The Role of Offset Strategies in Restoring Conventional Deterrence
SWJ interview with Robert O. Work, the 31st Deputy Secretary of Defense.
Usually when we are talking about the Cold War, the first thing that we think in terms of a strategic framework is containment. But what has been the role the offset strategies played in the broader Cold War competition? In 1997, William Perry made an interesting observation that I think is worth reflecting on: “these strategies, containment, deterrence and offset strategy were the components of a broad holding strategy during the Cold War. I call it a holding strategy because it did not change the geopolitical conditions which led to the Cold War, but it did deter another World War and it did stem Soviet expansion in the world until the internal contradictions in the Soviet system finally caused the Soviet Union to collapse. The holding strategy worked.”
As Bill Perry suggests, technological offset strategies played an important role during the Cold War. The thinking about offset strategies can actually be traced to WW2. When the United States entered the war, planners concluded that the U.S. would need over 200 infantry divisions and about 280 air combat groups to ultimately defeat the Axis powers. However, U.S. leadership knew that if they built so many infantry divisions, the manpower they would need to work the arsenal of democracy wouldn’t be there. They therefore made a conscious decision to hold the number of infantry divisions to no more than 90 while keeping the 280 air combat groups. The thinking was that a “heavy fisted air arm” would help make up for the lack of infantry parity with the Axis powers.
The “90-division gamble” turned out to be a winner, but it was a close-run thing. In 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army literally ran out of infantry, forcing leaders to rush untrained troops to the front. Despite this, the idea that technology could help offset an enemy’s strength took hold in American strategic thinking. As a result, throughout the Cold War, the U.S. never tried to match the Soviet Union tank for tank, plane for plane, or soldier for soldier. It instead sought ways to “offset” the potential adversary's advantages through technological superiority and technologically-enabled organizational constructs and operational concepts.
President Eisenhower was well aware of the 90-division gamble. When he became president, he asked how many infantry divisions it would take to deter a Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe. Coincidentally, he was told about 90 divisions. Eisenhower knew that having a “peacetime” standing army of that size was neither politically nor fiscally sustainable. To counter Soviet conventional superiority, he therefore opted for what is now thought of as the First Offset Strategy (1OS), which armed a much smaller U.S. ground force with battlefield atomic weapons, and an explicit threat to use them on invading Warsaw Pact forces.
The 1OS strategy worked. We know this because the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies adopted a new campaign design to forestall NATO’s use of nuclear weapons early in a campaign. They planned to conduct conventional attacks in powerful successive echelons to achieve a penetration of the NATO front lines. Once a breach was achieved, an Operational Maneuver Group (OMG) would drive deep into NATO’s rear. The Soviets believed that once an OMG was operating behind NATO’s front lines, NATO leadership would be dissuaded or incapable of resorting to nuclear weapons. We’ll never know if NATO would have ever approved atomic attacks in response to a Warsaw Pact invasion. But we do know the 1OS provided a credible deterrent and had a major impact on Soviet thinking.
Fast-forward twenty years. While we were in Vietnam, the Soviet Union spent a huge amount of money in conventional equipment and technology. By the mid-1970s, there was a pervasive sense that the Soviet Union had achieved conventional superiority. This occurred around the same time the Soviets achieved strategic nuclear parity. Under these circumstances, underwriting NATO conventional deterrence with the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons simply wasn’t credible anymore. In this new context, the U.S. sought to reassert conventional dominance in order to improve strategic stability.
The plan to reassert conventional dominance had many parts, including a move to an All-Volunteer Force, an emphasis on the operational level of war, a thorough force-wide modernization—think of the Army’s “Big Five”—and a renaissance in realistic, force-on-force training. All of these initiatives were, in turn, backed by Bill Perry’s Second Offset Strategy, which sought to arm new operational level battle networks with guided munitions and sub-munitions.
Battle networks were nothing new. The first modern battle network was the British home air defense network assembled at the start of WW2. Like all battle networks that followed, it had four interconnected grids. It had a sensor grid with radars, aircraft spotters and in the later stages of the campaign, electronic intelligence capabilities, all designed to sense the battlespace. It had an enormous command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) grid consisting of hardened underground command posts connected by radio and telephone that worked to make sense of what the enemy was doing, facilitate command decisions, and transmit orders to friendly forces. It had an effects grid consisting of Spitfire and Hurricane fighter squadrons, antiaircraft weapons, barrage balloons and electronic warfare capabilities designed to achieve the specific combat outcomes directed by the C3I grid. And it had a sustainment and regeneration grid that allowed the British to continue fighting and restore combat losses.
This battle network allowed the outnumbered British Air Forces to keep the larger German Luftwaffe from knocking Britain out of the war. Radar was the key sensor grid advance, which helped take surprise out of the Luftwaffe attacks. It informed the C3I grid when the bomber streams were coming and where they were headed. The C3I grid was able to exploit this information to mass the RAF’s relatively short-ranged fighters against German attacks, where they fought at line of sight ranges using unguided machine gun and cannon fire. The sustainment and regeneration grid kept producing fighters, and pilots who were shot down over their home territory had a much better chance of getting back into the fight. All this—along with heavy doses of bravery and skill—allowed the British to make up for their losses, continue the fight, and win the Battle of Britain.
The 2OS battle network had all the same characteristics of the British home air defense network, but it focused on the land battle. It relied on new airborne sensors that could see well beyond the NATO front lines to identify massing ground forces with the same ease air radar could identify massing air forces. By so doing, the sensor grid could discern the Warsaw Pact’s first, second and third echelon forces as they were forming up, and track them along their lines of approach. New C3I nodes and processes would quickly convert incoming sensor data to targeting information and transmit it directly to ground-based missile and air attack units armed with guided anti-armor munitions and submunitions. These guided weapons promised to be as accurate at their maximum effective ranges as they were at line-of-sight ranges. All this should allow the American battle network to “look deep and shoot deep,” and mount devastating attacks and advancing Soviet forces long before they reached NATO front lines. This new operational battle network would be demonstrated in an advanced concept technology demonstration called Assault Breaker, announced in 1976 when William Perry assigned DARPA to assemble its grids and test them using production prototype sensors and effectors.
Assault Breaker, and the 2OS it portended, really caught the Soviets’ attention. In 1979 the Soviets conducted a big war game in which they explored what might happen if NATO actually deployed the operational capability to hit successive attacking echelons with long-range guided munitions. The game suggested that if the battle network performed as the Americans expected, NATO would be able to break up a Warsaw Pact attack before a breakthrough could occur, and keep OMGs from getting into NATO’s rear without resorting to nuclear weapons.
When we successfully demonstrated the Assault Breaker concept in 1982-1983, the Soviets concluded the game results were accurate. Shortly thereafter, in 1984, Marshall Ogarkov, the head of the Soviet General Staff, declared that conventional guided munitions, precisely targeted through theater battle networks, could achieve battlefield effects roughly equal to those of tactical nuclear weapons. These new conventional “reconnaissance strike complexes” thus represented what Soviet military theorists called a “military-technical revolution.” Their appearance completely upended the Soviet’s campaign design, and convinced the General Staff that a conventional invasion would not likely succeed. In other words, the 2OS convinced the Soviets of NATO conventional superiority, and helped in no small way to end the Cold War without a shot being fired.
If you look back in time in 1984, it is interesting to note that the Soviets actually understood the implication of the 2OS long before most American strategists did. It wasn’t until Desert Storm that American strategists understood that the 2OS had caused a fundamental shift in conventional warfare.
So it was that the First and Second Offset Strategies contributed the broader U.S. “holding strategy” during the Cold War. The 1OS and 2OS were both designed to reduce the chance we would fight a conventional conflict before the Soviet system collapsed.
One of the key points that James Lacey makes in a recent book, after surveying a set of strategic rivalries/great power competitions from the classical world to the Cold War, is that “power shifts (real or perceived) double the chance of war. In this regard, shifts toward parity are most likely to start wars.” To what extent is this structural variable identifiable in the operational environment that during the Cold War produced offset strategies twice? In other words what is the structural reality that triggers and makes the search for an offset strategy an imperative?
The United States adopted the 1OS when it enjoyed nuclear superiority. It was a key part of the “New Look” and “New, New Look” Strategies adopted by the Eisenhower Administration, which relied upon the threat of massive retaliation at the strategic level and early use of tactical nuclear weapons during conventional confrontations. Once the Soviet Union achieved strategic and tactical nuclear parity, however, the threat of tactical nuclear weapons was no longer credible. U.S. strategists believed this made the likelihood of conventional war in Europe greater, which spurred the 2OS.
Similar thinking animates the Third Offset Strategy. Both Russia and China were alarmed by the ease in which the U.S. defeated Iraq in the First Gulf War, and both made it their business to seek rough parity in battle network-guided munitions warfare. Both have now achieved that goal, if only in their “near abroads,” where they have assembled very powerful “anti-access, area-denial” (A2/AD) networks designed to deter, disrupt and defeat U.S. power projection operations near their home territories. If they choose to do so, these same A2/AD networks provide an umbrella under which they can project power to coerce their neighbors or threaten U.S. allies. As Lacey suggests, this shift towards conventional parity makes the likelihood of military confrontation between state powers higher.
With this in mind, the 3OS seeks to reestablish U.S. conventional overmatch, thereby strengthening both conventional deterrence and strategic stability. With regard to the latter, as a status quo power, the 3OS fits within a framework of comprehensive strategic stability, which consists of three supporting legs: strategic deterrence, conventional deterrence, and the day-to-day competition below the threshold of armed conflict. All work together to provide comprehensive strategic stability. Our concept of strategic deterrence rests upon the assumption of strategic parity and “mutually assured destruction.” In contrast we do not consider conventional parity to be a good thing. We much prefer having clear conventional overmatch, which is generally thought to be the best way to deter would be aggressors from resorting to conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold. To James Lacey’s point, then, the 3OS is a response to a new condition of parity in battle network-guided munitions warfare, which undermines both conventional deterrence and comprehensive strategic stability.
As for whether the 3OS is “a holding strategy,” the contemporary challenges posed by Russia and Chinas are two different kettles of fish than the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. Russia is a resurgent great power, possessing a large nuclear arsenal and formidable conventional forces. But it no longer seeks to forcibly expand either its dominion or communism, and it demographics and economy both look really bad over the long term. On the Chinese side, their economy could surpass that of the U.S., and they are intent on becoming a global military peer. So I guess I would say the 3OS might be thought of as a holding strategy for the Russians, and a hedging strategy for the Chinese.
I tend to look at both powers less as adversaries and more as competitors, as geopolitical rivals. They see themselves and act like great powers, and they want to be treated as such—more as equals with the U.S. rather than as weaker minor powers. Consequently, I would say we are engaged in a very intense strategic rivalry with both, although because the Russians have used “active measures” against U.S. democratic processes and are actively working to undermine and fracture NATO, they can certainly be viewed in more adversarial terms.
Let’s describe the broader strategic context in which the 3OS is developing. What is the operational problem 3OS is trying to address?
Offsets inevitably cause adversaries and competitors to react. The Soviets clearly reacted to the 1OS, seeking both strategic parity and conventional dominance. Once they achieved their goals, the U.S. was forced to purse the 2OS, which in turn spurred a Chinese and Russian reaction to perceived U.S. conventional dominance.
Russian and Chinese adopted 2OS thinking and technologies to erect A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) networks to confront our own battle networks. They do so to deter, forestall and disrupt any U.S. power projection operation near their own territory. But, as we discussed earlier, the networks also provide both with an umbrella under which they could coerce neighboring states or threaten U.S. allies.
