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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Offset-X: How to Ensure the U.S. Military Stays Ahead of Russia and China

US Navy
PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 19, 2016) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) fires a standard missile (SM 2) at a target drone as part of a surface-to-air-missile exercise (SAMEX) during Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield is a biennial, U.S. only, field-training exercise with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. This is the sixth exercise in the Valiant Shield series that began in 2006. Benfold is on patrol with Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) in the Philippine Sea supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)160919-N-XQ474-126 Join the conversation:

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. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. 403Forbidden

    December 20, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Heh, heh, the original offsets included outspending the USSR by standing up massive nuke arsenals and nuclear carriers and naval airpower, but the problem is the realm or domain of war (future wars that is) is changing.

    Carriers today are beginning to look like obsolescent technology with advent of kinzhals & zircons and YJ-21s.

    You don’t need massive nuclear rocket arsenals today as spaceplanes like the x-37b can loiter in space 365 days a year. Dangerous accidents have actually occurred to nuclear-tipped rockets in the past.

    In 1960, a nuke-tipped BOMARC rocket was lost in an explosion.

    In 1964, a LGM-30 rocket while under repair had one of its retrorocket misfired that causex its RV to shoot off.

    And then in 1980, during a maintenance service, a carelessly dropped wrench punctured a fuel tank of a Titan II rocket that leaked fumes which later resulted in a fire.

    Thus, the nature of wars is changing, so offsets may not work as well as expected.

    Peace and diplomacy are better options. No need to show who’s biceps are bigger. Like mike tyson. Aka joe biden.

  2. Comnentar

    December 21, 2022 at 12:16 am

    The first offset (US has this fascination with using fancy wordings and labels) was born possibly shortly after moscow tested its very first atomic device in august 1949.

    But it really didn’t do much good. Cuz moscow was able to successfully test its first hydrogen bomb in 1955 with a preliminary fusion test in 1953. The horse was now free from its barn. For good.

    Then the idea of a second offset was born. This was mostly based on the experience gained in panama, often called the prelude to iraq. In both cases, the f-117 was employed.

    In early 1991, two f-117s allegedly released two GBU-27 smart bombs on the amiriyah shelter in iraq with deadly results. Offset number two.

    Offset number three arose from the period when NSA began to appear in the news. Or around the time stuxnet was detected.

    Stuxnet was developed just after the invasion of iraq and aimed at iran. But it soon affected many countries worldwide.

    Today, we have possibly another offset in the works. But the horse has long released itself from its barn. And the reason is because human brains are born equal. Nobody has a stranglehold on latest or newest gizmos or whizzbang tech.

  3. Злой русский пьяный медведь с балалайкой

    December 21, 2022 at 8:57 am

    It is striking how the United States and NATO did not want to use the fall of the USSR and the socialist camps as an opportunity to establish a real humane process of democratization both in Russia and around the world.The US and NATO have remained the elephant in the china shop. Neither in relation to Russia, nor in relation to China, the United States and NATO have not changed their tactics and strategies of the second half of the 20th century. And there are fewer and fewer INDEPENDENT COUNTRIES around the world whose love for the United States and NATO would not be destroyed by NATO’s actions!

  4. John

    December 21, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Well Western nuclear forces need to significantly expand to convey credible deterrence to Sinorussia.
    Russia in noncompliance with New Start refusing New Start inspections.
    China adding thousands of new warheads.
    Neither Biden nor GOP waking up. Hello 1950.

  5. David Chang

    December 21, 2022 at 10:10 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Offset is not a right word, it’s the atheism term.

    Avoid socialism warfare with weapons only is wrong, and U.S. is been into socialism trap more and more. But weapon is just tool to protect people, not purpose. And strategy is policy, not tactic.

    Alfred Nobel say:
    “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

    So Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner are wrong, the reason for murder is Sin, not about weapon, not without collective security.

    But Truman and Oppenheimer change tactic to be strategy, and use N-weapon to show their power. This Sin is same as the Sin of Democratic Party, Democratic Party declare that Oppenheimer is not Communist. However, regardless of whether Oppenheimer is Communist or not, Oppenheimer incite the using of N-weapon.

    At such a time in history, we who are free must proclaim our faith. The faith is the abiding creed of our fathers. It is our faith in the deathless dignity of people, as governed by eternal moral and natural laws.

    This faith defines our life. It establishes, beyond debate, the grace of Creator that are the inalienable rights of people, and that make all people equal by God.

