For several years, Pentagon leaders have raised alarm over the erosion of America’s military lead on many fronts. As the US fought fairly low-tech counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, competitors like China, Russia, and Iran studied the capabilities that made the US dominant in the 1991 Gulf War and later in the Balkans, looking for ways to blunt American military advantages and build matching capabilities.
Those advanced adversary systems are now being fielded.
Frank Kendall, Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief, told a think-tank audience in April that the rapid technological advance of competitors is “what I lose sleep over.”
The Pentagon’s response has been the “Third Offset.” Coined by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work in 2014, this term refers to a broad effort to leap ahead of competitors who are now mastering the very skills and technologies that have given the US its military edge for more than 40 years. Those include stealth, advanced sensors, electronic warfare, space, and cyber.
Work’s term referenced two previous offsets. The first was in the 1950s, when America relied on a large arsenal of nuclear weapons to asymmetrically deter the Soviet Union’s superior conventional power. The second, since the 1970s, was characterized by the US using high-tech conventional systems to counter being outnumbered.
Two years after Work’s coinage, however, Third Offset is misunderstood. It’s not a crash program to rapidly usher in a specific new slate of Buck Rogers weaponry. Rather, it’s an intense focus on certain technologies—as well as organizational models and new tactics—offering the greatest opportunities to extend US dominance in many areas. The keys will be speed of fielding and restoring “asymmetry” with competitors.
“There’s not going to be a Third Offset Czar,” said Stephen P. Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Welby, the Pentagon’s chief technology officer, said Third Offset is a simple recognition that “overmatch is temporal,” and all military advances eventually are countered.
“Over time, others catch up,” he observed.
Third Offset is “the collective thinking of the [Defense] Department,” he continued. “It’s really [about] how do we organize ourselves to think differently about the future?”
What is in hindsight now called the Second Offset was really a directed campaign of “robust experimentation … in terms of technology development, the organization within the services, and across the joint realm,” Welby explained. “And we expect the same thing to occur here.”
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told Congress in February that the Pentagon is requesting $3.6 billion for Third Offset-related efforts in Fiscal 2017. These efforts are slated to get $18 billion over the Future Years Defense Program. The numbers are large, but are a relatively small fraction of the $951 billion over the FYDP “to help research, develop, test, evaluate, and procure the right technology and capabilities our military will need to deter and, if necessary, fight and win full-spectrum conflicts in the future,” Carter said in budget testimony before the House Appropriations Committee.
Some of the Third Offset investment areas are identified in the budget and “some are not visible in the budget, deliberately,” Welby observed. The Pentagon doesn’t want to tip its hand and show its most high-value cards.
The Pentagon has some clear models for how to field effective programs faster. Some capabilities, such as those resident in the E-8 JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft, RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance jet, and the MQ-1 Predator medium-altitude scout, began life as some of the most visible Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations, or ACTDs.
Though they provided extraordinary new capabilities in record time, the speed of their fielding created headaches in that a logistical train to support them had to be developed after the fact. So high were Global Hawk costs at one point that the Air Force threatened to shut down the program.
“?‘Build it and they will come’ is not a strategy,” Welby said. “But I think we often beat ourselves up too much for some of the ACTD programs, which did get fielded and did have enormous impacts on the war—impacts so significant that we couldn’t do without them.”
Congress has not been kind to the Pentagon about these ACTDs, but fielding a capability which is scarcely a step removed from the laboratory has inherent cost and risk, Welby said. The best thing to do is, “as soon as we recognize” that an ACTD is going to be folded into the force as a permanent feature, “we need to be investing in normalizing those programs.”
Moreover, “today we have new models of how we do that.” One is the move toward “leveraging commercial technology to a greater extent and counting on commercial supply chains as a way to avoid having to create your own military-unique capacity behind it.”
He cited the Apple iPhone as an example of a system that seamlessly works with older and newer versions of itself, is adaptable to use in many ways—and many new ways, as time goes on—and yet is low-cost enough to be replaced without breaking the bank. That commercial model is almost the opposite of a military-unique system, “where we field an entire service-worth of gear homogeneously across the service,” every user getting the same thing and the same training.
“There’s no life cycle support plan for the iPhone in my pocket,” Welby said. By using commercial gear, reducing military-unique capabilities may “in some cases” allow use of a “planned obsolescence” model, “where, if we get to the right price points and performance, maybe I don’t need to build that entire maintenance chain behind it.”
