Offset From What?

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Offset From What?
By: Andrew Metrick
@csis_isp

Over the past several months, there has been much press surrounding Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work’s interest in creating a third offset strategy. The first two offset strategies, Eisenhower’s New Look (an “offset strategy” only in retrospect) and the precision strike regime (which coined the term), granted the United States real strategic advantage. The fruits of the latter are still the basis of conventional U.S. military superiority today.

The rise of anti-access/area-denial technologies and an increasingly complex security environment have led leaders like Secretary Work to consider the need for a third offset strategy to establish U.S. strategic dominance for the coming decades. This is a sound and laudable goal. However, many suggestions of a potential third offset strategy fail to adequately answer the question: offset from what? These ideas lack solid analytic backing regarding the nature of future threats, their likelihood, and prioritization.

There is often an implied and occasionally stated premise that the third offset strategy is really focused on China. It is almost as if we have arrived at the China offset strategy by unconscious agreement. Thus, while most analysts acknowledge the wide spectrum of challenges in the future security environment and the corresponding need for a “high/low mix” of capabilities, those who write about offset strategies often focus solely on the “high” end when describing the next generation weapon systems that should be prioritized. These systems often have only limited utility against challenging “low” end threats, such as an insurgent hiding in a congested urban zone. For example, some have suggested prioritizing unmanned systems in the next offset strategy. While such systems will have tremendous utility, they are intrinsically unable to cope with a rapidly changing and highly entangled human domain, despite increases in autonomy.

The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds concludes that the number of interstate wars will continue to decline, those that persist will likely become more irregular, and nonstate actors may acquire more advanced conventional capabilities. The reintroduction of offset terminology appears to have occurred absent a broader conversation about these and other trends in the future security environment. Current suggestions for a third offset are thus woefully incomplete until they are clearly able to provide comprehensive answers to the vital question: offset from what?

Andrew Metrick is a research assistant with the International Security Program at CSIS. Other posts by .

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