Unraveling the mystery of DoD’s third offset strategy

The Defense budget prioritized research and development and cyber, but that doesn't mean the third offset strategy is getting a lot of money in 2017.

The Defense Department has made a big to-do about its third offset strategy in the past year and a half, but the strategy isn’t getting as much money as many think, which could jeopardize its future one analyst says.

Looking at Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s Feb. 2 roll out of the fiscal 2017 budget, it may seem like third offset strategy priorities top the spending list.

Carter wants $35 billion over the next five years for cyber, the Long Range Strike Bomber is getting funding and undersea vessels are getting a bump.

But, a closer look into what actually makes up the strategy substantially narrows what actual funding the initiative will receive in 2017.

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.

Blakeley said the true third offset strategy comprises specific research areas like man-machine teaming, autonomous learning systems, semi-autonomous weapons systems and assisted human operations.

When the budget request is whittled down to those specific categories, the third offset is only receiving about $1 billion out of DoD’s nearly $600 billion budget.

These “are going to be priority areas of focus for what I think are 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.

Blakeley said the third offset is going even further past what are considered high tech investments right now.

“These are really fairly small, fairly targeted investments that are meant to provide a gestalt for how our military operations are going to work,” she said. “What does it mean if we have machines that can learn really well? … That’s a technological jump beyond the investments in high tech capabilities that the major procurement programs we’ve been talking about. We know what the Virginia-class submarines are going to look like. We have a pretty good idea of the nuclear deterrence mission.”

Bob Work said  something similar in January when the third offset was in its nascency.

“We’ll be looking for promising technologies that we can do in what we call the FYDP, the future years defense program, generally about five years out,” he said. “We’ll identify long-range advances that we can pull up and hopefully field in the ’20s, and then we’ll plant the seeds for R&D, which will give us an advantage for the ’30s.”

The military has already put out requests for quotation and information on things like humanoid robots and tactical decision aides.

But, the real question is how much appetite will the next administration have for the third offset strategy?

The military and DoD have already been at odds in the capability vs. capacity debate. Carter sent a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last month to get Mabus to readjust his spending priorities for the 2017 budget. Mabus had his priorities focused more on building more ships than building capabilities for the future.

“It’s a difference in priority and your view of where the competition is headed in the future,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Capacity helps you more today, it helps you with the kind of challenges and threats that we are facing today, and the real demand on the Navy right now is to be in more places than they can cover.”

The third offset strategy does not have that much money invested in it and the 2017 budget won’t even be carried out by the Obama administration and Carter.

A more capacity focused administration next year could reprogram third offset funds and easily trash the whole strategy.

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