Small Wars Journal

Considerations on Strategy and Technology Interrelationships

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 8:47am

Considerations on Strategy and Technology Interrelationships

Tiberiu-Dan Onuta

Strategy is the conjectural framework of war and national policy in wartime. It is, essentially, coherent military action justified by and concordant with a political argument1. The levels and kinds of military strategy encompass different realms with various methodologies and models. Categories of strategy noted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) includes National Security Strategy (NSS), National Military Strategy (NMS), and Theater Strategy (TS)2. Also, specific types of strategy are considered when dealing with army actions, naval operations, or air force employments. However, the design of an effective military strategy should rely on a sui generis grand theory that would extract its coherence from the axiomatic ends-ways-means (objective-concepts-resources) norm3. This norm could simply be comprehended as recognizing high-priority situational factors, establishing a way to methodize, and emphasizing actions/assets to approach the objectives. Technology is one phenomenon that influences the praxis of military strategy. Technology trends act on both domestic and international security contexts in the U.S. Technological advancements contribute to better strategic decision cycles and risk assays. However, the entanglement between U.S. strategy and technology in the present age of disruptive and game-changing technologies leads to military implications which are not deeply understood and become subjects of extensive studies and debates.

The concept of “grand theory” came into view from the intellectual dispute among sociologists such as Parsons, Mills and Gregory about weather an ontological phenomenon can be embodied into a comprehensive theoretical framework4. The discipline of military strategy has a plethora of distinct formations categorized as “grand theories” which extract their ontological arguments from political sciences, behavioral psychology, economics, and as well physical sciences and technology. Examples of such military grand theories include: the “offshore balancing” strategy5, the theory of “the five basic strategies” (intimidation, exhaustion, subversion, annihilation, extermination)6, the game theory-based competitive strategy7, the “minimum” or “finite” nuclear deterrence theory8,9, and the cross-domain deterrence theory10, among others. The logic of any military grand theory depends on the interplay of objectives, options, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the extent of risk the military take within this designed framework.

The present reductionist grand theories of strategy are indeed able to strictly define their systemic framework, but cannot generate by logical methods a consistent set of undeniably universal laws of war and warfare strategy. The attempt to unify all the grand theories of military strategy into a gauging standard interpretation remains inferentially unsuccessful as a result of their asymmetrical and conflicting intrinsic assumptions and premises that determine the calculated relationship of ends and means. A unified grand theory should not be a “strategic combination” of particular grand strategies, but a largely synergetic framework explaining every military strategic approach. Also, the complexity of the anticipatory strategic aspects and the difficulty of their translations into testable hypotheses make the “unified grand theory” of military strategy more elusive. That said, the science of military strategy without an overall theory may only be a “science with paradigm”11, and the presently considered paradigm is the ends-ways-means continuum3. The relationship between an adopted military doctrine and its upholding strategic theory is understandably convoluted, and a possible imbroglio or disconnection between them could produce toxic managerial effects on the battlespace.

Epistemologically, a unified grand theory of military strategy could not be achieved due to contextual and spatio-temporal (geographic and epochal) conditionality12 of any component of the ends-ways-means continuum. A novel grand strategy theory always relies on the zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”) of culture, social policy and technology. Characteristic “schools of thought” in the discipline of strategy usually evolve in the direction of new formulation of comprehensible knowledge13. Strategic judgments cannot be separated from contexts. Context-based reasoning lends clarity to the recognition of the particular factors of a strategic environment. Also, there are no suitable metrics to systematize and comprehend historical events (contextual, zonal or global) from a strategic standpoint, and pertinent statistical analyses are limited by the scarcity of relevant cases for such statistics. Despite the assertions that a unified grand theory of military strategy would be a misconception and/or an impossible task, the quest for such a “Holy-Grail” theory could satisfy the basic human need for intellectual elegance, integration, and completeness.

Could the rising tide of technology, the impact of the physical sciences on every aspect of society, be the basis for consolidation of all grand theories of military strategy into a unified framework? This question has been suggested by the perception that technology permeates the boundaries among the present grand theories of strategy, providing opportunities for developing an overall unified theory. However, technology by itself delivers no value. It is the combination of clear strategy, right technology and high-quality data that creates meaningful results. Technology is a contextually-conditioned societal product. Apparently, military strategy and technology both pursue a multitude of divergent and fragmented purposes and methodologies. But although the interface of strategy and technology appears to be elusive and unbridgeable, strategy and technology always coalesce practically into a tenable system of a techno-centric strategy (e.g. the “offset strategy”14, with its own theoretical framework) as a result of the ongoing development of meta-data (or conceptual data) analytics (commonly referred to as “analysis of analyses”). Technological approach in the military should not be treated as strategy, and a unified grand theory of military strategy should not be seen as an integrative part of the technological solutionism for conflictual issues of the human society.