Welby wants to apply that thinking to weapons, looking to the day when “wooden rounds” are the norm—those that “don’t need a lot of care and feeding until the day they’re used in anger.”
In the science and technology arena, 17 specific areas—called Communities of Interest—are being targeted for rapid experimentation, prototyping, and fielding of new systems. They range from advanced electronics, cyber, electronic warfare, and air platforms to propulsion, sensors, space, weapons, and biomedical and materials sciences. They are viewed as “crosscutting” in that they have applications for all the services.
“We’re after finding ways to disrupt ourselves before somebody else does,” Welby said.
Through a multiservice, multiagency forum called Reliance 21, Welby brings defense technologists together so that he and they can understand their investment portfolios and “in some cases” challenge them to make sure the S&T investments are coordinated and deconflicted.
The name is to convey that the services do, in fact, rely on each other. The meetings allow the participants to voice opinions about areas they think aren’t getting enough attention, or where organizational stovepipes are thwarting progress, Welby said. His role, and that of the other top leadership, is to “help them focus.”
The forum keeps the investment portfolio responsive. Some of the 17 communities of interest will change this year—Welby declined to say what might be added or subtracted—because conditions change.
“We’ve had very large investments in counter-IED [improvised explosive devices],” he said, but they were driven by the threat in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Should that grow? Should that go flat? Taper? … Those are the kinds of conversations we need to have.”
Welby said the S&T enterprise is “lucky” that in a time of acute austerity, its budget is not losing ground.
“?‘Flat’ is the new ‘up’ in the current budget environment, I guess,” he asserted. Under such conditions, it’s critical that portfolios be managed carefully and priority assigned where it will produce the most payback.
Autonomy is one area “we’re paying a lot more attention to,” he acknowledged. It’s a key area of interest for the Air Force. Service chief scientist Greg L. Zacharias told AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in May that autonomy applies across a huge range of applications, from “big data” to aircraft that fly themselves to the displays airmen use to gauge a situation and choose a course of action. He said industry has been asked for concepts to conduct a demonstration of what USAF is calling the “loyal wingman” concept, in which an unmanned, autonomous aircraft flies cooperatively with a manned combat aircraft. A demonstration is eyed for the 2020-21 time frame.
So important is autonomy to USAF that Zacharias’ predecessor, Mica R. Endsley, focused an entire Air Force yearly technology study on it. Zacharias expects to release “Autonomous Horizons II” before the fall, and a third volume could be coming next year.
While some services naturally take the lead in certain areas—the Navy heads undersea technology research, for example, and USAF is leading in hypersonics—all the services are involved in focus S&T areas to some degree.
Autonomy “is really an adjective, more than a technology,” Welby said. Where it applies to sea-based applications, the Navy will lead, while the Air Force “has unique expertise in the area of air platforms, obviously, and is working a lot of very novel programs in that space.”
The Army and Marine Corps have “a core competency in ground vehicles. But the lines blur between” the services, he said. Autonomy will have a big impact on logistics, planning systems, and cyber, which “touches every service.”
Similarly, hypersonics and directed energy get a lot of notice and are frequently cited by Pentagon leaders as examples of leap-ahead capabilities.
“There’s a significant increase in Air Force and DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] investments in hypersonics,” Welby noted, “given the importance of that area.”
Electronic warfare is a discipline all the services must master in their domains—and across them, Welby said. Still, all the services have to keep current on each others’ activities because a breakthrough in one domain “might apply in others” and could be leveraged across the services.
Former Air Force acquisition chief William A. LaPlante frequently railed against what he called “the valley of death,” the hard-to-leap chasm between a promising experiment or prototype and a funded program to get something in the field.
Welby said the Pentagon leadership is sensitive to this problem and is doing all it can to ensure laboratory successes have a chance to compete for deployment.
The Second Offset, Welby observed, relied heavily on trying new ideas.
The 1980s was “a time when there was an enormous amount of materiel experimentation, a lot of ferment,” such as the origins of remotely piloted aircraft and operational stealth, he said. “They weren’t technology programs that were designed to mature the technologies themselves,” but rather “opportunities to understand how we might fight” with new gear. That, in turn, led to requirements being drawn up and programs being launched. He said this is how to “jump that gap, so that it’s no longer just a gleam in the technologist’s eye but … a demand in an operator’s sight.”
The experimentation effort—getting heavy emphasis under the Third Offset concept—will also build experience by mixing new technologies with existing systems because “we’re not going to turn everything over overnight,” Welby pointed out. The Air Force’s strategic- agility push makes a priority of rapidly integrating new tech rather than waiting for the next revolutionary development.