The appearance of conventional A2/AD battle networks capable of directing guided munitions salvos as deep and as dense as our own threatens our ability to project power. This is a serious operational problem, and a direct challenge to a global superpower that relies on its ability to project power into distant theaters to underwrite both its alliances and conventional deterrence. If Lacey is correct that conventional parity often incentivizes aggressive and coercive behavior on the part of rising powers, this condition raises the likelihood of military confrontation. The whole idea of the 3OS is to restore our conventional overmatch, so deterrence is strengthened, and the chance of confrontation lowered.
Let’s discuss the relationship between offset strategies and deterrence, particularly its credibility. What role did the 2OS, with its technological, doctrinal and organizational innovations, play in changing the Russian perception on their battlefield competitive advantages? How did the 2OS help deter Russia? What was the impact of the Assault Breaker concept on the NATO deterrence posture and balance of power in Central Europe?
I think we’ve already covered much of this, so let me just amplify a few points and make a few new ones. Up until and through most of WW2, at the broadest level, warfare could be thought of as unguided munitions warfare: most munitions that were thrown, launched, shot, or propelled missed their targets—and generally by very large margins, especially as range increased. As a result, unguided weapons warfare relied on mass to achieve target effects – huge artillery barrages, lots of anti-aircraft fire to shoot down airplanes, etc.
WW2 saw two alternatives to unguided weapons warfare: atomic weapons and conventional guided munitions. Atomic weapons made miss distances less of a problem. The sheer power of an atomic blast meant that any strike was generally “good enough for government work.” Conventional guided munitions worked in the opposite way; they sought to reduce the miss distance to zero, which meant smaller munitions could achieve the same effects as much larger unguided weapons. Moreover, conventional guided munitions introduced the idea of accuracy independent of range, which allowed effective long-range fires for the first time.
The 1OS exploited atomic weapons; the 2OS exploited guided munitions. Both strategies changed the principle of mass in a fundamental way, in that they allowed a smaller armed force using guided munitions to confidently take on and defeat a larger armed force that practiced unguided weapons warfare.
The whole thinking behind the operational and organizational constructs generated by the 2OS exploited the idea of accuracy independent of range to “look deep and shoot deep.” This basic operational idea required an interconnected battle network with a sensor grid able to look deep, a C3I grid able to identify and target enemy concentrations and an effects grid able to employ long-range guided munitions. Such an operational battle network allowed the application of precision effects across the battle space at the same time. Indeed, the whole idea behind the Air Land Battle was that the corps commanders would attack the deep echelons that were 72 hours away, the divisions commanders would fight the echelons that were 24 hours away, and the battalion commanders would take care of the close fight—all at the same time. This thinking was adopted in NATO called Follow on Force Attack, or FOFA. FOFA was all predicated on the idea of using operational battle networks employing guided munitions to allow different command echelons to fight different temporal fights within a single integrated battle.
It was NATO’s perceived ability to simultaneously attack and destroy successive echelons without resorting to nuclear weapons that was such a game changer. Assault Breaker showed that NATO would be able to kill deep targets with conventional fires—a fact that shook the Soviets up. They realized a conventional attack was not likely to succeed because NATO would be able to defeat their forces before they reached their planned penetration point.
Many people think the 2OS was just about information dominance. But think back to what we said about the British Air Defense Network. It gave the British an information advantage that helped take surprise away from Luftwaffe attacks. But because most British effectors relied upon unguided weapons, the only thing the British could do with this information was to mass its fighters in front of Germany’s massed bombers and fight it out at line of sight ranges. The same thing would have happened to FOFA absent the widespread use of guided munitions and submunitions. It was only when guided munitions were employed by a battle network’s effects grid that warfare fundamentally changed.
The Soviets understood that “reconnaissance strike complexes” that combined carefully designed sensor and C3I grids with conventional guided weapons represented a military-technical revolution that rendered subordinate massed, unguided weapons warfare. This was what convinced them that the U.S. enjoyed an insurmountable conventional overmatch along the Central Front. This realization undoubtedly strengthened NATO’s conventional deterrent and helped in no small way to end the Cold War.