Both defense theorists and pragmatic decision-makers have been looking for the formulation of a strategic framework in which the ends-ways-means continuum is greatly promoted by technology. However, technology does not transform the essence of military strategy and of war, but it does affect the global security environment since it acts on the warfare and the means of competition. Technology could also influence the preference of defense planners for a particular grand theory of strategy at a given time.

The coordinate systems of war strategy and doctrine are represented by the Clausewitzian “paradoxical trinities”15. War’s fundamental nature can be understood by categorization of a primary trinity of abstract forces: irrational (extreme hostile, vehement or violent emotion), non-rational (situational alteration brought by chance, probability of success of any action), and rational (war as an instrument of politics). Clausewitz’s secondary trinitarian model of war is based on notions such as people, army and the military leadership, and government. The primary Clausewitzian trinity (an idealistic approach) is equivalent to the secondary trinity model (a more realistic approach). Violence (in people), chance (of military operations), and rational purpose (of governance) are the relevant and perennial postulates of war. It was shown16 that von Clausewitz’s strategic thinking of war is equivalent to the basic models of game theory. The intrinsic nature of the Clausewitzian trinity is not changed by technology in any way3. But current technology influences the contextual applicability of each constituent element of the trinity. Progress in human social and behavioral sciences due to technology is undeniable. Through sophisticated neuro-measurements and neuro-experiments, novel psychological theories emerge (about how humans make rational and irrational decisions, how subconscious awareness interacts with conscious thinking). These new viewpoints lead to an improved understanding of two elements of the trinity, such as irrational violent emotion and rational governmental thinking. Digital technology leads to a more appropriate comprehension of risk assessment when complex strategic models are taken into account. High computational speeds permit evaluation of several strategic models in a short timeline. Thus, the other element (the uncertainty, the probability of the action) of the Clausewitzian trinity can be better estimated by recent methods of information processing and computer-learning approaches. For military planners, the evaluation of outcome probabilities is the only satisfactory way to properly assess an uncertain strategic situation. Military strategists should undoubtedly recognize the behavioral and statistical features of the trinity elements and the inevitability of imperfect decisions. Technology assists in engineering better strategic decisions by reducing their margins of error.

If the progress of fundamental research in physical sciences depends more or less on economic trends, technology always depends on the current state of both domestic economy and internationally economic security. The erosion of U.S. technological dominance in the face of newly global players requires defense decision factors to search for a third “offset strategy”17. Technological superiority over potential adversaries is a basic aspect of any U.S. techno-offset or, simply, offset military strategy. Generally speaking, the offset strategy concept has been initiated to enhance “the U.S. capabilities and missions with a patch of new technology that will extend the armed forces’ competitive advantages over potential adversaries”18 which are numerically superior in troops and conventional weaponry but technologically inferior to greater or lesser extent. Equivalently, the offset strategy has been conceived as a techno-centric approach that is “qualitatively dominant – as a means of offsetting quantitative disadvantages”19. Countering the conventional threats symmetrically (“soldier to soldier” and “tank to tank”) has been considered by U.S. strategists to be economically and strategically ineffectual (a concept nowadays even more valid). Another goal of U.S. offset strategy is to secure deterrence20,21 (taken in the largest sense, not necessarily applied to the nuclear era) by military power to achieve superiority or at least parity (the former implies decisively ethical responsibilities which the U.S. has always been ready to assume). Deterrence is the U.S. use of military threats to avoid war by persuading its enemy parties to refrain from initiating a blitzkrieg sweeping attack. Weakening the status quo deterrence by countering U.S. military power has always been the rationale of the traditional enemies of the U.S. for improving the technological potential of their military, but still maintaining their larger conventional forces. In terms of the game theory7 regarding the gains and losses of the process participants, the U.S. offset strategy represents a way to obtain victory (the result of a zero-sum game in the U.S. advantage) or deterrence (the result of a gain-predominant non-zero game). Said otherwise, offset strategy prepares the military against defeat (the consequence of a zero-sum game to the disadvantage of the U.S.) or reciprocal annihilation (in a loss-predominant non-zero game). A one-fits-all offset strategy, as any overall military strategy, could not be realized due to the strategy’s spatio-temporal context conditionality, as mentioned above.

