Technological Advances, Diminishing Results

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The former secretary of defense, Ash Carter, fervently hoped that technology would transform military operations in the near-future in ways favorable to the United States. He put billions of dollars behind what is called the “third offset strategy.”

The first offset was the Eisenhower administration’s New Look—designed to use America’s nuclear arsenal to offset the Soviet Union’s larger army. The second offset was the strategy of the Carter and Reagan administrations to use Information Age systems, primarily Stealth aircraft and precision-guided munitions, to offset the Soviet Union’s continuing advantage in military size. And now, with Russia and China expanding their defense budgets and fielding increasingly sophisticated weapons systems including ultra-quiet diesel submarines, cruise missiles, and Stealth fighters, the third offset is supposed to use America’s cutting edge technologies to maintain our military edge.

Which technologies? That’s a little hard to say. Unlike the 1950s or 1980s there are not one or two major technologies that the Pentagon is focused on. The Defense Department is investing, as noted by defense analyst Dan Goure, “in groundbreaking technologies in such areas as undersea systems, hypersonics, electronic warfare, big data analytics, advanced materials, 3D printing, energy and propulsion, robotics, autonomy, man-machine interfaces and advanced sensing and computing.”1 The hope is that some of this work will produce a war-winning bonanza. The possible results very quickly enter the realm of science fiction, with work on, among others, laser weapons, exo-skeletons, microscopic drones, and of course, killer robots.

It is likely that some of these projections will come to fruition. If history shows anything it is that you should not bet against American inventors who have given the world everything from the airplane to the Internet. But will any of the future inventions deliver an enduring American military advantage? On that score there is room for skepticism.

There is no question that some technological breakthroughs in the past have had a dramatic impact on the battlefield. One thinks of the German blitzkrieg through Europe in 1939-1940 utilizing panzers and dive bombers linked together by radio. But it’s important to recall that the Allies rapidly matched the German innovations and that Germany wound up losing the war. Likewise, today the Pentagon is looking for a third offset because the edge produced by the second one, 30 years ago, is fast dissipating.

The pattern of history is clear: Good ideas travel fast, and effective technologies are disseminated quickly. It is doubtful that any future invention will allow the U.S. to dominate the military sphere for long. In fact, it is sobering to realize that despite its recent technological dominance, the U.S. has not been winning wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq against low-tech adversaries. Superior weapons don’t necessarily deliver superior strategic results. While the Pentagon rightly devotes considerable resources to R&D, it should save some mental room for grappling with why the U.S. has not had a better record of achieving its aims by force—and how it can improve in the future.

 1 Dan Goure, “The Pentagon’s Third Offset: Just a Smoke Screen for a Shrinking US Military?,” The National Interest (June 14, 2016).