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6.2  US Military - In Search of the Third Offset

1 May 2018

US Military at the Crossroad


To say that the US military is at a crisis point is an understatement.


During the early Cold War period, US depended on the destructive power of the nuclear weapon to compensate or offset the land forces numerical advantage enjoyed by the Soviet bloc in Europe. That was US' first offset strategy. By the mid-1970s, however, the Soviets not only approached basic parity in the nuclear balance but also had about a 3-fold advantage in conventional weapons.[1] US Department of Defense (DoD) began to look for a second offset strategy that would encompass new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, improvements in precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, and space-based military communications and navigation. Their efforts resulted in the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) found on the E-2s and E-3s, the F-117 stealth fighter and its successors, modern precision-guided munitions, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and improved reconnaissance, communications, and battle management. The most powerful demonstration was that of precision strike. New guidance technologies have led to the development of munitions that can be delivered with remarkable precision. These include munitions delivered by aircraft, cruise missiles, and artillery. The second offset thus ushered in an entirely new era in warfare, one in which a smaller force could leverage on guided munitions to defeat a much larger force that employed unguided ones. By the mid-1980s Soviet military theorists had concluded that the emerging US “reconnaissance-strike complexes” would be able to achieve destructive effects similar to tactical nuclear weapons.


In 1991, the Bush I administration demonstrated the success of the second offset strategy during the Gulf War when US forces completely dominated the Iraqi military with the use of guided precision munitions. In total, 6,250 tons of precision-guided munitions were used compared with 81,980 tons of "dumb" bombs. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the precision-guided munitions (PGMs) hit their targets compared with only about 25 per cent of dumb bombs. In addition to yielding logistic benefits and combat effectiveness, the PGMs enabled the Coalition forces to minimise collateral damage on the ground.


The shocking display of American precise firepower, however, also caught the attention of the rest of world. They studied and set about devising ways to neutralize US’ lead in military technology. In the years that followed, many of US’ innovations – in missilery, space systems, guided munitions, stealth, and battle networking – proliferated widely. After the turn of the century, while the Bush II administration were fighting fairly low-tech counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, competitors like China, Russia, and Iran keep themselves busy,  looking for ways to blunt American military advantages and build matching capabilities.

Rising Challenges from China and Russia


China, in particular, has made the most progress in closing the technology gap through its long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs. Its growing A2AD capabilities – anti-ship, anti-air, counter-space, cyber, electronic warfare, and special operations capabilities – have raised serious concerns about US’ ability to project power in the Western Pacific.


So has Russia which has also long been concerned over US’ lead in technological innovation in military applications. Believing that maintaining a sophisticated arsenal of nuclear weapons can help to effectively offset conventional military innovations of the US and NATO, Russia chose to bolster its nuclear deterrence capability by prioritising the development of a wide array of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons systems. At sea, for example, Russia is said to be developing new submarines that can be equipped with R-29RM Bulava nuclear-capable ICBMs. In air, the Tupolev Tu-160M2, Russia's latest nuclear bomber, is set to make its first test flight soon in 2018. On land, Russia has reportedly improved its nuclear-capable Topol-M ICBM with the ability to penetrate missile defence systems deployed by the US in Europe. Meanwhile, development of its "Satan 2" Sarmat ICBM, said to be capable of wiping out the entire state of Texas, is still ongoing.[2]


A greater concern to American military strategists is Russia’s huge stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons which are nuclear bombs with smaller explosive power (i.e. lower yield) used to engage specific targets or small battle areas within a theatre of operations. Because of their ease to deploy, their improving accuracy and the limited damage they can inflict due to their lower explosive power, they are more likely to be used on a battlefield by military commanders. To be sure, both US and Russia had under deployment thousands of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons at the height of Cold War but they were never used. While Russia held on to its stockpile, US had retired nearly all of these warheads from service by 1991 as its conventional military capacity was greatly enhanced by newly developed precision-guided munitions. In 1999, Russia tactical nuclear weapons were given a new lease of life when NATO waged a high-precision military campaign in Yugoslavia using modern guided conventional weapons to produce highly tangible results with only limited collateral damage. Russia became concerned that the conventional capabilities demonstrated by NATO seemed far beyond its own capacities and decided to use its tactical nuclear weapons as deterrence against growing conventional capabilities of US and its allies.