The two past offset military strategies used époque-changing technologies to counter the superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s and, particularly, the Soviet Union’s conventional troops. The first offset strategy (usually referred to as Eisenhower’s New Look strategy)17,22 was designed in the 1950’s and relied on long-range airpower and nuclear weapons (the first “global reach” U.S. military approach). Once the Soviet Union achieved nuclear technological parity with the U.S. in the late-1960’s, the U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy was modified, and became the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy. Thus, one-sided deterrence became mutual deterrence. MAD strategy was a rational decision approach at that time because both adversaries considered it as a reciprocally and coercively credible scenario, and nuclear weapons were used as a deterrent or last-resort option of proportional “massive retaliation”. The ghost of MAD strategy was present in one form or another until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late-1991. The second offset strategy (well-known as Brown-Perry’s Assault Breaker strategy)17,23 was established in the early-1970’s to give a boost to U.S. military superiority when the Soviet Union (still 3-fold larger in conventional military resources) succeeded in coming to nuclear-tipped weapon parity with the U.S. The second offset strategy utilized such novel technologies as satellite navigation, military space operations, and stealth weaponry, implying a much larger capability for precision strikes. An extended second offset strategy was attempted by Reagan in his proposed 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to protect U.S. territory by a virtual missile shield (using large-scale military space operations) against long-range nuclear Soviet missiles24. The SDI involved a space Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) technology and was initially contemplated more as an offset alternative to the previously devised MAD strategy. The SDI was considered unrealistic from the moment of its announcement25. Its lack of success was due to the absence of such advanced technology at that time and the extremely high cost of development for this technology26 compared with other existing, cheaper alternatives with the same strategic effects. After the Cold War, in the 1990’s, there were discussions about the utility of an older theoretical concept, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), and its updated variations such as Rumsfeld’s Military Transformation and the New American Way of War27. The RMA and its 1990 versions were considered in the light of the occurrence of a new strategic balance among nations, a change of the compositions in the strategic systems and new military technologies. The impact of the RMA aspects was light from a strategic standpoint, but strong on the rethinking of U.S. military technological supremacy. Some of the actual military technological concepts and defense technologies (e.g. unmanned aerial vehicles, robotics, advanced information technology) have their origin in those 1990’s RMA debates.

The third offset strategy (well-known as Hagel’s Defense Innovation Initiative (DII))17 is relevant in the present context due to the occurrence of economically disruptive technologies. This third offset strategy is directed at not only achieving battlefield superiority, but also at strategic dominance through disruptive technologies. Some technologies have the potentiality to alter the defense status quo, and their challenges and risks require an effective military entrepreneurship and leadership. The main characteristics that delineate and demark disruptive from other technologies include: acute rate of technological change, extended potentiality of technological “chain reactions”, and sufficient relevance for profound economic impact28. Many co-occuring technologies meet these criteria, but military leaders should be able to identify and select those technologies that offer decisive competitive advantages and become game-changers in the defense field19. A combination of disruptive technologies could multiply their impact on strategic frameworks. If a game-changing technology developed in the U.S. were adopted by another world player, then that technology will still be disruptive (in regard to the player’s context), but no longer a technological game-changer. The U.S. offset strategy devised around that technology would become, to some degree, obsolete.

