December 3, 2014

The Dangerous Allure of Advanced Technology

The Dangerous Allure of Advanced Technology
“Offset strategies” is a topic currently being discussed in defense circles, the premise being that the U.S. has adopted various approaches to offset an advantage held by an opponent. According to this argument, the U.S. has pursued two previous offset strategies since World War II. The first emerged in the 1950s centered on nuclear weapons and associated operational concepts (like AirLand Battle in the 1980s) to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical advantage in conventional forces. The second focused on highly networked forces leveraging guided weapons such that U.S. forces, exploiting modern information-sharing technologies, would be far more effective than any enemy in coordinated, precision attacks—see the enemy first at great range, orient the force more rapidly to gain positional advantage, strike from long range with great precision, and win before the enemy really ever had a chance to get his act together. Operation Desert Storm is the textbook example. This second offset strategy arose in the mid-1990s as network-centric warfare and has evolved in various ways since then. Current discussions debate what a third offset strategy might be, with most focusing on cyber; next-generation precision weapons; directed energy (e.g., lasers); stealth (reducing the detectable signature of platforms/forces); and unmanned systems.

Ben FitzGerald, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, has published a short essay titled “When Superiority Goes Wrong: Science Fiction and Offset Strategies,” raising justifiable concerns about this approach to the next offset strategy. (The Arthur C. Clarke story mentioned by FitzGerald can be found here. It is quite short, well worth the time to read, and all the more amazing in that Clarke wrote it in 1951!) Underscoring FitzGerald’s concern is the troubling pattern seen in the approach taken by the military services to field new weapon systems: leap-ahead/revolutionary/game-changing capabilities are sought, system/platform complexity increases, technology challenges arise, costs increase, and delays extend…all leading to fewer numbers fielded and much later than initially planned.

The result is a technologically advanced force that is quite small in size, thus having difficulty massing in sufficient numbers in more than one place at a time. A quick review of major defense programs from the past few decades illustrates the problem—B-2 bombers: 132 planned, 21 fielded; F-22 fighters: 650 planned, 183 fielded; DDG-1000 cruisers: 32 planned, 3 fielded; Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): 55 planned, the objective has dropped to 32 and is likely to be far fewer; Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV): 1013 planned, 0 fielded. A similar list was recently compiled by Stephen Rodriguez in his article “Top 10 Failed Defense Programs of the RMA Era.”

One could argue (and many do) that the answer to this lies in defense acquisition reform, but this has proven to be just as alluring and problematic as obtaining a magically advanced force. As documented by J. Ronald Fox in Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009: An Elusive Goal:
From 1960 through 2009, more than twenty-seven major studies of defense acquisition were commissioned by presidents, Congress, secretaries of defense, government agencies, studies and analyses organizations, and universities…[arriving] at most of the same findings [and] recommendations…. [Major] defense programs still require more than fifteen years to deliver less capability than planned, often at two to three times the initial cost.
While Fox catalogs numerous reasons for this, arguably the most central is the military’s fixation on advanced technology as the solution to America’s security problems. Is technology important? Of course it is. But advanced capabilities should not be pursued to the detriment of fielding a force of sufficient capacity to serve U.S. national security interests—yet that is the path our defense community habitually travels.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has proposed to continue this approach in searching for a third offset strategy, as outlined here and here. A concern is that the U.S. defense establishment will remain fixated on early commitment to unproven technologies at the expense of readiness and capacity for operations. As we have noted previously here and here, the defense budget is in disarray and this Administration’s approach to security affairs is dangerously detached from America’s security interests.

In an era of problematic budgets, a better strategy would be to invest scarce resources in maintaining a force that is ready and large enough to serve U.S. security interests while delaying commitment to new technologies until they have been proven to be low risk and affordable enough to field in sufficient numbers. A third offset strategy should focus more on experimentation, new operational concepts, and education and training of the force and less so on premature commitment to unproven, extraordinarily expensive systems. As FitzGerald observes,
The United States relies on technical superiority to maintain its military advantage. But this technical superiority requires humans to generate the right strategies, design and build the right technologies, devise concepts of operations, and train forces to operate the technology to achieve strategic and tactical objectives.… However, we cannot ever let the hubris evident in Superiority lead us to defeat due to, as the narrator assesses, “…the inferior science of our enemies.”

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