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The U.S. Military: A Crisis of Innovation

April 24, 2017
Since the conclusion of World War II, the United States has maintained largely unquestioned global hegemony, in part due to the vast technological and organizational superiority of its armed forces. The specter of American military might has long cast a protective shadow over the United States and its allies, limiting the inclination of foreign governments and agents to provoke the ire of American weaponry. Military innovation, however, hasn’t been a chance occurrence; whenever potential foes develop advanced military capabilities, defense leaders have pursued “offset strategies” to foster innovation and secure U.S. superiority.

<a href="http://www.avascent.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Timeline_of_Defense_Dept_Strategic_Offsets.jpg" target="_blank">Source</a>Source

President Eisenhower set the stage with his “New Look” policy in 1956, a defense doctrine articulating “massive retaliatory power” through advanced nuclear weaponry to combat the Soviet Union’s far larger standing army. The “New Look” fell out of favor after the Vietnam War when American strategists recognized that the Soviet Union had established a comparable nuclear arsenal [1]. In order to counter Soviet nuclear prowess, a “Second Offset Strategy” was formulated around a series of promising new technologies: stealth aircraft, the Global Positioning System (GPS), reconnaissance satellites, and precision-guided missiles. Investment in these emerging technologies spurred a new period of American military superiority, demonstrated by the overwhelming defeat of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War [2].


In the years following the Gulf War, America’s “competitors” have not rested quietly. Discomfited by the ease with which the United States destroyed Iraqi forces, Chinese and Russian strategists sought to modernize their defense capabilities, investing in modern aircraft, anti-satellite weapons, and other innovations meant to obviate the threat of American technology [3]. Additionally, while the U.S. has been involved in counter-terrorism initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of defense leaders has shifted away from long-term, disruptive innovation to technologies like surveillance drones that are applicable to militant insurgencies but are less useful against conventional opponents. Shrinking the gap between US and insurgent capabilities is the proliferation of twenty-first century technologies: smartphones, social networking, cloud computing, and drones can be wielded by militant groups and terrorists alike [4]. Faced with the advancing capabilities of “competitor states” and stagnant R&D at home, American war planners are now asking a single question: Is the United States facing a crisis of innovation?

Former Defense Secretaries Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter both recognized the need to reinvigorate American military innovation under the Obama administration. In January 2014, Hagel announced the initiation of a “Third Offset Strategy,” consisting of a series of private-public partnerships and defense R&D to shore up American military superiority [5]. Secretary Carter continued Hagel’s efforts by pushing for greater collaboration between the Defense Department and Silicon Valley [6]. However, Carter is no longer the Secretary of State, and the future of the Third Offset Strategy remains in doubt under the Trump presidency. Will Defense Secretary Jim Mattis continue Hagel and Carter’s Third Offset Strategy? Regardless, the crisis of innovation continues, with American military preeminence on the line.


Dongfeng-21D missiles on parade in China, <a href="http://www.andyross.net/images/dongfeng.jpg, " target="_blank">Source</a>.Dongfeng-21D missiles on parade in China, Source.

While the United States’ focus has been diverted to developing counter-insurgency technology, China and Russia have been investing in innovations aimed at neutralizing American military advantages. China, in particular, has prioritized this approach, formulating a unique strategy of anti-access/anti-area denial, which aims to make it too dangerous for the U.S. navy to operate within the first disputed island chain in the South China Sea. For example, the aircraft carrier, a verifiable keystone and symbol of American military might, is now threatened by Chinese innovation in anti-ship missile technology. Navy strategists believe that China has successfully developed two missiles capable of destroying American carriers: the Dongfeng-21D and the YJ-12. The Dongfeng-21D is capable of closing on its target at 10 times the speed of sound, rendering it practically impossible to intercept. Likewise, the YJ-12 strikes its target at more than twice the speed of sound after skimming along the surface of the water to avoid interception. The successful development of anti-ship missiles is not unique to China; Russia, Iran, and North Korea are all working on weapons capable of destroying naval carriers. The rising military innovation of America’s competitors is casting doubt on the future of carrier-based warfare, raising the risk that the US aircraft carriers would be rendered useless in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea, specifically [7].

It is this implication of competitor defense innovation that is particularly concerning to America’s allies. Will the United States be willing to intervene to protect them from “Chinese bullying,” for example, considering the risks of deploying naval carriers in the region? Could a future U.S. president decide that the economic and political risks of losing a carrier  are too great, leaving America’s Asian allies practically defenseless to Chinese aggression? Doubt that the United States can be depended upon for global security undermines America’s global hegemony, raising the possibility that Asian countries would rather throw in their lot with China than risk alienating the rising power [8]. This dynamic is also at play in Europe, as fears that the United States may be unwilling to support its European partners have lead to mounting pressure for the region to develop its own nuclear weapons program. A “Eurodeterrent” plan would place France’s nuclear arsenal under a common European command, funding program, or defense doctrine to protect European Union member states [9]. While such an escalation in European military power is highly unlikely, the talks signal growing sentiment in Europe that the United States may be losing its global superiority.

