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Introducing the Pentagon's New 'Third Offset Strategy': Welcoming Your New Robot Overlords

The US Department of Defense is readying a plan to anticipate the next great strategic realignment in military technology — and herald the supposed coming age of robotic warfare.

by Ryan Faith
Nov 17 2014, 11:20pm

Photo by DoD

On Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled a major component of what is supposed to become the cornerstone of US military planning for decades to come — and it has a terrible name that only a wonk could love: the "Third Offset Strategy."

A wholly appropriate and much catchier title would have been, "Welcoming Our New Robot Overlords."

The pointy heads who ponder such things believe there have been two radical paradigm shifts in military technology since the start of World War II. The first was the development of nuclear weapons, which really was a pretty big deal. Considering they were only used in conflict twice and not only changed planning for hypothetical future conflicts, but also had an indelible impact on wars not fought (i.e. deterrence), calling them revolutionary seems fair.

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The second big change concerns precision munitions. Although it might not seem like a big deal, the late Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov correctly noted in 1984 that improvements in accuracy "make it possible to sharply increase (by at least an order of magnitude) the destructive potential of conventional weapons, bringing them closer, so to speak, to weapons of mass destruction in terms of effectiveness."

'It's not too far-fetched to conjure up images of robot drones lying in wait across miles and miles of battlefield, poised in a kind of gigantic mechanical ambush for the first machine or person to make a move.'

To be clear, trying to flatten a city in one fell swoop is still a nuclear explosion kind of thing. What Ogarkov was getting at had more to do with the effectiveness of WMD as a means of taking out a military target, without the immense political and radioactive fallout from using nuclear weapons.

It's also not simply precision munitions, but a whole host of technologies including stealth, GPS, and sensors that are very powerful when used in combination. The Soviets developed the term "reconnaissance-strike complex" (which, if anything, is more unwieldy in the original Russian). What it basically means is that stealth bombers, carrying advanced precision munitions, linked into a whole network of sensors and so on, can deliver a surprise strike against headquarters and communications targets that is practically as effective as a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear weapons were notable because the destruction they threatened allowed the United States tooffsetthe numerical superiority of Soviet forces at the end of World War II. Precision munitions and the reconnaissance-strike complex, which came into being shortly after the Vietnam War, were seen as a way tooffsetthe post-war drawdown of US forces.

So now we have arrived at the new Pentagon brainstorm called the Third Offset Strategy, which is either a way to offset planned military cuts associated with the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown and the expected decline in US defense spending going forward, or a strategic hedge against China. Your call.

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In any event, the theory goes that the US was able to kick everyone's ass six ways to Sunday for decades because its military got to be really awesome at this whole reconnaissance-strike thing. But time moves on — America's edge is eroding, other folks (particularly the Chinese) are getting good at this, and technology is rapidly changing. And because the military expects to contract a bit, the Department of Defense is going to just have to get smarter about all of this.

The Pentagon has been thinking about the technologies it will need to get awesome at if it wants to stay ahead of the game. This past January, shortly before he became the Pentagon's newest deputy secretary of defense (or DepSecDef, for those in the know), Bob Work was the CEO at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank, where co-authored a report entitled 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age.

The report sketches a pretty decent blueprint for what's been on the to-do list for the new deputy secretary. The report recaps the two big historical military-technical revolutions and takes a solid crack at anticipating the next round of technologies that are going to be a big deal.

Yes, it focuses on robots — which, given the title, is a kind of a no-brainer — and by robots, we're talking about what drones may end up doing in future. The report also lists a series of Very Important Technologies: cyber warfare; protected communications; advanced computing and big data; autonomy; artificial intelligence; commercial robotics; miniaturization; additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing); small, high-density power generation; electric weapons (e.g. railguns and lasers); and human performance modification, involving everything from robot exoskeletons to biomedical enhancement.

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It's tempting to sigh with resignation at this list of technologies that are supposed to signpost the supposed coming age of robotic warfare. They range from the interesting and inessential at one end to the uninteresting and pragmatic at the other. Some "key" technologies are more the stuff of TED Talk buzz (3D printing and artificial intelligence, to name two). A few seem kind of obvious, like commercial robotics and miniaturization. Others are interesting and might be practical (railguns and biomedical enhancement), but feel more like add-ins than integral parts of a complete vision of national security.

The CNAS report (and presumably the thinking behind the Third Offset Strategy) mentions that insurgencies have increasing access to cheap precision munitions, with the two meeting in the high-tech/low-tech mix known as hybrid warfare. Even so, the report seems very much geared towards high-intensity, state-on-state conflicts — but I have a very strong suspicion that an unspoken corollary to the Third Offset Strategy will be a heavy reliance on US Special Forces to counter insurgencies.

Whatever nits there are to pick in the report itself, it touches on something important. If one tries to imagine warfare a half-century or more from now, it's not too far-fetched to conjure up images of robot drones lying in wait across miles and miles of battlefield, poised in a kind of gigantic mechanical ambush for the first machine or person to make a move.

On the other hand, this isn't the first big shift in military thinking that's been bandied about. Just ahead of 9/11, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was pushing his own ideas for transforming the armed forces and responding to the prevailing conventional wisdom about the state of military affairs. One element of that post-millennial era of transformation was a huge push to make the military strategically mobile, able to deploy major ground combat forces anywhere around the globe in just days. This was, of course, overtaken by the events of 9/11 and what followed.

Which brings us to the tricky part. In Hagel's speech last Saturday, he spoke of establishing a new Defense Innovation Initiative to get the ball rolling on developing a Third Offset Strategy and putting some real meat on the proposal. But SecDef Hagel and DepSecDef Work have, basically, two years left before the next administration comes in. And when that new president appoints a new secretary of defense, they'll want to put their own fingerprints all over everything. There's no way to tell if any new long-term approach that's just unfolding now can get rooted deeply enough in two years to survive that handover.

On the other hand, if this approach is as correct and as useful as its proponents say it is, and it's really getting defense planning on the right track, then perhaps it will get the Pentagon thinking intelligently about the future it faces. But that would make it common sense, and how long would that stick?

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS