkly into the future? Three of their observations deserve accenting. First and foremost, they gently debunk the oft-heard—including in these pixels—concept of “great-power competition.” Rather than peacetime competition, they maintain, the United States already finds itself in a “state of persistent conflict with Russia and China,” typified by constant cyberattacks, disinformation, thievery of intellectual property, and sabotage.
Although the coauthors don’t mention it, Chinese strategists’ phrase “war without gunsmoke” neatly encapsulates the red teams’ erasure of the war-peace boundary. As founding Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong noted, politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed. Fired by this Maoist outlook, China wages war 24/7/365.
Second, and closely related, the coauthors point to the “individualization of war.” Sensors are ubiquitous nowadays, while most every individual leaves a “data exhaust” on the internet “through everyday searching, reading, watching, shopping, and dating habits.” Also worrisome is “the bulk collection of DNA and biometrics.” In short, systems enabled by artificial intelligence can vacuum up vast quantities of data, process them, and enable hostile militaries to “micro-target” individual citizens in the United States or friendly countries. Micro-targeting could involve intimidation or blackmail; it could go as far as targeted assassination.
Third, and, again, closely related, Work and Schmidt warn that this could all happen among us. This is a disorienting prospect. Since World War II, Americans have grown accustomed to believing that all wars are away games, fought in such faraway precincts as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. To this way of thinking, the chief challenge before the U.S. armed forces isn’t defending North America; it’s amassing the wherewithal, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures necessary to build up superior combat power on some distant foe’s home ground and prevail.
That’s less and less true in an age when new technologies, warfare domains, and methods empower visiting teams—adversaries—to reach out into the American heartland.
Sobering stuff. But despite their bleak tone, and despite their healthy respect for antagonists, Work and Schmidt entreat America to answer the challenge of future deterrence and warfare “neither with despair nor hubris.” (You have to salute the Aristotelian emphasis on finding the “golden mean” between extremes, in this case between hopelessness and unbridled arrogance.) They catalog enduring American advantages and urge U.S. leaders to put them to work.
No one should lose heart.
Still, potential danger lurks within Offset-X. Past offset strategies fielded technology to counter technology. It was relatively easy to forecast the competitive-strategies impact of nukes or precision conventional arms. By contrast, Work and Schmidt highlight diplomatic, political, and social advantages that go with being a free society in fellowship with other free societies. Such advantages are vaguer and harder to harness than those on display during the first three offset strategies.
What’s the concrete military deliverable from openness, and what results will it yield in persistent low-level conflict with China and Russia?
To be clear, Bob Work and Eric Schmidt are correct about the United States’ and the West’s roster of innate advantages. Think about it. Who’s the better and more innovative competitor, the one that empowers junior people to exercise their judgment, or the one that stifles military folk through the ideological control-freakism of a Xi Jinping? The former, without a doubt. Dynamism typifies an open society confronting an authoritarian rival that by its nature is vulnerable to stasis. Dynamism is good in a dynamic strategic environment.
All of that being said, proponents of Offset-X do have to figure out how to transform abstractions like political, social, and intellectual openness into tangible military gain. This is the challenge of our time.
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.