Though past military successes are often viewed only through a technological lens, the U.S. military’s advantage has never been due solely to technological superiority. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has clearly expressed this view, noting to a reporter earlier this year that “if you ever hear anybody say that the Third Offset is about technology, just tell them that they’ve got to be crazy.” And as a retired Navy commander and defense and national-security research manager at the Deloitte Center for Government Insights, I’ve found this to be true: The United States’ true advantage resides in its ability to rapidly field and integrate new technologies at a speed, scale, and range that cannot be easily duplicated.
As such, a critical enabler of offset strategies is the military’s ability and willingness—even if begrudgingly—to fundamentally reform itself to better capitalize on new innovations. This has always been the case. For example, the tank and the aircraft carrier were extraordinary technologies that didn’t fully deliver competitive advantages until the military made two major changes: The Army devised new doctrine to employ tanks in concert with its other weapons, and the Navy learned to operate with the carrier as a primary source of firepower. Even now, a nation’s ability to produce or acquire an aircraft carrier—which is especially technologically complex and expensive—offers little advantage until officials figure out how best to use it alongside their other military capabilities.
Quickly lost in the romanticization of technology-enabled Cold War advantages, like jet-powered bombers, and the United States’ combat dominance in the Middle East are the significant military transformations at the institution and individual level that accompanied them.
Consider the First Offset strategy in the 1950s. President Eisenhower and his advisers were worried about the implications of the Warsaw Pact, a Soviet Union-led multinational defense agreement that gave the collective a conventional-force advantage over the United States in Europe when it came to personnel, tanks, planes, and other weapons platforms.
Attempting to offset the Soviet’s edge, Eisenhower turned to advances in nuclear-weapon and propulsion technologies that reduced warhead sizes, enabled long-range strikes from airplanes, and facilitated ballistic missiles. His “New Look” policy, which sought to achieve more security at less cost, bet that the threat of a U.S. retaliatory nuclear strike over long distances was enough to deter Soviet aggression. Because of this, the First Offset is often viewed as a technological achievement of nuclear-weapon miniaturization and delivery.
What such a recounting often leaves out, though, is the substantial reform that had to occur to make the New Look possible. The fact is, 10 years before the First Offset, there was no such thing as the U.S. Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, the secretary of Defense, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These organizations and positions were created by the National Security Act of 1947 and further refined throughout the 1950s—and each was elemental to the success of the First Offset.