The character of war has changed over time. The character of offset has changed over time. In the past we had the Assault Breaker and Air-Land battle doctrine. Today the emphasis seems to be on Raid Breaker and Multi-Domain battle. How would you describe the “system of systems” dimension as well as the contours of the operational concepts and organizational constructs of the 3OS?
The Third Offset posits that advanced computing, big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI)—and the vastly improved autonomous systems and operations they will enable—are pointing towards new and more powerful battle networks involving human-machine collaboration and combat teaming.
The development of supporting 3OS operational concepts and organizational constructs is in its very early stages and is proceeding along two complementary paths. The first is a technical path, which is exploring how we can improve the performance of our current battle networks by exploiting AI and the greater autonomous operations it allows. This technical path includes:
1) Injecting machine-learning algorithms throughout our sensor, C3I, effects and regeneration/sustainment grids, to improve performance in all battle network operations. These algorithms will help us more rapidly discern battlefield patterns, develop and share more accurate and timely common operational pictures, achieve more precise and discriminate combat effects, and provide needed logistics and maintenance support on demand.
2) Pursuing new means of human-machine collaboration—exploiting what machines and humans do best to make more timely and relevant battlefield decisions. In most instances, we intend to keep humans either in the loop or on the loop, but we will increasingly use machines to help humans make more relevant and timely decisions. However, in some instances we will delegate decision-making authority to machines, such as in cyber defense, electronic warfare, and missile defense.
3) Improving human-assisted operations—connecting every combat commander and operator to the power of the battle network when and where needed. In the 2OS, the power of the battle-network was generally exploited by the brigade level or above. Over the last 16 years of war, information has been pushed further down the chain of command; we now see platoons and companies getting as much information as battalions and brigades used to receive. The 3OS sees battle network information getting down to individual or squad leader level.
4) Adopting new forms of human-machine combat teaming—the combination of manned and unmanned platforms in innovative ways. Operators are experimenting with manned-unmanned operations in every domain, with applications in the air domain leading the charge.
5) And fielding cyber and EW-hardened, network-enabled autonomous, and high-speed weaponry. Future autonomous weapons will collaborate during their attacks, taking into account an enemy’s defenses as well as the actions of friendly attackers. And hypersonic and directed energy weapons will be used to achieve more timely effects.
If you think of a matrix with a vertical axis consisting of the four battle network grids and a horizontal axis consisting of these 5 technological improvements, you begin to see how 3OS technologies point toward a new type of joint battle networks with increased levels of autonomy and human-machine collaboration. If the 2OS was about looking deep, shooting deep and hitting deep, the 3OS is about understanding the battlespace, planning, and achieving more discriminate effects faster than your opponent. If we fulfill this promise, we should gain a decisive competitive advantage.
The second supporting path of current 3OS efforts is to develop new technology-enabled operational and organizational constructs that give us an advantage at the operational level of war. One emerging operational concept is Raid Breaker. As we just discussed, in unguided weapons warfare most munitions miss their targets. It therefore relies on mass of fire to achieve target effects. In contrast, guided munitions warfare seeks only to saturate the defense, since any single leaker can achieve target effects. This puts an enormous burden on the defense. In a situation where both sides enjoy rough guided munitions-battle network parity, the side that has a marked advantage in point defense gains an enormous, potentially decisive advantage over the course of a campaign.
Raid Breaker is a concept that combines new autonomous sensors, new autonomous C3I capabilities and especially new high-speed effectors such as gun-launched hypersonic projectiles to force an attacker to fire increasingly dense—and expensive—guided munitions salvos to saturate a defense. Of course, for this concept to work, the cost per defensive shot must be significantly lower than the cost per offensive shot. Right now, defensive interceptors are much more expensive than offensive munitions. In essence, then, Raid Breaker is exploring how we might be able to win the guided munitions salvo competition at a price we can afford.