The third offset strategy is a developing concept and is associated with the distinctly contoured “robotics revolution”29,30. This innovative advancement includes such disruptive (but now in incipient stages) technologies as mechatronics, electronics at the scale reaching the theoretical limit in miniaturization and in data speed, quantum computing, novel materials, hybrid neurodevices (e.g. mind-reading helmets as scanners of brain electric fields), trans-human augmentation etc. The DII is a response to the newly achieved high-tech weaponry (quasi)-parity of China and Russia (especially precision missiles, submarines, counter-space operations, stealth technology and the network-based operation management). However, there are concerns about the success of the recently suggested DII (“robotic wars”)31 coming from its comparison with the antecedent SDI’s proposal (“star wars”)32. These concerns come from: (1) a military strategy cannot be exclusively designed on an old or new dominant technology (and not as well inserting the other evolving societal particularities), and (2) a strategy cannot be built on a presently non-existing or immature technology, even if this technology is subsequently feasible. If a new offset strategy were conceived around a single point of strength (e.g. a specific technology), then this strategy has been deemed a failure - the single point of strength would likely become the single point of failure. Thus, the dynamics of the third offset strategy could be broken. The progress of a disruptive technology (discovery, exploration, implementation, transformative product, prototyping and additive manufacturing at commercial scale) is usually laggard and drifted, and takes years until the acceptable failure rate decreases under a certain risk limit. The rate at which novel disruptive technologies occur is greater than the implementation of corresponding mature technologies in the defense market. If a military strategy relied on a novel but immature disruptive technology, than that strategy would become ineffective until an acceptable elaborating buildup of the technology. Rapid occurrence of novel disruptive technologies does not mean that the military offset strategies could change at the same rate. Disruptive technologies do not necessarily ask for “disruptive offset strategies”. However, as a reason of both long timelines of reaching maturity and massive costs, a novel disruptive technology can ask for a new offset strategy, not in the present but in the future. A disruptive offset strategy could occur when the threshold of an entire Military-Technical Revolution (MTR) would be reached. MTR conceptually means “dramatic improvements in military effectiveness and combat potential due to the application of new technologies or combat systems”31. MTR could be interpreted as a type of techno-centric RMA. MTRs could evolve both rapidly/slowly and continuously/discontinuously depending on how the novel disruptive technologies proliferate and on how they are implemented.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has launched a program known as the “20YY warfare initiative”31,33 (YY indicates the uncertainty of the decade when a disruptive technology will produce a MTR threshold). It seeks possible solutions for contouring issues of new warfare. The 20YY initiative is a more convoluted approach than the Future Years Defense Program34 (FYDP) which usually has a five-year projection. The materialization of this initiative comes from the rise of cutting-edge research on unmanned and increasingly autonomous systems. The 20YY-type initiative is the first step in the elaboration of the “20YY regime” that could become the pragmatic foundation of the third and next offset strategies. The strategic 20YY regime is designed to favor the game-changing technologies that lock-in the privileged technological position of the U.S. with respect to old and newly-emerging world powers. To craft effective strategic responses, the potential impacts of the novel disruptive technologies should be analyzed. Objective analyses for the 20YY regime will benefit from an understanding of past offset strategies. To replicate the successes of the past offset strategies, the 20YY warfare program should also generate positive economic externalities in the limit of a regulatory background. CNAS is also engaged in tailoring a third offset strategy that could successfully confront the A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) challenges in general, and China's A2/AD capabilities in particular33. The A2/AD strategies are today considered the primary U.S. peacetime management of its worldwide security goals. Such strategies are designed to augment “deterrence through denial” and are developed on the territorial (allies, defense partners) network structures35.

The 20YY warfare regime should essentially consider the fast pace of technological change. Moore’s Law (1965) is an empirical conjecture that has foreseen the exponential growth of transistor density in integrated circuits36. The Moore’s Law prediction has proven correct up to now even to more complicated systems such as computer hardware and digital electronics. Due to the nature of exponential growth, Moore’s Law is unstable and there is a prognosis that it would collapse37 in the interval of 2020 – 2030. The collapsing prediction relies on quantum physical limitations38. It is interesting to mention that if Moore’s Law were accurate about computer hardware and calculation capacity, it would not have been applicable for the evolution of computer power consumption and speed of computing which today has achieved saturation due to heat removal problems in circuitry. It is also predicted that Moore’s Law would collapse in the same decade when computers would pass the general Turing test39,40 (exhibiting measurable intelligent behavior) or the topical Feigenbaum test41 (the Turing test on a certain subject). Not all particular technologies follow the exponential Moore’s Law. For example, mechanical systems and battery technology do not mimic it. However, the general progress of technology follows an extended Moore’s Law known as the “law of accelerating returns” (Kurzweil’s Law)42,43 and is characterized by an exponential growth with an exponential rate. The law of exponential growth is also seen by the spread and miniaturization of technology in the military realm. Kurzweil’s law has a high instability and it would collapse in what is coined “technological singularity”44,45. The term singularity arises from the fact that all the models regarding technological-based societal evolution should be abandoned due to the emergence of a new reality. The occurrence of technological singularity (even if it could not be entirely a priori understood) is, sooner or later, inevitable. This moment (predicted to be in 20YY, with YY>>30) would represent a cleavage in human history and would redefine the previous developmental concepts. Nonetheless, this juncture could be partially obstructed and delayed by strict laws and regulations regarding technology’s applicability. A pertinent example of such obstruction is the Bush administration ban on federal funding of human stem-cell technology, a ban mainly based on ethical issues. Power-ethics relationships noticeably change over time, usually in the direction of acceptance of novel technologies, as it happens currently with the stem-cell bioengineering approach.

