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The fate of the third offset under President Trump

Outgoing director of national intelligence James Clapper said last year that in half a century in the intelligence business, he "cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today."

Furthermore, Outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in March: "Today's security environment is dramatically different from the last 25 years, requiring new ways of investing and operating," adding that the so-called four plus one — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and violent extremism — are driving planning and budgeting.

With these threats and challenges in mind, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work embarked on the third offset strategy to upend the gains made by competitors in recent years.

"Offset strategies always happen when our potential competitors reach parity with us in certain areas," he said in October. "And our potential competitors have reached parity with us in what we would determine battle networks."

Work, who is staying on for a short time through the next administration, said the offset strategy is really about increasing and strengthening conventional deterrence. So how will the third offset strategy fare under Donald Trump's presidency?

"There is always a risk with a new administration — what we expect, and we don’t know this for certain yet, but we expect a new secretary and deputy secretary of defense. Those two gentlemen [Carter and Work] have been at the forefront of the third offset … they’ve been personally invested," Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director for defense intelligence (war fighter support), told C4ISRNET in December. "In any organization, you need that level of attention at the top to get something really moving in the Department of Defense."

Ben FitzGerald, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, told C4ISRNET that innovation in the way of third offset initiatives has required personal engagement, and Carter has spent a lot of political capital to express the importance of personnel for further implementation. FitzGerald also noted that it’s still unclear what the new administration will do in this space, but he believes there will be continued investment in artificial intelligence, autonomy and the like.

Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Work has been hustling around the D.C. area trying to garner continued support for the third offset, which is his brain child more so than Carter’s. He has put in significant face time on Capitol Hill, Eaglen noted, which is important because support from lawmakers will be critical to ensuring the strategy continues.

Further complicating matters for the third offset initiative, the new administration and DoD programs writ large fall under continuing resolutions, meant as short-term fixes to keep the government funded. The current resolution, passed in December, funds the government until the end of April at previous amounts. Continuing resolutions do not provide for strategic planning and new programs, which hinders procurement.

As senior officials begin to leave federal agencies, "whoever comes in behind them may or may not have the same views, especially in a continuing resolution," Shanahan said. "So now you’re going to be faced with budget choices. ‘Well, why are we funding that?’ That’s going to be those who are left behind providing continuity to be advocates for this thing called the third offset strategy."

FitzGerald noted that personnel at newly established innovation hubs such as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Defense Digital Service and the Strategic Capabilities Office aren’t political appointees, meaning their missions will likely continue in some form or fashion.

While expressing hope the new administration maintains these current initiatives as opposed to just buying new equipment from a 1980s defense portfolio,

He laid out three scenarios for how the third offset could play out in the Trump administration:

  • Support it, continue it and claim it as its own.
  • Benign neglect in not shutting it down not actively supporting it.
  • Attempt to intentionally dismantle it.

Option No. 2 is the most likely outcome, he added.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding both a new administration and a continuing resolution, some are confident the gains and investments made over the last few years will bode well for continued implementation. DoD and the armed forces are already investing in much of the relevant technologies, according to Thomas Killion, director of technology at the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

"A lot of the strategic investments in autonomy, in networks, in sensing capabilities, in new types of algorithms for decision support, etc. and new methodologies for manufacturing are all part of the third offset. These are all investments that were already initiated in many cases and are continuing to be made. They are part of the strategy," he said. "If you look at the Navy strategy that ONR publishes, you’ll see many domains of interest are part of that strategy, they’re part of where the Navy is investing. I think there’s good news there."

The trick going forward will be ensuring continued funding for prototypes, which has found renewed interest under the third offset.

"In general, those areas identified in the development of the Third Offset strategy are worthy of investment," retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for defense secretary, said in response to a written questionnaire from the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to his confirmation hearing. "I understand the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy initiatives have focused on how to project combat power into any area at the time and place of our choosing."

"If confirmed, I will review the current portfolio of technologies under development and ensure that those provide the nation with long-term technological superiority," Mattis wrote. "Once in office I would be able to give more detailed information to the Committee on my concrete priorities. In principle, I believe we should be tolerant of risk in order to foster innovation and encourage technological leaps."

"The most important reason for the Third Offset Strategy is to prevent the steady erosion of conventional overmatch," a DoD spokesperson told C4ISRNET. "Leadership in the Department is confident that decisions supporting the Third Offset has been beneficial. … I am confident [the next administration] will make the best decisions for the men and women in the Department of Defense."

The Trump administration is still being formed, but Work is not a Cabinet pick for the next president. If Work stays on for an additional two months, he could help shape the next budget cycle for the rest of 2017, said Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. However, if he stays on for the next six months, she believes he could heavily impact and influence the 2018 budget for the benefit of the offset strategy.

Indeed, if the incoming administration is not as concerned with or does not prioritize state-on-state conflict on par with the current administration, Eaglen noted the third offset could fall by the wayside, as great power competition gets to the root of the third offset strategy.

While the third offset is riddled with jargon and concepts seemingly stripped from science fiction, a more palatable path for garnering support could be rebranding. "Maybe we shouldn’t call it third offset. Maybe third offset will define itself over time; we just put the focus on certain priority areas about operations in an [anti-access, area denial] environment, contested environment, big data, data analytics and all that, and just let history decide that it was the time for the third offset," Lt. Gen. Shanahan said.

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