DoD’s third offset takes shape

"I'm telling you right now, 10 years from now if the first person through a breach isn't a fricking robot, shame on us." -- Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work

The early man who discovered that a sharp rock laced to the end of a stick could be deadly, possessed the first technology offset. We’ve been off to the races ever since. It didn’t take long for gunpowder, sometime in the ninth or 10th centuries, to spread throughout the world, proving that technology offsets don’t last long.

In fact, technology-based offsets of any sort, for military or peaceful purposes, don’t last. Human knowledge naturally spreads. Ordinarily, that’s a good thing, helping economic growth throughout history. Those who established the U.S. patent system recognized the value of the spread of knowledge and the ability to act on it. That’s why patents expire.

In more recent times, military offset advantages have taken novel forms. In some cases, the way existing technologies combined created the offset. A World War II example is the P-47 Thunderbolt. It incorporated a really big engine, powerful machine guns and good airplane design. By contrast, the atomic bomb project broke new scientific and technology ground in the same war. That offset didn’t last long thanks to national betrayal of secrets. Plus the Soviet Union, for all its failings, possessed a great deal of engineering and scientific brainpower, as modern day Russia does. So it would likely have developed atomic weapons, anyhow.

If anything, the speed of technology spread is higher than ever. A highly internationalized economy—a good thing on the whole — means technology connected to things like semiconductors and advanced manufacturing doesn’t stay long in the inventing companies or nations.

The current “third offset” strategy the Defense Department is pursuing implies that the edge derived from stealth and precision-guided technology of the last offset drive, back in the 1970s, has dulled. Plus, because of the political climate the size of military forces are low, relative to just before Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The force applied against Saddam Hussein back then, more than half paid for by Saudi Arabia, which was next on Saddam’s list after Kuwait, utterly overwhelmed the Iraqi forces.

So now the U.S. has smaller forces, a polity with low patience for casualties, a lesser technological offset, aging platforms and stronger potential enemies. Not a bad case for a new  offset strategy.

There is no “technology offset” line in the DoD budget for 2016. The money will be scattered among the services’ existing programs, maybe also in DARPA. So contractors will have to find it the old fashioned way, with gumshoes and pouring over Exhibit 53s and other planning documents.

Until earlier this month, the industry was wondering exactly what DoD officials meant by the third offset strategy. Then at the Reagan Defense Forum, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work spelled it out. First, it’s principally about deterring Russia and China, which Work called “great powers” on par with the United States. Some experts think Russia is a brittle, paper tiger with a declining population and an economy dependent on $100/bbl oil. But it has lots of nuclear weapons and an autocratic boss with cojones and a willingness to gamble.

Second, well, here’s how Work put it:

“This is not about a revolution in military affairs. There’s always a strong technological component, but it is strategy-based, technologically oriented, and you want operational and organizational constructs that give you an advantage and an offset against your adversaries who might outnumber you.”

Third offset will have a big data component, insofar as machines gathering current situation data and armed with analytics will give human operations better decisions. It’s also robotics. Here Work departs from DoD bureaucratese and a wonderful sentence breaks through:

“I’m telling you right now, 10 years from now, if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricking robot, shame on us.”

Bloomberg military analyst Rob Levinson spells out one form this may take. Say somewhere in the South China Sea, China could deny a U.S. carrier group from even coming near by deploying a cloud of missiles. The offset could be a responding cloud of smart projectiles to draw off and thereby neutralize the missiles. As Work said, no revolution in warfare or magic death ray.

Machine intelligence, robotics, big data analytics — no wonder DoD is traipsing to Silicon Valley for answers. None of this precludes the traditional defense contractors. They have deep technological capabilities too, and are not staffed by rubes. But they have different business models, different ways of bringing products and technologies to market, shaped as they are by decades of working with the DoD.

For the non-traditional players, whether giants like Google or Amazon or the hundreds of startups throughout the country, expect learning on both sides. The Pentagon elephant may never dance, but it can learn to react faster. A Valley startup, funded differently and with different expectations, can learn patience and the annuities then can accrue from long-term relationships with the Defense or, for that matter, Intelligence community.

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