Misusing / paraphrasing Fukuyama46 (at the end of the Cold War), the technological singularity would become “the end of history”, history as we know it. The novel disruptive technologies would succeed one after another in no time and with no analytical pattern. The biological and non-biological disruptive technologies would merge in hard-to-predict ways with new long-term megatrends in combat strategies. It would represent the moment when machine (artificial) intelligence exceeds human intelligence in any quantifiable aspect. Offset strategies before the technology singularity époque should prepare the framework to comprehend the connection between machine and human cognition and to optimize its human-in-loop control in combat. These strategies would be based predictably on the same American way of war anchored in superior technology (“retaining technological dominance is a strategic choice”19). With the oncoming technological rupture, the design of strategic frameworks would require a careful recalibration of the ends and means in the face of a global military balance.

The present perception is that the first signs of technology singularity would occur in the U.S. However, the technological juncture would quickly become a global phenomenon, catalyzing the beginning of a distinct “technological G-Zero World”. G-Zero World is a global society “in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage - or the will - to drive a truly international agenda”47 (the term G-Zero is coined in similarity with the well-known labels G-8 and G-20, which represent the groups of major economies in the world). Technological G-Zero World exhibits the lack of global leadership in technology, with consequential political and economic repercussions. Hence, the global technological singularity could mark the end of the U.S. offset-strategy approach. Interestingly, technological G-Zero era nonetheless does not embrace a zonal military balance of power and does not suppress local (transnational) wars. In such a society the wars are mostly irregular or asymmetrical. The singularity should reasonably exclude the American technological exceptionalism. How will this affect the American exceptionalism in general? How will the U.S. be able to remain an unrivaled superpower in the technological G-Zero World? The answers are not simple, but they are attainable if developing advanced strategic ways is considered. By all parameters, these novel grand strategies should maintain and even elevate America’s status as an indispensable nation (of promoting democracy globally) in the technological G-Zero World.

Deep strategic vulnerabilities occur due to the unprecedented set of constraints (scarcity and high prices) on resources48. Dealing with declining resources should be an issue incorporated in the third offset strategy. By deeply integrating information technology with traditional industrial technology, the economics of resources could be re-established by producing more with less. This is credited as the resource revolution49, and it is part of the ongoing third industrial revolution (digitization, nanotechnology, advanced cybernetics). The first industrial revolution (1769-1850, in England) included textile production, metal manufacturing, coal mining, new economic policies and social structures. The second industrial revolution (1867-1914, in several of the countries involved in WWI, including the triple entente, central powers, U.S.) dealt with oil, engines, steel, electrification, mass production, communication technologies etc. The current resource revolution would produce an economy that replaces the L-curve (L-from losses) with the J-curve (losses followed by steep gains)50. To minimize resources in manufacturing, some physical processes could technologically be virtualized, automated and made autonomous. Nano-technology and synthetic biology are among fields which contribute to the development of “clean” technologies50 (with minimum waste and conserving resources). All these will maintain the performance benefits of strategic decisions by keeping the operational cost dimension. Also, in the context of resources shift, the military planners of the third offset strategy should reevaluate strategic risks coming from situations when resources are offered by global third-party service providers rather than domestic.

Energy security is also very important for DoD installations and machinery. Traditional energy sources (electric networks, oil) will still be in use in 20YY. The security of electrical power sources used by the military could be achieved by building different architectures of independent micro-grids with high emergency demand-response reactions, high power quality, and a high degree of impermeability to cyber-attacks. Carbon fuels would still prevail in the 20YY economy due to recent statistical studies of proven world oil reserves51. Recently, with the large scale introduction of hydro-fracking, the U.S. has become much less dependent on oil imports from Latin America, Middle East authoritarian states or Russia, a development critical for any current and near-future strategic analysis. American superiority in oil production would eliminate the current political and economic coercion or leverage by these autocratic states. With the limitation of conventional energy sources, strong military responses should be generated in critical programs for the development of both novel renewable-generation and backup-power systems (synthetic fuel, wind, solar, energy storage), considering that these technologies could become disruptive. The non-conventional energy resources are necessary in order to eliminate the strategic, operational, and mission risks from possible interruptions of the traditional energy resources.

