Will the Department of Defense Invest in People or Technology?

The Trump administration will determine the future of the Third Offset, a plan for ensuring the long-term competitive advantage of the U.S. armed forces.

Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

In less than two months, President-elect Donald Trump will assume the role of commander-in-chief. His selections for top posts in the White House and the Department of Defense will signal the focus of his national-security apparatus and the means by which it could address the numerous challenges facing the country.

One of the most pressing questions for this next administration is the fate of the Third Offset, a strategy geared to ensure the long-term competitive advantage of the United States’ military. Much of the present discussion around the strategy centers on building futurist technologies—from swarming drones and hypersonic weapons to artificial intelligence and human-machine pairing in combat—and which combination of them can help maintain U.S. military preeminence for years to come. But as the Trump administration determines the strategy’s future, it should consider history’s lesson that offsets also hinge on the evolution of military institutions and their warriors—not just the sophistication of their technologies.

On the campaign trail, Trump called for an increase in the number of military personnel, ships, and planes, as well as for technologies that can be quickly acquired and fielded, such as cyber capabilities developed by the private sector. But for this approach to create a real strategic offset, it will need to be paired with qualitative organizational and personnel improvements that make full use of technological advances. If innovations are only technological and not structural, the offset cannot be realized.

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.

The Air Force’s portion of the military budget doubled from 22 percent in 1949, two years after its founding, to an average of 44 percent from 1955 through the end of the Eisenhower administration in 1961—higher than both the Army and Navy shares. This increase in funding is emblematic of the shift in strategy and organizational priorities that was needed to achieve an offset. The Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 streamlined military command authority, a particularly important aspect of the nuclear triad, which consists of U.S. weapon-delivery capabilities from planes, submarines, and land-based ballistic-missile sites.

Further, there were important personnel-level and social accomplishments that enabled the First Offset’s success. For example, the GI Bill educated, housed, and provided economic stability for many World War II veterans, which improved relations between the military and its civilian leadership in a way that paid dividends in the following decades—and helped reshape society by creating a modern middle class. Also, the desegregation of the military was a significant policy shift that was part of the slow dismantling of de jure racial discrimination, an issue that other nations used in an attempt to show the duplicity in the United States’ commitment to democracy, equality, and liberty.

A similar dynamic can be found when examining the Second Offset. By the 1970s, the Soviets had closed the technological gap in nuclear-warhead and missile technologies. So Defense Department leaders instituted a long-range research-and-development program that leveraged advances in digital microprocessors, satellite technologies, and materiel sciences to compensate.

The goal was to dramatically improve intelligence and surveillance capabilities to identify foreign forces, develop precision-strike munitions to target those forces with minimal expenditure of arms, and create stealth aircraft to fly into airspace with a lower probability of being detected and targeted. These advances allowed the United States to project power disproportionate to its force size and also offset the Soviet nuclear force, which had achieved parity with the United States since the First Offset.

But the offset was only achieved because of a number of statutory and structural changes in the military. First, the decision to abandon the draft in favor of an all-volunteer force helped to significantly reshape the military’s culture: by not forcing into service those who were disinterested or objected to the present conflict, by increasing the aptitude and skill level of the force because of more selective recruiting, and by improving public opinion of servicemembers as selfless volunteers, particularly after it was tarnished in the Vietnam War. This move was in response to the nation’s growth and changing demographics, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and forcing citizens into service, and the disciplinary and training issues that stemmed from compelled service. The higher quality and competence level of the all-volunteer force were better situated to integrate and employ the new technologies available to it.

Second, the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act of 1986 transformed the military by requiring better integration of military personnel across the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. It mandated joint training and assignments for its senior leaders, streamlined the command structure, empowered the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide strategic direction for the force and codified his role as a presidential adviser, and accounted for the ability of each branch to use equipment before buying it. And third, the creation of new entities such as U.S. Space Command and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency signaled then-unrivaled expertise and commitment to these burgeoning areas.

The success of the Second Offset was on display for the world to see during the Gulf War in 1991 when U.S. forces completely dominated the Iraqi military. Technology alone did not win the day; it required a transformed force to make it effective.

These historical examples may provide a blueprint for how a Trump Pentagon can continue with the Third Offset, first announced in November 2014 by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and detailed in a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In each of the two previous offsets, technological advances were better leveraged because of statutory reform, organizational transformation, and the changes in military personnel.

If the Defense Department uses a similar approach now, it can be better prepared to wield this transformed entity to defeat violent extremist organizations, confront and deter nation-states, and operate in nontraditional realms like cyberspace—simultaneously. To be sure, there are provisions in the current Defense Department bill that would make some modest structural changes to the military. But the new administration and department leadership will have to consider what additional reforms are required to achieve the offset that’s needed. A Third Offset strategy in the Trump era should look to lessons from previous successes. As is often the case in military affairs, what’s past is prologue.