    With this equality, we know that morality most cherished by free people — love of truth, pride of work, devotion to people, worship to God — all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and of the most exalted. The people who mine coal and fire furnaces, and balance ledgers, and turn lathes, and pick cotton, and heal the sick and plant corn — all serve as humble and as profitably for America as the statesmen who draft treaties.

    This faith rules our life. It decrees that we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve. It asserts that we have the right to choice of our own work and to the reward of our own toil. It inspires the initiative that makes our productivity the wonder of the world. And it warns that any people who seeks to deny equality among all people betrays the spirit of the free.

    It is because we, all of us, obey moral principles that the political changes accomplished this day do not imply turbulence, upheaval, or disorder. Rather, this change expresses a purpose of strengthening our dedication and devotion to the precepts of our founding documents, a conscious renewal of faith in our country and in the watchfulness of a Divine Providence. The enemies of this faith know no god but force, no devotion but its use. They tutor people in treason to God. They feed upon the hunger of others. Whatever defies them, they torture, especially the truth.

    No matter many people judge General Eisenhower and General MacArthur, I remember their faith.

    God bless America.

  6. Gary Jacobs

    December 21, 2022 at 11:08 am

    A core advantage the US has is the deep relationship with Israel. Both the shared values and the dynamic tech echo systems. However, Israel does not have the layers of red tape to cut through that the US has. And the US is starting to learn how to leverage Israeli innovations. There is a reason mighty little Israel has attracted R&D units from basically every major tech company on earth. The US political and military leadership is finally taking this relationship more seriously

    Leaders from the Pentagon and Israel’s Ministry of Defense recently convened the second meeting of the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Group (OTWG) in Israel last month to advance research and development (R&D) cooperation between the two militaries. If both governments continue to seize the opportunity and Congress holds the OTWG accountable for tangible results, the working group can help ensure that American and Israeli warfighters do not confront adversaries wielding more sophisticated weapons.

    With bipartisan congressional leadership by Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) as well as Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), and others, Congress authorized the establishment of the OTWG in Section 1299M of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which became law on January 1, 2021.

    The Department of Defense and Israel’s Ministry of Defense then developed a memorandum of understanding and established the OTWG on November 1, 2021. The group convened its inaugural meeting in the United States in May 2022.

    Following that meeting, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee both used their respective committee reports for the annual defense bill to applaud the establishment of the OTWG and reiterate the OTWG’s four purposes explicitly. These include:

    (1) Providing a standing forum for the United States and Israel to systematically share intelligence-formed military capability requirements;

    (2) Identifying military capability requirements common to the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense of Israel;

    (3) Assisting defense suppliers in the United States and Israel by assessing recommendations from such defense suppliers with respect to joint science, technology, research, development, test, evaluation, and production efforts; and

    (4) Developing, as feasible and advisable, combined United States-Israel plans to research, develop, procure, and field weapon systems and military capabilities as quickly and economically as possible to meet common capability requirements of the Department and the Ministry of Defense of Israel.

    In summary, the OTWG seeks to identify vital military requirements shared by both militaries as early as possible, receive proposals from American and Israeli industry to quickly meet those requirements, and then establish combined plans to develop and field those capabilities to both militaries as quickly as possible. That process, spurred by accountability to Congress, can expedite the delivery of game-changing technologies and capabilities.

    To be sure, the United States and Israel already enjoy a deep defense partnership. Nevertheless, dangerous military capability gaps continued to emerge in recent years that the OTWG can prevent going forward.

    Consider, for example, that it took the Pentagon until 2019 to acquire for U.S. tanks Israeli-made active protection systems [APS] that the Israel Defense Forces has used since 2011. Consequently, U.S. soldiers deployed for years lacking this cutting-edge protection against missiles and rockets, subjecting those troops to unnecessary risk. Of course, Israeli Trophy APS has already defeated barrages of the latest Russian Kornet ATGMs in proven combat in 2014.

    Given the trajectory of the U.S. competition with China, Americans may pay a higher cost for such delays in the future. The Pentagon’s annual China Military Power Report published last month makes clear that Beijing is sprinting to develop advanced capabilities designed to defeat U.S. forces. The United States often takes far too long to go from concept to fielded combat capability. Working with Israel, a country known for fielding new cutting-edge combat capabilities quickly, can help ensure American warfighters have what they need sooner so they can accomplish their missions and return home safely.