Thanks to the technological innovations and the transformation in weapons technology, a proper military strategy should include novel concepts from actual business and management models. Of course, the reciprocal affirmation is valid due to the generic equivalence between the military operation space and the marketplace. An example is the “strategic entry deterrence” model52 used in business, but with roots in the military. Market-beating strategies have still much to provide to military planners. One of these is the novel “lean management/business model”53 that is a scientific approach to a new-product development. The principles behind the lean model (e.g. validated learning, innovation accounting, and build-measure-learn continuum) could be used successfully by a defense strategist in the development of the strategic framework for a particular fluid situation, including, for example, how to take over a strategic situation and change a strategic direction in real-time, and when to persevere and enhance the effects of strategic operations with maximum acceleration. The lean approach could help the military strategist to progress when the strategic plan is challenged in real-time by extreme uncertainty54 augmented by the lack of decisiveness at the tactical level (apprehending that events at the tactical level have strategic consequences) and other human shortcomings55,56 (e.g. status quo bias, loss aversion, overconfidence, overoptimism about the likelihood of strategic success). In a lean model, technology is usually user-centered, so a lean strategist must understand the attainable use of that technology. Entrepreneurship and the ability to boost new businesses are still among the great U.S. advantages in the world scene. The military should have a strategy to map those businesses involved in the commercialization of innovations and emerging technologies. The defense industry should create a disruptive business environment that overlaps the strategic continuum (ends-ways-means) on the technological game-changing continuum (game change – innovation – status quo – innovation – game change)19.

Systemic evolution is the transition from interconnection to interdependence. Biological evolution has followed a relatively stepwise course (with linear or nonlinear tracks between evolutionary shifting steps) over an extended period of time, so nature could gradually regulate this transition from interconnection to interdependence. However, technological evolution has followed a relatively short timeline of over a century. Moreover, the pace of digital evolution has increased nonlinearly over the last two decades. The year 2002 was considered the beginning of the “digital era” when the digitally-stored data of the entire human race became equal to the data in analog storage. To get an idea of how fast digital storage capacity has evolved, in 2000 digitally-stored data was 25% of the entire information in the world and in 2007 it was already 97% of the global information (and considering that all information in the world in 2007 was much larger than in 2000)57. Due to this disruptively short timeline, human society has not had the time and stamina to regulate the systemic interdependence of recent digitally-based technological advances. The process of enhanced international interdependence and space/time compression driven by technological change is found in the present globalization. In the new world economy the distinction between national and global markets is ambiguous if not ignored. Globalization implies the largest transfer of technology in human history. Globalization and technology shift demographics, empower citizenry, and diffuse (military) power across the world players. In this context, technology singularity would represent an acute phenomenon of globalization: it would engage the exceptional proliferation of disruptive and game-changing technologies at global scale. From globalization and rapid technological change, the U.S. adversaries will take advantage by mitigating the existing unequal distribution of military power resources and making the U.S. less globally dominant.

The pressure of globalization leads to the economic mobility of companies which are contractors for the military. This could easily produce leaks of proprietary process, of product specifications, and facilitate the industrial (classic or cyber) espionage. Data protection is paramount for the military. However, data is not information. Information is contextual and it is the “useful content” of the data set. Corporate information becomes more “liquid” due to the newly global tendency of shared or “open data” which means accessibility for an abundance of data sets belonging to business partners or competitors. Big data58 is a concept defined as data sets “beyond the ability of typical tools to capture, manage and analyze”59 and is asymmetrically attributed to corporations and governmental institutions, not to the general public. The economic mobility of military contractors, the open data trend, and the handling process of big data can undermine national military capacity and, consequently, the ability to leverage national power and the pursuit of national goals. For the third offset strategy to be successful and to maintain technological superiority, the U.S. has to initiate meaningful regulatory reforms on how sensitive data and information should be protected. However, the regulations of technological data should not undermine the DoD’s relationships with, for instance, Silicon Valley’s highly innovative tech-firms. These companies promote global business and strongly disfavor governmental snooping of the private data of their customers. Institutional inflexibility and confrontations between U.S. defense administrators and corporate executives (who create the industry standards) regarding the distribution procedures of open or protected data could impede the national security business. Also, the current high speed of information exchanged on public channels brings advantages to adversaries of the U.S.: they can apprehend almost in real-time elements of strategic and tactical intent of the U.S. in a local conflict. Thus, the characteristics of localized conflict (or local instability) could change rapidly, in space and time. The third offset technology should deal with this high “velocity of instability”60, a characteristic of present and future times.