Another emerging concept is Multi-Domain Battle. For the past 25 years, in confrontations against regional competitors, the Joint Force could count on superiority in every operational domain—space, air, sea, undersea, land and cyberspace. Now, faced by great powers with rough parity in battle network-guided munitions warfare, the Joint Force will be contested in every domain. Multi-Domain Battle seeks to achieve an advantage in this context by exploiting the aforementioned infusion of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into our battle networks to achieve what I’ll call “cross-domain superiority.” If successful, even if the enemy can contest us in a single domain we should to be able to achieve physical, temporal and positional advantages by combining simultaneous operations in and fires from multiple domains—by massing effects from the air, from the sea, from the ground, from under the sea.
One thing I need to mention here is that neither of these two paths is likely to give us a lasting operational advantage like the ones we accrued after the 1OS and 2OS. Advances in 3OS technologies such as AI, big data and machine learning are being driven by the commercial sector and available to all competitors. The competitive landscape will thus have many “fast followers.” 3OS thinking sees us in an intense temporal competition where we need to strive to be the “fast leader.” Even then, we must be prepared for technical, tactical and operational surprise as some competitors beat us to the punch. That is why you hear so much emphasis in the Department about the need to become more agile, flexible and resilient.
You emphasize that AI and autonomy are at the core of the 3OS battle networks. In 2015, Retired General Stanley McChrystal published a great book (Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World) where he described the JSOC network responsible for neutralizing Zarqawi - a “team of teams” effect, in fact an information age construct able to fuse resources and capacities from across the network, highly autonomous with the decision-making cycle decentralized pushed way down, able to access a common shared consciousness in order to achieve a strategic battlefield effect. Is this description applicable also to the human-machine operations contemplated by the 3OS?
Thank you for asking this question. A lot of people look at the 3OS and think that it is all about technology and high-end warfare. In fact, 3OS thinking was inspired from the beginning by the Gen. McChrystal’s thinking. Tony Thomas gave us a picture that was drawn on a white board by a Special Forces operator in early 2000s. It depicts a tactical battle network that transfers data from space systems, manned aerial platforms, unmanned aerial platforms, ELINT, SIGINT, HUMINT, and ground systems directly to an operator, labeled Yankee 01 in the picture, who is ready to conduct an operation against a high value target. This picture was the inspiration for assisted human operations, which is all about rapid, decentralized decision-making, supported by the power of the battle network. The picture also well portrays a 3OS human-machine collaborative battle network with a high degree of human-machine combat teaming where decision-making authority is sometimes delegated to machines, and where the ultimate aim is the development of the “common shared consciousness” which was the secret sauce of General McChrystal’s team of teams.
This type of thinking and aim is as applicable to high-end warfare as it is to counterterrorist operations. The only difference between the two is their associated battle networks will be configured differently for the task at hand. In other words, while each battle network will incorporate AI and machine learning, human-machine collaboration, assisted human operations, human-machine combat teaming, and cyber and EW hardened network-enabled weapons, they will use them in different ways to support specific aims, operations and tactics. The operational and organizational constructs that will evolve from 3OS will all have similar traits where commanders and operators alike are trying to pull and exploit information and resources from across the network, develop a common shared consciousness, and exploit highly decentralized and in some cases autonomous decision-making cycles. Only the battle network’s grid configurations will differ, depending on the level of war or task at hand.
Should we expect an even more intensified competition below the threshold of armed conflict in the allied frontline regions placed in the immediate proximity of Eurasian geopolitical rivals, especially at a time when the parity in 2OS theater-level battle networks give these challengers local overmatch/superiority?
Yes. But more intense competition below the threshold of armed conflict, is only partly due to 2OS parity. This renewed competition is the natural result stemming from the resurgence of great power competition. Great powers are generally very cautious about militarily confronting other great powers —especially since the advent of nuclear weapons. This helps explain why there hasn’t been a great power war in over 70 years. But as they pursue their own interests, we can expect both Russia and China to press the United States and contest many aspects of the rules-based international order the U.S. has worked so hard to build. While so doing, both seek to achieve their aims while operating below the threshold of armed conflict. And both great powers seek to secure and control their “near abroads,” which puts great pressure on the eastern flank of NATO and our Pacific allies. Russia does this through a strategy of indirect action involving “active measures,” while China pursues a patient strategy of economic coercion and cooption supported by “gray zone” activities like those we see in the South China Sea.
