DoD is setting up the third offset for the next president

One of the biggest buzzwords in the Defense Department since Ash Carter took office has been the third offset strategy, but despite all the hype many wonder if the strategy will translate into the next presidential administration.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work tried to quell some of those uncertainties during a May 2 speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Work said DoD is working internally to transition the third offset over to the next president.

“I’m going to be central to the transition, so I’m going to be able to personally talk with the transition team and explain to them what we have pursued and why we pursued it and let them make their own decisions,” Work said.

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The third offset strategy was introduced by DoD to keep the U.S. technologically superior to its rivals. The strategy is investing in specific research areas like man-machine teaming, autonomous learning systems, semi-autonomous weapons systems and assisted human operations.

In order to transition the policy smoothly Congress needs to be on board. Work said the House has been complimentary of the third offset and willing to help usher it into the next administration.

Congress’ approval is needed for funding and for legal policymaking in the defense authorization act.

The House Armed Services Committee has already tried to nudge along the strategy by suggesting reforms to defense acquisition laws so they look more like how tech companies develop and procure items.

The 2017 defense authorization bill gives the services flexible funding to encourage experimentation and prototyping.

Experimentation “encourages innovative thinking, not just in developing the technology, but in how you use it. It helps ensure there is mature technology before you start production so that you don’t have those unexpected surprises. It reduces the odds that you are going to spend a lot of money on a program of record that you then have to cancel and have it all wasted,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,  in January.

Before releasing the acquisition reforms, Thornberry said he wanted DoD to start failing in some of its programs so they can get rid of troublesome projects earlier, instead of forcing them to work, pouring money into them and getting a subpar product.

Along with the legislature, the military senior leadership needs to be in-line with the strategy. Work said the leadership needs to believe, regardless of political leadership, that third offset investments are something DoD needs to pursue.

One of the DoD’s goals is to give the next administration a lot of options when deciding where to take the strategy.

“We thought rail guns were something we were really going to go after, but it turns out that powder guns firing the same hypervelocity projectiles gets you almost as much as you would get out of the electromagnetic rail gun, but it’s something we can do much faster,” Work said. “We are going to say [to the next administration] ‘Look, we believe this is the place where you want to put your money, but we’re going to have enough money in there for both the electromagnetic rail gun and the powder gun.’ So if the new administration says ‘No really the electromagnetic rail gun is the way I want to go,’ knock yourself out, we’ve set you up for success.”

Still, the next administration has the ability to scrap the third offset strategy. There is no law keeping it in place; it’s simply a way of thinking and investing.

And when it comes to investing, DoD hasn’t done much of it yet with the third offset.

There is a tendency “of calling anything that is high tech or anything that involves an advanced capability as part of the third offset strategy and that’s either to say we are not funding it enough or look the investments aren’t really panning out and just painting with a really broad brush as to what the third offset strategy really is,” Katherine Blakeley, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told Federal News Radio.

But, when you whittle down investments to the few categories the strategy is really about, DoD is only investing about $1 billion of its more than $600 billion budget in the third offset.

The third offset is “going to be relatively small investments over the near term … for cumulatively $12 [billion] to $15 billion of investment over the next five year,” Blakeley said.

That may make it easier for an administration that’s not as enthusiastic about the strategy to give it the old heave-ho.

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