Defense vulnerability also arises from the strategic deceptions of cyber interactions anchored in advanced computing, powerful algorithms and artificial intelligence. The cyber revolution is part of the present third industrial revolution. Cyber interactions are strategic risks for the military from both internal (usually careless and untrained employees, remote workers or contractors) and external (hackers sustained by private industrial organizations or by nation-states) attacks, leading to ambiguities about who is the aggressor in cyber space. Cybersecurity starts with the efficient risk management of cyber systems. Cyberattacks are impediments to the performance and functionality of computing systems and physical assets connected to cyberspace by use of malware tools (e.g. replicating computer worms, malicious software packages, limited rogue or altered instruction sets) or by injections of Structured Query Languages (SQLs - which are essentially data manipulation languages). Malware software is used to alter and hack data in related information. One way the military presently protect data content is through cryptographic nonlinear algorithms and protocols. If the cyberattacks are repetitive, strong, extremely destructive, and spatially extensive, then with the necessity of an equivalent response, one could talk about a cyberwar. A cyberwar would never start with a classical declaration of war due to its deceitfully intrinsic nature. Cyberspace becomes the battlefield.

Cyber warfare is connected to technological advances in electronic digitized networking. With the occurrence of disruptive game-changing technologies in electronic communications (e.g. optical digitized-data transmission through optical fibers, laser-based data transmission, quantum logic etc.), military cyber capabilities could become complex. However, cyberspace is inappropriate for grand strategic theories because of its extreme situational fluidity and its continual morphologic topography. Thus the theoretical development of the (strategic) “laws-of-armed-conflict” in cyberspace is questionable61. With the non-physicality of cyberspace, it is more suitable for specific tactical, operational, and instrumental aspects of warfare. Cyber is the operational realm where both defense and offense scenarios should not work twice. Once these scenarios are implemented, then their features become known (to the cyber warfare participants), losing their effectiveness in the end. The U.S. nowadays legitimizes its military to conduct both retaliatory cyber strikes62,63 and cyber offensive against enemy cyber weapons. An illustration of such sophisticated cyber sabotage is the 2006 U.S. – Israel operation “Olympic Games”64, which developed the Stuxnet cyber platform (a performant computer worm). It was used to induce malfunctions in the Iranian centrifuges used for nuclear isotope separation and nuclear-fuel enrichment.

Cyber conflicts of nation-states have different dynamics than conventional conflicts that rely on traditional technologies. Thus it is effortless for U.S. adversaries to rapidly close the gap of digital technology, leading to “cyber deterrence”65. A forced analogy with the atomic era and warnings of possible “cyber Pearl Harbor” events suggested that the U.S. adopt a pseudo-strategy called Mutually Assured Cyber Destruction (MACD)66. However, a cyberattack is not akin to a nuclear blast, an assessment at least credible from the point of view of survivability. For boosting the particular U.S. offset-type cyber strategy, Ultra Electronics 3eTI - a Maryland company – has recently developed “Etherwatch devices” which could be mounted in communication networks in order to protect the endpoints (computers) of these critical military infrastructures. The Etherwatch technology integrates the physical network security with the information security of military cyber configurations. These devices are invisible to the cyber attackers and are capable of “smart” risk-based decisions to analyze if connections and operations are cyber threats or not.

Recent innovations in bioengineering definitely should attract the attention of military planners and decision factors in understanding the concept of “biologized battlespace”. Bioengineering is an extensive and complex field that includes nanotechnology, genetics, molecular biology, bacteriology, tissue engineering, bio-inspired materials, biomechanics and bioelectronics, among many others. There has been great progress in our understanding of the human genetic material, in both its structural elements (DNA molecules, genes) and in the molecular processes of our biological structures. This understanding could lead to the development of genetic therapies, or conversely, to genetic damages. Biological weaponry could use “genetic knowledge” (extracted from the genome mapping of local populations) to produce, for instance, virus-based vectors. Moreover, genetic manipulation could possibly transform mass destruction biological weapons into specific and local-effect infecting agents. Here, one could make a comparison with tactical weapon development in the nuclear era, where the innovation of the enhanced radiation weapon, the “neutron bomb”, could reduce a large scale nuclear destruction to only a local effect. Additional biological applications in the military could include the growth of biological tissues starting from stem cells and human organ printing technologies. Bio-synthetic human organs could replace by transplant the damaged organs of soldiers with zero chance of immuno-rejection. The recent integration of electronic (analog and digital) circuits in human skin in a way that yields conformal contact feeling is the start of a novel field - “skin electronics”. “Skin-like” epidermal devices could help to both better monitor vital signals of soldiers in extreme battle conditions and considerably scale down the electronic portable equipment that soldiers carry. Another example in reducing soldiers’ gear weight is the innovation of virus-assembled batteries. These are biological templates of storage batteries, and are based on mutated viral proteins capable of performing the functions of cathodes and anodes. Also, the development of a functional exo-skeleton67 for soldiers would help the infantry to increase its success rate in the battle space. The newly emerging fields of biomechanically inspired robots and neuro-robotics (neuro-biologically inspired robots) are also great opportunities to gain strategic advantages over potential adversaries. Neuromorphic robots mimic the brain in interconnected architectures of silicon platforms that perform parallel computing, which is a shift from sequential (serial) “von Neumann-type” computing. Neuromorphic engineering and technology will allow such robots to gain cognitive features, essential for low-level decisions on the battlefield. All these disruptive biotechnologies are game-changing, and some of them are on the way of being developed by other countries. Thus, this is the time to start designing a distinct biotechnology-related offset strategy against adversaries predisposed to symmetrical or asymmetrical bio-wars against the U.S. troops.

