Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work was a powerful advocate of what he called the “third offset” strategy. The first was the advent of nuclear weapons that offset Soviet power; the second, the revolution in precision weapons that offset numerical U.S. military inferiority; and the third involves protecting vital command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance networks against enemy attack that could strip the United States of its military advantages. Taking the third offset strategy to its logical conclusion, what is needed is a third revolution in military affairs principally—but not entirely—driven by potentially revolutionary technology.
Nuclear and thermonuclear weapons constituted the first modern revolution in military affairs. For the first time in history, war could be existential with no winners—just losers in the aftermath of a conflict that obliterates each society. The second revolution was precision strike and the supporting sensor, detection, and surveillance systems that obviated wars where nearly every bullet, bomb, missile, stone, spear, and arrow missed its target. With precision weapons, first- or second-round lethality was practically assured, as the 1991 Iraq war demonstrated.
Today, the technological potential could be even greater than that of the first two revolutions. Cyber, quantum computing, AI, machine and deep learning, hypersonics, 3D printing, DNA and genome research, electric weapons, and many other innovations and discoveries will bring a new dimension to warfare and redefine strategies of deterrence and defense. The most recent is hypersonic weapons traveling and maneuvering at ten or more times the speed of sound (about 6,000 miles per hour at altitude), with flight times measured in minutes or even seconds. At his hearing for confirmation as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday was confronted with a hypothetical scenario by Senator Angus King (I – Maine). “Suppose,” King said, “that you are now commanding USS Ford in the Norwegian Sea and Russia launches a nuclear-armed Zirkon hypersonic missile that will hit you in a matter of minutes. How, admiral, will you defend yourself when the plasma bubble generated by the missile’s speed makes radar detection impossible?”
Indeed, until detection and countermeasure systems are fielded, the advantage is decidedly in the favor of hypersonic missiles—if they can be made to work as advertised. They may not. And nothing is invulnerable to a nuclear attack unless it is deeply buried and protected. In that case, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) will also be capable of destroying or disabling most chip-operated weapon and sensor systems, including those in space—a vulnerability the Soviet Union was prepared to exploit during the Cold War, if conflict ensued, by detonating large exoatmospheric bursts of many kilotons or even megatons.
Achieving operational and tactical surprise in battle with “new” technologies is as old as warfare itself. At Agincourt in 1415, Henry V’s English archers armed with the long bow (along with a sodden battlefield) destroyed a much larger French army. Superior logistics helped the Germans overwhelm the French in 1870, as did the Blitzkrieg again in 1940. Two nuclear bombs ended World War II in the Pacific and Hitler’s “V” weapons terrorized Britain almost until V-E Day. But never have so many potentially revolutionary technologies been present at once.
At the end of World War II, jet and rocket propulsion and nuclear power, along with advances in radar and sonar, changed the shape of militaries. Yet the scope of technologies today could be even more sweeping. One consequence, as retired Marine General John Allen observed, is “hyperwar” fought at the speed of light in cyber space. In this scenario, deadly “zeroes and ones” would be electronically launched to incapacitate, deny, or destroy services across the electromagnetic spectrum. This vulnerability was underscored in the March 2019 Cybersecurity Readiness Review done for the Secretary of the Navy that called Chinese cyber “an existential threat” to naval forces. Add the ability to use 3D printers to quickly produce low-cost weapons, such as autonomous drones and missiles that could integrate hypersonics, and this is a real revolution.
The key challenge for the U.S. defense complex is employing these technologies at an affordable cost. Whether the 2018 National Defense Strategy offers the most appropriate framework for this integration by stressing global competition with peer or near-peer adversaries to deter or defeat them is a fair question. In many ways, that reasoning may not sufficiently entail the thinking necessary for prevailing in 21st-century information warfare and coping with the transformation from a 20th-century industrial age mentality. Thus, a different model may be needed as a first step in this process.
A Different Approach
A brains-based approach to strategic thinking may be relevant. This approach has three elements. First, it requires far greater knowledge of all components involved in strategy from full “situational awareness,” including all aspects of the operating environment, to analysis of possible adversaries and their courses of action. A lack of knowledge and understanding was one reason why the United States has been unsuccessful in using force, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, to obtain strategic and political objectives. Second, strategy must focus on ensuring cooperation from allies and convincing, cajoling, or coercing adversaries to halt detrimental actions and act in U.S. interests. Third, such an approach must recognize that the 21st century is not the latter half of the 20th. The diffusion of power and globalization have leveled the battlefield to where even nonstate actors, through cyber and other asymmetric warfare technologies, can make dramatic geopolitical impact, such as on 9/11.
With a brains-based approach to contain, defend, and engage—diplomatically, politically, and militarily—the key is determining how technology and sound thinking can be applied to each end. For example, the cost-exchange ratio must be greatly shifted in the United States’ favor. A relatively cheap missile or a swarm of drones conceivably could put a $15 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier out of action, as Senator King hypothesized. The United States must reverse the cost-exchange ratio so that the other side is at greater risk. As the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed in his planning guidance and the Navy argues for in distributed maritime operations guidance, moving to a force of more, lower-cost platforms and systems that rely on stealth, deception, cover, disinformation, misinformation, and confusion is essential.
One solution is to deploy far more “decoys” and even semisubmersibles that reduce exposed freeboard. Using a “clean sheet,” as Admiral Gilday suggested in his testimony, to brainstorm how to mix the demands of “contain, defend, and engage” with this panoply of technologies, new force designs, and technological options can transpire while matrices are developed for alternative structures. During the Cold War, the Navy attempted this with the Alternative Battle Group Study. This effort identified force-structure options that ranged from one super carrier with several hundred aircraft, to units with one or two vertical/short take-off and landing aircraft and almost everything in between. Each option was then wargamed to compare effectiveness under many wartime scenarios. A similar methodology could be use here.
What is needed most of all, however, is cultural recognition that given the revolutionary potential of technology, no assumption can go unchallenged. The United States must be open to examining many options, some of which even a few years ago might have been considered too radical or heretical, such as deemphasizing the centrality of big-deck carriers for power projection or forcible entry. With the right approach, this should be a vigorous and exciting challenge for naval forces to meet. After all, at a future Agincourt, the United States must be on the right side of the long bow.