The Pentagon’s new technology “offset” strategy could be the key to achieving its objectives in an era of constrained budgets, but can the military maintain its tech edge in the 21st century?
Concerns over sequestration are back in full force at the Pentagon as the military services develop their FY 2016 budgets. Last year’s last minute Bipartisan Budget Act provided some temporary relief for FY 2014 and FY 2015, but the Budget Control Act’s sequestration provisions are slated to come roaring back in FY 2016. This has raised considerable concern over the military’s sustained ability to achieve its three primary national security objectives: protect the homeland, build security globally, and project power and win decisively.
Notably, the National Defense Panel’s recently released, congressionally mandated review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review concludes that DoD’s projected force structure “is inadequate given the future strategic and operational environment.” The smaller force it projects would, the panel argues, place U.S. forces at “high risk to accomplish the nation’s defense strategy.” The NDP report recommends additional funding and increasing the planned force structure for each of the services.
But increasing funding and manpower are unrealistic options given the budget realities DoD faces. Outlining his recommendations for reforming the defense enterprise back in February, Secretary Hagel accepted decreased defense funding as a new reality to which DoD must adapt. More so than before, the Pentagon must cope with constrained resources in achieving its objectives. This requires prioritizing strategic interests, making trade offs, and finding innovative solutions. In particular, the Secretary stated that DoD has opted for “further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service… in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority.”
Prioritizing technological superiority over larger force structures is far from a new organizing principle for the U.S. military. In the 1950s, the military invested in advanced nuclear capabilities to “offset” the Soviet Union’s conventional superiority. In the 1970s, after the Soviets developed their own massive nuclear arsenal, the military adopted a second offset strategy designed to leverage information technology. This strategy succeeded because the Soviet Union simply could not compete. But a new offset strategy for the 21st century, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Work recently proposed, will not be so straightforward.
At a recent AFCEA event, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Shaffer emphasized that dispersion of and increased access to advanced military technologies by other countries and actors, combined with a greatly reduced IT life cycle from invention to fielding, means the military will increasingly struggle to maintain a competitive edge. The military is simply no longer capable of driving broad technological innovation as it was during much of the Cold War; that role has largely shifted to the private sector.
So what, then, might a successful 21st century offset strategy entail? Investments in research and development are certainly important, but a recent report from the Center for a New American Security concludes that a new defense acquisition paradigm that effectively appropriates technological innovation from a wider range of organizations is even more essential. The report, entitled “Creative Disruption: Technology, Strategy and the Future of the Global Defense Industry,” argues that DoD must look beyond its traditional defense industrial base to organizations at the forefront of technology trends, regardless of whether they are large or small, defense specialists or commercial, domestic or international. This approach is not without its downsides, including accepting greater security risks in working with a broader range of organizations, but, as the report contends, DoD’s current, decades-old acquisition model cannot support the 21st century offset strategy DoD leadership seeks.
Having accepted the realities of smaller budgets and greater competition for technological superiority, DoD must find new and creative ways to maintain its competitive edge. Evolving its acquisition structure to allow for agile appropriation of leading global private sector innovations may offer the most promising way forward.
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