All this activity is typical of great powers, and requires both the United States and its allies to up their strategic games. As a status quo power, the U.S. seeks to achieve comprehensive strategic stability, underwritten by strategic deterrence, conventional deterrence, and competing with, contesting and confronting our rivals while avoiding great power war. All three efforts are required to avoid crisis instability or miscalculations that might lead to armed conflict. As we’ve discussed, while we accept strategic parity, we strive for conventional overmatch. The 3OS aims to convince both China and Russia that any escalation beyond intense peacetime competition would end badly for them.
In the past, the 2OS had a transformative effect on NATO’s deterrence posture. Today NATO is not well positioned to counterbalance 2OS theater-level battle networks. How do you see the effect of the 3OS thinking on influencing NATO's adaptation in an age of great power competition?
It’s too early to tell. I think NATO is still debating whether Russia poses more of a conventional threat or more of a hybrid threat that seeks to destabilize the alliance through what I think of as governance and societal cohesion attacks. Additionally, as of yet there are no 3OS concepts like FOFA that might help transform NATO’s operational posture.
I think this will change in the near future. In my view, a NATO Collaborative Human-Machine Battle Network designed for counter-power projection would strengthen conventional deterrence along the eastern NATO/EU border in a big way. Such a battle network would employ a variety of unmanned sensors and effectors to preclude the need for large formations on the eastern border. This battle network would include and control a NATO Operational Fires Network with common artillery, rocket and INF compliant ballistic missiles, augmented by distributed “containerized armories.” Such a network could mass extremely dense and accurate guided missile and air fires across a much greater front than seen in the 2OS. “Containerized armories” would also allow smaller nations that cannot afford to raise and maintain combined arms formations to make a material contribution to NATO’s defense.
I think this discussions highlights an important point. The 3OS is very “coalition friendly.” AI-enabled C3I grids with computer vision and natural language processing should allow more cohesive coalition command and control and operations. Distributed “containerized armories” filled with network-enabled anti-armor weapons will allow any nation to make itself a tough nut to crack. And even a small nation with skills in algorithmic warfare can be a critical contributor to a NATO Human-Machine Collaborative Battle Network. For this reason, ultimately I expect the 3OS to have an even greater transformative impact on NATO posture than did the 2OS.
Do you have any other thoughts that we have not yet covered?
Only one. Some people are worried about AI machines that will be able to reason in many ways like humans, and about delegating decisions about life or death to them. The 3OS exploits AI and autonomy, but it generally sees humans remaining either in the loop or on the loop—as is suggested by the terms human-machine collaboration and human-machine combat teaming. In our current thinking the human always comes first.
Accordingly, the envisioned road to the 3OS starts with the insertion of “narrow AI”—algorithms developed for a specific purpose—into our battle network grids. We posit that once we infuse all four of our grids with multiple narrow AI systems, the battle network will achieve what Gen McCrystal refers to as common shared consciousness. If we can actually do this, when an adversary’s legacy battle network comes up against ours, it may appear as though our battle network is operating under “general AI,” or AI that mimics human thought and intuition. But but humans will still control and guide the battle network.
Now, that said, our competitors may go a different way. Russian and Chinese militaries, which support autocratic regimes, may be less worried about delegating lethal decision making authority to machines. We know, for example, that the Soviets conceived of reconnaissance strike complexes that would ultimately be nearly wholly automatic, where machines made all the decisions about target engagement.
So the way democratic militaries think about 3OS networks may be different than the way our autocratic geopolitical rivals think about them. We have to see how this competition evolves over time. What will happen in a confrontation between 3OS battle networks where one is controlled mainly by humans and the other controlled mainly by machines? Which side will prevail? I’m afraid we will see.
Bob Work is a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Defense and National Security at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Senior Counselor with Telemus Group, a consulting firm specializing in defense forecasting, wargaming and qualitative analysis. He served as the 31st Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2014-2017.