Target Acquired

11.03.14 10:45 AM ET

The Pentagon May Finally Have a Plan to Keep America on Top

After years of strategic drift, the U.S. military may finally have a path to maintain its edge over countries like China. Will the defense-industrial bureaucrats stand in the way?

Nowhere other than inside the Pentagon will you find more truth in Machiavelli’s warning about the hazards of change: “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage… For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new.”

Which was why my response to Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work’s arrival involved a reference to Raymond Chandler’s Big Willie Magoon, a vice cop who “thinks he’s tough.” The arrival of someone with genuine strategic and technical chops at the upper level of the Defense Department was such a good idea that a lot of people were guaranteed to respond with equal parts rage and terror.

Work’s co-thinkers have now run the pirate flag up the mast with the publication of a concise and hard-hitting report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that details what Work has called a Third Offset strategy for towing the Pentagon out of the strategic quicksand into which it is steadily sinking today.

My compressed version of the CSBA report is here, along with an explanation of the innocuously wonkish “Third Offset” name by which the new strategy is known. But to be even briefer, this is the gist of the strategy.

Widely available weapons—this is not all about China—are threatening the U.S. ability to project power and influence events worldwide. Those weapons include guided missiles, satellites, and drones that can track ships in mid-ocean, and long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Rather than wading into a symmetrical fight against those weapons, the Third Offset strategy exploits U.S. and allied core competencies—not just the things we do well, but areas where we can maintain our lead for a long time, and without adding to the defense bill. Think advanced unmanned vehicles, all-aspect, broadband stealth, and undersea warfare.

Third Offset calls for some new weapons, none of them miraculous, some of them a little more specialized than those that have been planned in the last decade or two.

As a strategy, it has the enormous merits of focus and consistency, which is why there are people and groups who are going to hate it and try to stop it from happening.

First among these will be the boot-centric warfare (BCW) crowd, whose admiration for the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has blinded them to the fact that our world is not Clausewitz’s, where armies ruled and the war was won when the enemy’s capital was occupied. They will not be mollified by another new CSBA report that proposes an expanded Army role in providing offensive and defensive regional missile support. They will portray Third Offset as the intellectual stepchild of one of those nutty airpower cheerleaders, and not the kind of warfare performed by Real Warriors. 

This is not completely inaccurate. Third Offset reflects the views of people inside and outside the Pentagon who see large-scale BCW, particularly in a counter-insurgent role against cultures that revere martyrdom, as akin to wrestling a pig: You both get covered in slime but the pig enjoys it.

Next will be the peace-hawks. No, Third Offset does not advocate war with China. It seeks to prevent war with China, or any other nation that wants to exploit anti-access and area denial to further its own interests at the expense of the global community. In the classic phrase of deterrence, we want all such actors to wake up each morning and think: Not today.

The fighter generals and the advocates for the biggest program in Pentagon history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will not be much happier. Lord knows I am not a Joint Strike Fighter fan, but I have yet to call it “semi-stealthy” as the CSBA report does. The report also suggests that the Navy’s F-35C might be usefully canceled. But the critique is deeper: In some scenarios, it matters little if the adversary’s fighters can’t defeat F-35s directly. Shoot down or drive off the tankers and the fighters never make it back.

Some naval aviators will be at best skeptical of the report’s embrace of carrier-based unmanned combat air systems. They should not be surprised: Work himself co-authored an early and influential study of Navy advanced drones at CSBA, identifying range as a critical factor in an anti-access/area-denial environment.

The Navy’s surface-combatant community and the U.S. shipbuilding enterprise will be clearing the decks for action. Third Offset strongly favors the submarine and implies that, as missile threats become more intense, the weapon tubes on surface warships will fill up with defensive interceptor missiles, leaving only a handful of weapons to fire at the enemy.

The CSBA report says little about the Marine Corps and never mentions the F-35B—the Corps’ version of the Joint Strike Fighter. However, it does mention all the short-range anti-access weapons, like guided rockets and mortars, weapons that Work (a retired Marine himself) talked about in his CSBA and Navy years as representing a very difficult challenge for amphibious warfare in general and the F-35B in particular.

Third Offset is not policy. Yet. But it’s an important and coherent starting point for a discussion that is long overdue.