There has been much mystic surrounding the third offset strategy. A pet project of Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, the strategy aims to undercut advances made by peer competitors to blunt U.S. advantages through innovation and technological development. Work has described the third offset, in simple terms, as hypothesizing "that the advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy — autonomous systems — is going to lead to a new era of human-machine collaboration and combat teaming."

However, the strategy, is really just an "ambitional idea," not born out into official documentation — as the Pentagon does typically with new concepts or plans.

"There is no third offset strategy document that's sitting in a drawer in a desk in my office or in a safe in Deputy Secretary Work's office," said Stephen Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, at a Sept. 15 event hosted at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's really an ambitional idea, it's an attempt to focus and drive the thinking that's going on across the department around the broad nature of the capability needs realized pursuing develop experimentation and ultimately deployment of the advanced capabilities of advanced concepts that allow us to maintain advantage in the future."

Such a construct can make it difficult to measure tangible results, especially when compared to previous so-called offset strategies. "One challenge with the third offset label is that the second offset — the first and second offsets — are recognized in retrospect," Welby said. "We never put labels on the second offset, we were pursuing technologies against problems and today we're pursuing technologies against problems, too."

The second offset dealt with precision munitions and stealth technologies to offset Soviet capabilities. While the capabilities developed during this period were not used directly against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, "they did influence the balance of deterrence during that period and we have used those capabilities to great advantage in every conflict that the United States has been involved in since," Welby said.

Pentagon officials have expressed fear in today's technologically advanced world for the availability and relatively inexpensive commercial solutions that can be accessed by all nations and groups. "I think the biggest challenge for national security in the 21st Century as opposed to the 20th Century is that the things that are most likely to affect the future the most are going to be developed outside of the Defense Department," Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office William Roper said in June, noting that these technologies "are available to anyone given the resources to invest in them."

Contrast this with the climate of the 1970s when the military was driving innovation. "The capabilities of the second offset — the things that enabled precision weapons, for example — were enabled by the convergence of a set of technologies, unique military technologies developed in our labs," Welby said, offering examples such as miniature navigation sensors, satellite positioning and timing systems, radio frequency technology, advanced computing and advanced digital sensors. Now, he added, these capabilities are embedded in everyone's capability set and adversaries are using these tools against the U.S.

The 40 year technological superiority enjoyed by the U.S. — which Welby described as "a historically unheard of period" — has effectively eroded.

"Over that 40-year period, potential competitors have studied United States' advanced capabilities and particularly over the last decade, they've begun to make investments — significant investments — in modernized tools that really are intended to blunt those particular advantages and advances that United States has been able to bring to bear," he said.

Welby also hit on how nations, organizations and private industry have leveled the playing field, citing global technological diffusion of advanced capabilities, globalization of technology supply chains, the globalization of high-quality technical talent and higher gross domestic products that allow nations to be able to make significant investments in these technologies.

"The challenge that this mix of capabilities brings is why the department's now talking about notions of a third offset strategy," he said. "We need to make sure that U.S. forces continue to maintain a decisive technological overmatch. We're motivated to explore new opportunities to sidestep these kind of emerging challenges and to ensure that we can ensure and protect U.S. advantage in the future."

Work has described what the end goal of the third offset seeks to achieve through the lens of the interwar period between the first and second world wars. All nations had access to the same technologies such as radios, airplanes and tanks, "but only the Germans put everything together into an operational concept called blitzkrieg," he said. "Now we were all fast followers. As soon as we saw it, we all said: 'God, why didn't we think of that?' By 1944 we were out blitzkrieging the Germans."

With such a loose framework, success can sometimes be elusive. Welby said the department is using war gaming, simulation and analysis to help make tough choices and determine what technologies, solutions and concepts to employ as part of the third offset.

"We're increasing our focus on technical analysis and trying to put some rigor behind analysis of potential capabilities in a modeled adversarial environment. We really want to kind of get to a greater level of rigor than: Hey, this is the latest shiny thing that everyone wants to look at," he said, explaining the metrics being used by the Department of Defense to determine success. "Increasingly, we are looking very hard at numbers and trying to make difficult choices among mixes of capabilities. We're not going to talk about those metrics in public, of course."

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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