In 2000, Russia introduced a new defensive doctrine of “escalating to de-escalate” drafted under the leadership of Vladimir Putin who was then secretary of Russia’s Security Council. The doctrine envisioned that if Russia were faced with a large-scale conventional attack that exceeded its capacity for defence, it might respond with a limited nuclear strike. It was hoped that the threat of a limited nuclear exchange would inflict a cost so high that it would deter the US and its allies from involvement in conflicts in which Russia has an important stake. Of course, there is nothing to prevent Russia from also using the tactical nuclear weapon based on an offensive escalate to win” strategy. This entails limited use by Russia to consolidate territorial gains from an initial conventional attack by making it more difficult for the US to come to the defence of its allies.[3] Russia has so far not come close to invoking the doctrines but it has been pointed out that the deterrence policy probably limited the West’s options for responding to the 2008 war in Georgia as well as to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent military intervention in Ukraine.[4] If indeed so, the use of tactical nuclear weapons as deterrence worked as Russia had intended.


In addition to countering US’ lead in conventional military technologies with nuclear deterrence, Russia also embarked on several technological initiatives, although more narrowly focused and in smaller scale. In October 2012, Russia established the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF) – a counterpart to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – to focus on exploiting new technologies for military uses, including hypersonic vehicles, artificial intelligence, additive technologies, unmanned underwater vehicles, cognitive technologies, and directed energy weapons.[5] Hypersonic weapons, for example, can fly at many times the speed of sound to speed past most US defenses. 


The Pentagon was reportedly caught off-guard by the advanced capabilities demonstrated by the Russians in the Syria conflict. According to the US Deputy Defense Secretary, Robert Work, Russia had not only “effectively employed cross-domain fires using a variety of long-range, guided munitions from air, sea, and under the sea” but had also “improved the accuracy and responsiveness of their already formidable indirect fire skills using artillery and rockets guided by UAVs, cyber, SIGINT [signals intelligence], and ELINT [electronic intelligence] right on the forward line of troops.” Moreover, Russia-backed separatists also succeeded in jamming GPS frequencies, communications, and imaging radars. In short, US’ future army will have to fight Russia on a battlefield swept by not only by precision munitions but also persistent and very effective electronic warfare and cyber threats.[6]


The threats US faces today come not only from just China and Russia. Because military technologies have become more dispersed and cost of precision-guided munitions are falling, less advanced states (e.g. North Korea and Iran) and non-state actors (e.g. terrorist groups) are also jumping on the bandwagon to acquire military capabilities once beyond their reach.


The US is thus entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, in space, and in cyberspace can no longer be taken for granted. The second offset strategy of embracing the shift to guided weapons is no longer a sufficient means to sustain US military-technical advantage, not just in Western Pacific but around the globe.[7] The US is now once again at the cross road where it needs to come up with a new offset strategy to deter and defeat an adversary that has achieved guided munitions parity.


In Search of the Third Offset


In 2012, the Pentagon’s senior leadership secretly established a shadowy division called the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to quietly work on state-of-the-art weapons.[8] Unlike DARPA which was originally created in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower to develop game-changing technologies for the military of the future, the newly formed SCO’s goal is to find new ways to use existing technology and weaponry to counter new threats.


In 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Defense Innovation Initiative aimed to identify the combination of new technologies that could help to maintain America’s military supremacy over the next 20 years. A core component of the initiative was the formation of a Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP) to look into several promising technology areas, including robotics and system autonomy, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing (including 3D printing), while also seeking to improve the US military's collaboration with innovative private sector enterprises.[9]


For the US, the quest for its third offset strategy will likely be a lot more challenging than the first two. Having succeeded in closing the technological gap with the US, pacing competitors like China and Russia can now leverage on their strong industrial base and their growing prowess in technological research to respond and adjust to any new offset strategy. In some emerging technology areas, such as artificial intelligence, big data, cyber security and electronic warfare, China or Russia may be even leading or at least on par. The narrowing technological gap between US and its adversaries also means that the catch-up timeline is collapsing.


Moreover, the costs of developing new weapons have become exorbitantly high in the US. The trends of rising costs and shrinking quantities are not new. From 1950-2000, the costs of producing US ship rose between 7-10 percent on an annual basis. In 1984, Norm Augustine, an aerospace businessman who served as Under Secretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977, observed as one of “Augustine’s Laws” that the cost of military aircraft was growing exponentially while the defence budget was only growing linearly. Compared to China, US will need to spend more just to get the same quantity of military assets of comparable quality. The current budget downturn will only further exacerbate the long-term trend of shrinking quantities.[10] With national debts already at record-high level, pursuing a strategy that depends on outspending rivals seems hardly sustainable for the US. The odds are, in the coming years, in addition to enjoying a quantitative advantage, an increasingly wealthy China still eager to invest major resources into military modernization may even out-innovate the US to gain also a technological edge. In the long run, China may simply be better positioned than the US for a long-term high-technology arms race.