What’s Being Done

<p><em><a href="https://cdn.meritalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/carter-at-DIUx.jpg" target="_blank">Source</a></em></p>


The Third Offset Strategy is the Department of Defense’s response to the crisis of innovation. Initiated by Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014, the effort to promote U.S. military innovation has focused on cultivating a robust relationship between Silicon Valley and the Defense Department. The desire to foster collaboration between the two parties emerged in recognition of the rising importance of the Valley as a center of commercial innovation. It was Secretary Carter who spearheaded relationship-building between the Bay Area technology companies and the DoD, primarily through the organization of the Defense Innovation Board and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. The Defense Innovation Advisory Board was founded in March 2016 with the intent of leveraging the unique knowledge and expertise of tech executives and academics. The Board consists of Silicon Valley leaders like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, along with leading academics like the Wharton School’s Adam Grant and MIT’s Eric Lander. Since its organization, the Defense Innovation Advisory Board has approved over 11 individual recommendations pertaining to issues as diverse as cybersecurity for advanced weapons to artificial intelligence research, all falling within the framework of promoting U.S. military innovation [10]. Along with the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental was launched in 2015 as a “scouting program” of sorts; DIUx works to identify private sector technologies that can be co-opted for challenges facing the Defense Department. Defense Innovation Unit Experimental offices have been founded in Silicon Valley, Austin, and Boston with the goal of tapping into the projects and relationships being cultivated within the regional innovation hubs [11].

Essential to the Third Offset Strategy is the R&D of advanced military technology; the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP) works to identify and prioritize which developing technologies will secure U.S. military superiority [12]. To ensure that American carriers remain relevant, the Navy is hoping to operationalize electromagnetic railguns and directed-energy weapons within the decade. Railguns, which fire projectiles using electricity rather than chemical propellants, are being developed to counter ballistic missile warheads. Directed-energy weapons, on the other hand, are drastically cheaper to fire using powerful laser technology and capable of neutralizing the threat of hypersonic cruise missiles [13]. The DoD also hopes to expand its undersea warfare capabilities by investing in both unmanned underwater vehicles and anti-submarine missile technology. Unmanned underwater vehicles can be fielded by the Navy to hunt enemy subs, resupply manned submarines, and remain dormant for extensive periods of time before being activated for missions. Additional technologies the Defense Department hopes to realize include alternative guidance systems to reduce reliance on GPS and defense systems to protect American satellites from enemy disruption [14].

Indeed, the Defense Department also plans to retool its existing military tech to challenge the advancing capabilities of its competitor states. The United States has unparalleled experience in drone warfare, and the DoD hopes to leverage this expertise to create autonomous drones capable of surviving in the harshest environments and immune to enemy disruption. Small, cheaper drones can even be used to swarm and neutralize enemy air defenses, opening the way for American-piloted jets to navigate the skies freely [15]. Additionally, the Navy hopes to improve its arsenal of anti-ship weaponry by giving both its existing Tomahawk and SM-6 surface-to-air missiles an anti-ship attack capability. The Air Force, on the other hand, is placing its bets on the development of the B-3, a new long-range strike bomber which would be able to target command bunkers and mobile missile launchers. The B-3 is a sorely needed innovation; its aging predecessor, the B-2, has been in service for over two decades [16].


Realizing the Third Offset Strategy hinges upon a robust partnership between the Defense Department and the Valley. However, current relations between Defense leaders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are often uneasy or lukewarm at best. Why is this the case? First, the defense contracting and procurement process is notoriously slow; Valley entrepreneurs are reluctant to engage in sluggish government bureaucracy. Additionally, for companies looking to expand outside the United States, particularly in the lucrative Chinese market, executives are wary to appear to be too cozy with the federal government. Of more recent concern is the revelation that the National Security Agency was intercepting tech company data by Edward Snowden in 2013, further alienating Silicon Valley leaders worried about the duplicity of the intelligence community [17]. Of concern to the Defense Department is the possibility of economic espionage committed by hostile agents of American competitor states. Defense leaders are reluctant to trust highly sensitive and classified information with Silicon Valley firms unable to effectively safeguard their systems from invasive cyberattacks. The DoD hopes to obviate these potential obstacles with its DIUx sites in innovation hubs around the country and the invitation of celebrated Valley executives to join the Defense Innovation Advisory Board.

