Parity Avoidance: A Proactive Analysis of the Obsolescence of the Third Offset Strategy

– Executive Summary –

This thesis answers the question: How can the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) determine if the Third Offset Strategy is obsolete? Within the DoD, offset strategies are policies of competition that mandate efforts to maintain technological superiority to generate or sustain a strategic advantage over near-peer competitor adversaries of the state. The DoD only implements a new offset strategy after competitive adversaries attain parity with U.S. capabilities, causing the DoD to lose its strategic advantage. While the United States is transitioning between offset strategies, the country is potentially vulnerable to adversary actions and the DoD holds no strategic advantage.
As their names suggest, the First Offset Strategy and the Second Offset Strategy preceded the current strategy, the Third Offset Strategy. The First Offset was implemented to counter the Soviet Union’s sizeable advantages with nuclear weapons superiority in the early 1950s. In response, the Soviet Union reinvigorated its own nuclear weapons program, ultimately surpassing U.S. nuclear capabilities. To offset this, and to regain the strategic advantage, the DoD implemented the Second Offset in the 1970s, which developed superior technology in standoff weapons, precise targeting weaponry, and stealth capabilities to overcome and deter Communist nuclear superiority. While the United States was decisively engaged in its global war on terrorism, Russia and China invested heavily in modernizing their military capabilities to the point of parity with U.S. capabilities. In response, the DoD published the Third Offset Strategy in 2014. This Third Offset directed the development and leveraging of emergent, capabilities-based technologies to defend against the modernized, near-peer competitor nations of Russia and China.
The objective of this thesis is to proactively assess the conditions that, if met, will degrade the deterrent value of Third Offset. In the high-stakes game of national security and homeland defense, there is scarce time for an operational pause to reevaluate and reorient strategies. It is critical to proactively plan for when the Third Offset will lose relevancy and no longer afford the United States a decisive advantage over its competitors. Due to their reactive design, stakeholders have historically realized offset strategies are obsolete only after the United States has lost its strategic advantage, which places the country at an unnecessary risk from near-peer competitors. By understanding what could render the Third Offset obsolete, what already has degraded it, and how to control the flow of disruptive innovations into the homeland defense realm, the DoD is better postured to maintain the strategic advantage by either weighting the Third Offset to prolong the strategy or by determining when to replace it in advance of near-peer parity and before sacrificing its international strategic advantage.
This thesis holds that, in its current form, the Third Offset Strategy is obsolete and incapable of providing a meaningful strategic advantage for the United States with reinforcement. The strategy’s overreliance on technology-based solutions increases the country’s vulnerability to espionage (particularly cyber espionage), enhances its susceptibility to intellectual property theft, and places false faith in technologies that have yet to be discovered. Beyond these technological concerns, the strategy is constrained by resource funding and authorization limitations. These include the persistent fiscal constraints of the current operating environment, the competing homeland defense priorities of the DoD, the unclear objectives guiding the Third Offset, and the role that national willingness to accept policies plays in the development and employment of the Third Offset. Countering parity with near-peer competitors is an ongoing, ever-adaptive process. State adversaries have not been stagnant; they have been continually adapting and fluctuating to attain their own strategic advantages. This thesis presents evidence of Chinese and Russian activities to counter the U.S. advantages afforded by the Third Offset, as well as the inadvertently adverse effect the strategy has had on national alliances.
The forecasted options for the DoD are to reinforce the Third Offset, to make it more enduring, or to replace it altogether before competitors achieve parity and challenge the United States’ strategic advantage. To accomplish these objectives, this thesis recommends specific actions the DoD should execute. To counter threats of intellectual property theft and cyberespionage, the DoD should weaponize the creative destruction process. To counter the Third Offset’s reliance on nonexistent technologies, the DoD should not neglect its conventional warfare technologies and should also focus its resources and efforts on the development of technologies toward established strategic objectives. To counter the cyber threat, the DoD should leverage the deep-learning capacity of Third Offset technologies toward attribution of cyber attacks while hardening the existing network and building robust deterrence through first-strike capabilities. To counter the persistent fiscal constraints, the DoD should exercise patience and recognize that technology failure is a critical process of innovation. To establish clear strategic objectives for the Third Offset, the strategy should be specified in the National Defense Strategy as a path to secure the national interests of the National Security Strategy. To ensure conformance with the nation’s willingness to employ the strategy, the DoD should ensure the Third Offset remains within the standards and interpretations of just war. To narrow the technology gap with allies, the DoD should increase the sharing of technological advances with trusted allies to preserve (and improve) existing international relations, enhance the allied nations’ roles in securing U.S. national interests as well as their own, and avoid building resentment of U.S. superiority from friend and foe alike.

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