President Trump’s Strategy to Regain the Lead


President Donald Trump has said little about the third offset so far since coming into office. Given his disinclination for anything Obama, he is unlikely to adopt the terminology of its predecessor. Still, it does not change the harsh reality of a more competitive strategic landscape nor does it reflect his lack of support in the previous administration’ efforts to help US regain the technological lead. In fact, his proposed budget sought to marginally increase spending for SCO, which was quietly working on projects ranging from swarming micro-drones to hypervelocity projectiles, and for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), whose objective is to set up contracts with universities and fast-moving, innovation-focused companies that do not traditionally engage with DOD. Both offices were elemental to the Obama administration’s Third Offset Strategy.[11]

Notably, Trump has expressed doubts that technology can compensate for reduced capacity. The experience of the Bush II administration in Iraq, for example, shows that technology helped to quickly subdue Saddam’s forces but failed to secure lasting victory. In line with that belief, Trump has focused, upon coming into office, on growing capacities rather than developing capabilities to enhance US military-technical superiority. For example, he had earlier pledged to lead the biggest U.S. Navy build-up since the Reagan administration to increase the battle force from the current 272 ships to 350 ships by the 2030s. So together with the Congress, Trump is pushing to grow the Navy by over 70 ships, to add more troops and fighter planes, and to undertake a trillion-dollar upgrade of the country's nuclear weapons enterprise in the coming years.


In his December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) speech, Trump declared that China and Russia are now the country’s strategic competitors.[12] While the US under former President Barack Obama mainly focused on defeating insurgencies overseas, like in Iraq and Syria, and later on defeating non-state actors like ISIS, Trump’s strategy shakes off the post-Cold War mentality and return to state-to-state rivalry. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the coming of unipolarity, America acknowledges that its primacy is now being challenged.


The same sentiment is echoed by the Defense Secretary James Mattis in his 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) which identifies re-emergence of long-term inter-state strategic competition from revisionist powers China and Russia, not terrorism, as the primary concern in US national security.[13] To stay ahead of competition, NDS outlines plans to invest in new technologies including advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology. The NDS makes it a clear priority for the US to gain competitive military advantages that can help to ensure US win the wars of the future and to maintain US military pre-eminence for years to come.


Since most of these new technologies are coming from the commercial sector, both NSS and NDS also mentioned the setting up of the 21st century “National Security Innovation Base” (NSIB). To prevent state competitors and other adversarial non-state actors from gaining access to US’ technological developments in the commercial sector, NDS also stresses the need to protect the NSIB.[M23]  China, for example, has often been accused of “serious intellectual property theft” for military purposes. In April 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that hackers had broken into the Pentagon’s $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter project responsible for creating the USAF's F-35 Lightning II. There is much speculation that China was behind the breach, and that it had used the stolen information to build its own stealth fighters J-20 and J-31.[14]


At the same time, NSS also stresses the need to have a healthy defence industrial base that has the ability to meet a surge in demand from the military in response to an emergency. The US won the Second World War in no small part because its heartland factories could churn out tanks, planes and ships at rates far greater than the enemy could destroy them. Today, those heartland factories have been shuttered and America no longer possesses the strategic high ground while China has emerged as the factories of the world. That erosion of American manufacturing has had a negative impact on the country’s ability to produce needed parts and systems, healthy and secure supply chains, and a skilled workforce. These lost capabilities threaten to undermine the ability of U.S. manufacturers to meet national security requirements. NSS therefore regards supports for a vibrant domestic manufacturing sector, a solid defence industrial base, and resilient supply chains as a national priority.


To address the issue of rising costs, NDS also outlined DoD’s plans to look at ways of reforming the department to drive budget discipline for greater performance and affordability and to ensure that full value is obtained from every taxpayer dollar spent on defence. They include initiatives to enhance auditability of all its operations; improve its financial processes to manage and improve cost; leverage the scale of its operations to drive greater efficiency in procurement; consolidate and streamline contracts in areas such as logistics, information technology, and support services; reduce management overhead and the size of headquarters staff; eliminate duplicative organizations and systems; and reduce excess property and infrastructure.[15]


One great concern that has not been addressed by both the NSS and NDS is how Trump administration plans to pay for all the efforts to modernize the US military. For fiscal year 2018, Trump has asked for a defence budget of $824.6 billion or $31 billion more than 2017 budget of $794 billion.[16] That is the second largest federal government expenditure after Social Security at $1 trillion. It is also larger than the defense budget of the next nine countries combined.[17]


The higher defence spending got even some fellow Republicans in Congress worried especially with the passing of the tax reform bill that is projected to add as much as $1.4 trillion to the $20 trillion national debts over the next 10 years. Independent analysts say it defies financial gravity, for example, by instituting cut taxes while simultaneously projecting increases in tax revenues. They also note that it would hurt many people who voted for Trump, including farmers, workers and students, by cutting domestic programs in favour of increases for the military.[18]


Finally, one hotly debated issue raised by both the NSS and the NDS is the impending changes to the administration’s nuclear policies. In response to Russia recent advancements in nuclear weaponry, the NSS has called for a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to modernize the nuclear triad—including nuclear command, control, and communications, and supporting infrastructure and to develop options to counter competitors’ coercive strategies, predicated on the threatened use of nuclear or strategic non-nuclear attacks.