Carter, in his budget testimony, said the “arsenal plane” concept will marry new long-range standoff munitions having a variety of effects with existing aircraft, creating a new challenge for adversaries by mixing old and new.
Many of those dollars that Carter identified as going to Third Offset activities in FY ’17 “all drive to operational experimentation,” Welby said. Then, “those system concepts will have to compete with the current” systems, “but we’ll be informed at that point what those capabilities really offer.” It’s crucial that the Defense Department become “a more informed buyer” through experimentation, prototyping, and demonstration.
Need for Speed
Speed will be crucial in this process. In its recent Air Dominance 2030 study, the Air Force said the near-term demands of the battlefield indicate that a 20-year program to develop a successor for the F-22 will be “late to need,” and incremental improvements will be necessary to maintain the technology edge in air combat.
“I’ve said on the Hill that I don’t expect to see another 20-year development program,” Welby noted, because that “gives the adversary 20 years to come up with countermeasures before we deploy our capability. We’re going to have to think about how we put technology to programs much faster.”
He said the Pentagon has not gotten the credit it deserves for having straightened out acquisition and achieving better timelines and better cost performance.
“People have not been paying enough attention to what’s been going on” in acquisition, he asserted. “Quite frankly, we’re doing amazing things in terms of large program acquisition at this point. It’s a story that doesn’t get told.” Programs are hitting their marks in cost and schedule to a degree “that we haven’t seen in decades, in terms of their success.” The achievements have been due largely to the Better Buying Power initiatives pushed by Carter when he had Kendall’s job, and Kendall’s promotion and refinement of those principles ever since.
Better Buying Power 3.0 “is almost entirely focused” on making the acquisition system more innovative while cutting “red tape and bureaucracy,” Welby said, with a focus on speed from lab to fleet. There’s been a focus on tech insertion, modularity, and modified commercial items access, “focused on getting capability faster to the user.”
A lot of experimentation is happening with technology and contracting approaches that will “shorten the process associated with getting to contracts.” Contracts are being written to align incentives with speed, Welby said.
The Air Force’s B-21 bomber development contract, awarded last fall, puts heavy emphasis on speed, providing big rewards to Northrop Grumman if it can make its timetable. The reward dwindles and possibly “goes to zero” if the marks are hit late, Air Force assistant acquisition chief Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. said.
In the Air Dominance 2030 study, the Air Force discussed using large numbers of inexpensive, reusable RPAs to perform missions such as electronic warfare, strike, and decoy. They would be built in enough numbers that it wouldn’t matter too much if some were lost, and likewise would be numerous enough that an adversary might not want to expend the effort or cost to destroy them.
The concept is “something we should explore,” Welby said, “and there’s interesting experiments going on in that space.” It’s a “cost trade” with an adversary.
“Today, with emerging autonomy technologies and low-cost networking, we are seeing advances where a collection of [inexpensive] systems may be greater than the sum of its parts.” A number of cheap, small systems “that work together may be more capable than an expensive platform.” Distributed over a wide area, the pieces become harder to target.
“I can be more resilient and recover, reorganize, and fight my way through loss of even some portion of that capability,” Welby explained.
Work, Kendall, and others have suggested that it may be impossible to maintain a 40-year lead in some areas of military technology—that the rate at which innovation is happening around the world means keeping a decisive edge will be a hard, if not an impossible, goal. A Defense Science Board study last year suggested that adversaries may already have a lead, for example, in electronic warfare. Welby, however, is optimistic.
“I don’t know if we’re going to have 40-year advantages,” he said, but “I’m sure there’ll be decadal advantages available.” The “natural advantages” of the US are that “we are the best-trained, best-exercised force in the world, and that is ultimately an advantage that no amount of technology allows you to overcome.” The trick will be to “out-innovate our adversaries” and get inside their “OODA loops,” the time it takes to observe, orient, decide, and act. Welby also said it won’t be sufficient to have “silver bullet” capabilities; they must be distributed throughout the force in the hands of “well-trained, creative operators.”
He recognized that the catch-up timeline is collapsing. Time after the first US use of precision guided weapons was relatively long, but the time it took adversaries to see the advantages of the US establishing “real-time persistent situational awareness” with RPAs “has been much shorter.”
Still, “we’ve been at this point before. We’ve been at places where our … asymmetric advantage became less asymmetrical, … and we have found ways to break that symmetry in the past.” Welby said he is “excited” that the Defense Department is “organizing to think about that well ahead of the day of crisis.”