Both offset strategy and combat operational effectiveness are essential for the suitability of military performance to allow a reasonable chance of attaining the desired political aims. Combat operational effectiveness is not warfare strategy. The strategy is to engage in military actions differently than the enemy. Operational effectiveness means performing military actions better than the enemy. There is a strong consensus that operational effectiveness cannot afford to be other than in line with the designed strategy68. Moreover, as General Anthony Zinni said69, “policy, politics, strategy, operational design and tactics in the field” should be well-aligned in order to have a successful outcome. Technology could provide the background where the differences between the strategic and operational approaches flatten out. There are metrics that quantify large and (quasi)-symmetrical combat actions in the Clausewitzian-style engagement. However, there is no robust metrics framework within which the effectiveness of irregular/asymmetrical military operations can be measured and analyzed. Risk assessment and technological affordability are usually taken as evaluation parameters of military strategy and operations. Technology expenses could be high, but they are relatively small compared with their potential to boost military operational performance in times of local or global crises70 and in the context of conflict hybridization.

As war is an authentic political endeavor, policy decision makers and military commanders should be both in coordination and concordance from all points of view, especially in budgeting and funding defense technologies. Research in defense applied sciences and technology is paramount to the success of U.S. offset strategy. In-house research (e.g. Army Research Lab – ARL, Naval Research Lab – NRL), academic research and, most importantly, industrial defense research and development should be very well financed and coordinated by military policy entrepreneurs who comprehend the current age of non-polarity combat and of extended “battle networks” which require a robust response. A technology acquisition reform from industrial contractors has also been implemented in the DoD through the Better Buying Power (BPP) program (3.0 version released in 2014)71 but with limited performance and demonstrable improvements. The reality expands beyond the traditional autonomous type of industry: now, industries with different technologies interact and influence each other. Managerially, an acquisition plan for a defense technology becomes complex and could be improved by creating industrial “circular chains” that capture low-risk and low-cost technologies while avoiding the opposite ones. The U.S. military should rapidly acquire72 disruptive technologies for new weapons but only when relied on realistic threat assessments, not on the principle of maximum defense capabilities73. Due to the prospective age of austerity, an overall defense budget74 and long-duration financial planning75 for a third offset strategy outcome should be reckoned on a notable and demonstrated efficiency of resource allocation.

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About the Author(s)

Tiberiu-Dan Onuta is currently a Research Associate in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park. He has a doctorate in physics from Indiana University, Bloomington. His postdoctoral studies were done at Cornell University and UMD. As a postdoctoral fellow at UMD, he worked on a DARPA high-risk project. He is also a member of the Baltimore Counsel of Foreign Affairs. Before coming to the U.S., he fulfilled the requirements of his military service in the Romanian Armed Forces and obtained the rank of second lieutenant of infantry (in reserve).


As a strategy to sustain the defense industry, this scheme offers every chance of success. As a national military strategy, it puts the cart before the horse. "Game changing" is an overused, and often incorrect term thrown about by people with something to sell. Technology influences military strategy, but more often by evolution than by revolution.

Previously, well-defined strategy guided technology integration. The Eisenhower's New Look supported a strategy to prevent a Soviet invasion of Europe without remobilizing to achieve conventional parity. "Assault Breaker" supported on the same strategy, but without the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Our "third offset strategy" is technology development crippled by a lack of a military strategy to influence it.