Both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations have worked for decades to reduce US and global nuclear weapons stockpiles since the end of the Cold War. During a gathering of national security officials in July 2017, Trump reportedly seek to reverse that longstanding trend of denuclearization by suggesting for a tenfold increase of US’ active stockpile to the 1960s levels.[19]


To be sure, efforts to modernize the US nuclear forces were already set in motion by the Obama administration’s 30-year, $1.2-trillion plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal along with the sorely outdated command-and-control systems. Notably, even though Russia was reportedly developing battlefield-ready “low-yield” nuclear tactical weapons, the Obama administration chose not to match them out of concerns that the new weapons’ ease to deploy and higher accuracy could increase the likelihood that they will be used in what may have previously been traditional combat. Today, Russia is reported to have 3,800 tactical weapons, compared with less than US’ 500. Based on information from a leaked NPR draft dated January 2018, the Trump administration is planning to reverse Obama-era position by planning to not only produce “low-yield” weapons but also make it easier to use. Critics have called the new NPR “a roadmap for nuclear war.” They warned that the NPR will herald a new nuclear arms race that greatly increases the likelihood of a nuclear war, if not a nuclear accident.[20]  

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[1] See Robert Tomes. (2014). “The Cold War Offset Strategy: Assault Breaker and the Beginning of the RSTA Revolution.” War on the Rock. November 20, 2014. (Note: Very interesting article. Highly recommended if you are interested in the history of how US worked out the Second Offset Strategy.)        

[2] See Tom O’Connor. (2018). “U.S. And Russia Race To Build Nuclear Weapons They Can Actually Use Against Each Other.” Newsweek. January 10, 2018.

[3] See John R. Harvey.(2017). “Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons Are Worth A New Look.” War on the Rock. November 10, 2017.

[4] See Nikolai N. Sokov. (2014). “Why Russia calls a limited nuclear strike ‘de-escalation’.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. March 13, 2014.

[5] See Vasily Kashin, Michael Raska. (2017). “Countering the U.S. Third Offset Strategy: Russian Perspectives, Responses and Challenges.” RSiS. 24 January, 2017.

[6] See Will Skowronski. (2016). “A Glimpse of the Pacing Competitor.” Air Force Magazine. October 5, 2016.

[7] See Shawn Brimley. (2014). “Offset Strategies & Warfighting Regimes.” War on the Rock. October 15, 2014.

[8] See Dave Majumdar. (2016). “The Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) Takes Center Stage.” National Interest. November 17, 2016.

[9] See Sydney J. Freedberg. (2014). “Hagel Lists Key Technologies For US Military; Launches ‘Offset Strategy’.” Breaking Defence. November 16, 2014.

[10] See Paul Scharre. (2014). “America's Secret Weapon for Battlefield Dominance: Build the Swarm.” National Interest. November 3, 2014.

[11] See Will Thomas. (2017). “Trump Budget Cuts Defense S&T by 5.8% While Funding Third Offset Priorities.” American Institute of Physics. June 1, 2017.

[12] See Brookings. (2017). “Brookings experts on Trump’s National Security Strategy.” Brookings. December 21, 2017.

[13] See DoD. (2018). “2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America.” January 19, 2018.

[14] See Siobhan Gorman,  August Cole and  Yochi Dreazen. “Computer Spies Breach Fighter-Jet Project.” WSJ. April 29, 2009.

[15] See DoD. (2018). “2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America.” January 19, 2018. Pg. 10.

[16] See David M. Herszenhorn. (2017). “NATO cheers Trump’s military budget.” Politico. May 25, 2017.

[17] See Kimberly Amadeo. (2018). “U.S. Military Budget: Components, Challenges, Growth.” The Balance. January 10, 2018.

[18] See John Haltiwanger. (2017). “Trump Wants $700 Billion for Defense and Has No Idea Where Money Will Come From.” Newsweek. December 13, 2017.

[19] See Courtney Kube & Kristen Welker, et. al. (2017). “Trump Wanted Tenfold Increase in Nuclear Arsenal, Surprising Military.” NBC News. October 11, 2017.

[20] See Dave Mosher. (2017). “Trump wants to make nuclear weapons easier to use — and his plan is ‘a roadmap for nuclear war’” Business Insider. January 17, 2018.


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