<em><a href="http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/images/print-edition/20150613_IRC581.png" target="_blank">Source</a></em>Source

The Defense Department also faces intraorganizational opposition within the military in its pursuit of the Third Offset Strategy. With any change comes resistance, especially in an institution as labyrinthine and inefficient as the defense establishment [18]. This opposition often coalesces around a preference for existing fixtures of American power projection, such as the aircraft carrier. Many Naval leaders refuse to recognize the threat the DF-21 and the YJ-12 pose to carriers, instead asserting their invulnerability and continued relevance to U.S. warfighting. For example, Navy spokesman, Commander William Marks, has praised the carrier as “the only maritime force capable of executing the full spectrum of military operations to protect our country.” While that may be true, many Navy leaders are making calls to build a new fleet of aircraft carriers, a prohibitively expensive proposition that will only divert funding from the Third Offset Strategy [19]. Additionally, scaling back plans to acquire 2,500 F-35 fighter jets may also be necessary; the jet has far too short of a range for many modern-day conflict scenarios. With this in mind, it is useful to remember that the U.S. military is defined by an ordered and disciplined hierarchy in order to fulfill its strategic priorities. However, innovation (in any form) tends to disrupt existing organizational structure; considering this, the Defense Department must balance the introduction of new technologies with the critical importance of hierarchal structure to U.S. military effectiveness [20].

What’s next?

The future of the Third Offset Strategy remains uncertain under the Trump administration. How committed will Defense Secretary James Mattis be to the innovation initiatives founded under Hagel and Carter? Will he also make the crisis of innovation a strategic priority of the Defense Department? The answers to these questions are not yet clear. One sign that the Third Offset Strategy remains central to the DoD’s long-term perspective is the Trump administration’s decision to retain Bob Work as the Deputy Defense Secretary. Work has been one of the driving forces pushing for military innovation, and he has been devoted to the Third Offset Strategy as much as, if not more so, than Carter himself. Secretary Mattis has also remained open to the Third Offset Strategy and its suite of developing technologies, arguing that “we should be tolerant of risk in order to foster innovation and encourage technological leaps” [21]. However, President Trump’s fixation on conventional technologies like the aircraft carrier is concerning to the continued push for military innovation, as a disinterested administration signals a future of benign neglect for the Third Offset, at best.

Even if the Defense Department remains committed to the Third Offset Strategy, there is no guarantee that its investments in emerging technologies will secure US. military superiority for long. Unlike the first two Offset Strategies, the unique political conditions which left America as the world’s unchallenged superpower are no longer in place; the U.S. must now face unrelenting competition from China, Russia, and other rising powers. Further, in an era in which foreign hackers are capable of stealing American economic and defense secrets through cyber espionage, new defense technologies will not remain exclusive to the U.S. for as long [22]. Considering this, the many challenges facing the Third Offset Strategy do not obviate the need to pursue military innovation. The crisis of innovation remains, and the ball is in America’s court. The United States must not be acquiescent in the pursuit of technological and organizational innovations if it hopes to maintain its global hegemony.


  [1] https://millercenter.org/president/eisenhower/foreign-affairs

  [2] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big

  [3] https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/991434/deputy-secretary-third-offset-strategy-bolsters-americas-military-deterrence/

  [4] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big 

  [5] http://breakingdefense.com/2014/11/hagel-launches-offset-strategy-lists-key-technologies/ 

  [6] https://www.wired.com/2015/11/secretary-of-defense-ashton-carter/

  [7] http://www.newsweek.com/2016/02/26/china-dongfeng-21d-missile-us-aircraft-carrier-427063.html

  [8] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big

  [9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/world/europe/european-union-nuclear-weapons.html

  [10] https://www.wired.com/2017/02/despite-trump-silicon-valleys-pentagon-ties-stay-strong/

  [11] https://www.wired.com/2015/11/secretary-of-defense-ashton-carter/

  [12] http://www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/DII_Defense_Innovation_Initiative.html/

  [13] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big

  [14] http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/02/16/what_is_the_third_offset_strategy_109034.html

  [15] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big

  [16] http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/02/16/what_is_the_third_offset_strategy_109034.html

  [17] https://www.wired.com/2015/11/secretary-of-defense-ashton-carter/

  [18] https://warontherocks.com/2016/02/five-costs-of-military-innovation/

  [19] http://www.newsweek.com/2016/02/26/china-dongfeng-21d-missile-us-aircraft-carrier-427063.html

  [20] https://warontherocks.com/2016/02/five-costs-of-military-innovation/

  [21] http://www.c4isrnet.com/articles/the-fate-of-the-third-offset-under-president-trump

  [22] http://www.economist.com/news/international/21654066-military-playing-field-more-even-it-has-been-many-years-big


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