The Role of Offset Strategies in Restoring Conventional Deterrence

An interview with Robert O. Work, 31st US Deputy Secretary of Defense

By Octavian Manea (MAIR ’13)

(Re-published from Small Wars Journal | January 2018) 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 World War II. When the United States entered the war, planners concluded that the US would need over 200 infantry divisions and about 280 air combat groups to ultimately defeat the Axis powers. However, US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 World War II.  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 US “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.  US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US, 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 US 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 US 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 US was forced to purse the 2OS, which in turn spurred a Chinese and Russian reaction to perceived US 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 US 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 US 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 …

Read the whole article here.

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations (2013) and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies from INSCT.