    Similarly, when Israel waits for extended periods for U.S. government agencies to approve combined R&D programs, the urgency of the threats often forces Jerusalem to forge ahead on its own. When that happens, the United States misses out on Israeli agility in fielding new weapons, and Israel misses out on American innovations and economies of scale (i.e., lower unit costs based on larger purchases), depriving Israel of precious opportunities to stretch its finite defense budget. That dynamic also prevents the two militaries from fielding the same capabilities simultaneously, which would facilitate more effective combined training and operations.

    If the meeting last month in Israel is any indication, the U.S. Department of Defense and Israel’s Ministry of Defense see the opportunity, take the OTWG’s four tasks seriously, and are moving with a sense of urgency. U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu and her Israeli counterpart, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Dr. Daniel Gold, the head of Defense Research and Development, convened both the May and November meetings.

    They have established six sub-working groups: artificial intelligence/autonomy, directed energy, counter-unmanned aerial systems, biotechnology, integrated network systems-of-systems, and hypersonic capabilities. Not surprisingly, these areas of focus mirror some of the Department of Defense’s top R&D priorities.

    The OTWG’s early momentum is good news for the security of the United States and Israel. The Biden administration’s next report to Congress on the OTWG’s performance is due on March 15, 2023, according to the 2021 NDAA. Members of the armed services committees will also expect regular updates from Under Secretary Shyu on the OTWG’s progress in fulfilling its responsibilities and delivering on expected results.

    Significant work on this project has been done by Bradley Bowman, who served more than 15 years on active duty as a U.S. Army officer, including time as a company commander, pilot, congressional affairs officer on the Army staff in the Pentagon, and staff officer in Afghanistan. As an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Bradley taught courses on American politics, foreign policy, and grand strategy. He also taught a graduate course on “Congress and U.S. National Security Policy” at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

  7. TheDon

    December 21, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    Its important to understand good design teams require interface of subject matter experts and those with production experience.

    Schools need to revamp offering shop and trade air plane repair and tighten up on ttouble makers and crime.
    Schools need to be operated to bring young professionals into work place with skills.

    Sagging pants, fighting, drugs need to stop.

    More skunksworks of experienced and even retired experts.

  8. David Chang

    December 21, 2022 at 11:56 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Every strategy that pursues victory eventually leads to failure and even the destruction of country.
    Sumer, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Rome, China, Byzantium, Mongolia, Israel, Egypt, so we believe in God and obey the Ten Commandments, not to worship country nor victory.

    Ivy League promote the philosophy of Greece and Rome, but also Karl Marx’s philosophy, evolution and socialism. So they want to pursue victory, and ignore the danger of WMD, thinking that we can repel the enemy’s troops with electromagnetic war, and can also prevent the enemy from using WMD first.

    But something in electromagnetic war is about Quantum mechanic, so no comment. Only we can talk about is Anomalous Nuclear Events on Mars in the Past.

    God bless America.

  9. David Jones

    December 22, 2022 at 11:12 am

    All the tech stuff is fine, but how about we get the military leadership to concentrate on what the military is supposed to do; kill people and break things instead of using the military as a social experiment? Patton and all the great leaders of the past have probably worn right through their coffins from turning over in their graves so much.

  10. J

    December 23, 2022 at 8:28 pm

    The military is to protect and defend the constitution of the United States from foreign and domestic enemies. Kill people and break things is one skill useful at times in that goal. Used more than it is useful, but we strive to form a more perfect union. To pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Its worked for, not a given.

  11. Steven

    December 23, 2022 at 9:56 pm

    lol, Gary, get a life… lol you getting paid to write 9 page commentary?

  12. David N. Tate

    December 23, 2022 at 10:29 pm

    The United States just passed an $850 Billion defense spending bill for the next fiscal year. US military alliances in Europe, the Pacific Ocean area, and the Middle East multiply US spending. Total miliary spending for the United States and her allies is well over $1.2 Trillion on an annual basis.

    The poor Russians spend less than $70 Billion annually on defense. The Chinese Communists spend less than $300 Billion annually on defense.

    The implication here is that the United States is well ahead of both Russia and Communist China. Neither Russia nor China can matach US combat capabilities. No single nation state nor any combination of nation states can match US combat capabilities.

  13. Cheburator

    December 31, 2022 at 5:35 am

    That’s just 850 billion military spending is not an indicator of combat capability. In addition, these 850 billion dollars do not even cover inflation.
    The US government deficit was $1.375 trillion.
    Inflation 10%, Fed rate 4.5%, stock markets in the biggest recession of 2008.
    And now the question is – who will pay for the banquet?
    The Fed will soon start printing dollars in the form of toilet paper rolls, for convenience.

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