DoD’s Third Offset – Science Fact or Fantasy?


Jordan Barr

Date Published:
December 6, 2016

An offset strategy is critical to the US Department of Defense’s plan to gain and maintain a strategic defense advantage over our enemies, real or potential.  Since the beginning of the Cold War, the vision casting and implementation of these offsets has followed three distinct phases.  The first was nuclear, the second depended on precision-guided missiles, and the third and most ambitious, currently underway, relies on emerging technologies centered on human-machine integration.

Science Fiction Fact or Fantasy?

Human/machine terms can elicit a flood of thoughts, emotions, and memories of science fiction film apocalypses.  For some, the rise of Artificial Intelligence represents partaking of the forbidden fruit — a relinquishing of our sovereign dominion of the Earth as we race to a self-imposed hell.  To a vocal few, most notably Ray Kurweil, the DoD’s vision is a part of humankind’s inevitable ascendancy to the throne of a materialistic heaven. Kurzweil famously prophesied that an impending singularity will occur sometime around the year 2045.  The technological singularity is a hypothetical time when total intelligence levels explode upward as artificial intelligence (AI) and humanity meld in a runaway reaction.  The spawn of this singularity event is a dynamically evolving superintelligence — neither human nor machine, but something superior to both.  Only time will tell if these are the musings of mad scientists or our future reality, but hints of the singularity are reflected in the DoD’s Third Offset strategy as well as in Tom Davenport’s commercial Analytics 4.01 (the subject of my next blogpost).

Whether you side with Kurweil, proponents of a doomsday scenario, or the vast majority somewhere in between, the reality is that human-machine integration is burgeoning and is already penetrating into many aspects of our everyday lives. What are the forces shaping and energizing these technological ideas, and why should anyone care?  It’s competitive advantage—the discriminant between winners and losers, superpowers and subservient nation states, Fortune 500 juggernauts and financially insolvent firms.  Those entities, including nations and organizations at all scales, that best utilize technology and integrate machine intelligence into human systems, will thrive and ultimately dominate their respective environments.  Let’s begin by taking a brief journey into the Third Offset in the Defense and Intelligence arena.

What is The Third Offset (in case you missed first two)?

During the First Offset (1950s and 1960s), the United States gained a technological advantage in nuclear weaponry and in miniaturizing those weapons.  During the Second Offset (1970s to 1990s), the technological discriminant was our development and implementation of precision-guided weaponry, microprocessors, and the networks required to control those weapon systems.2

In transitioning from the First to Second Offset, the focus changed from stand-alone hardware to complete end-to-end technological solutions, including weapons hardware, control systems, and the systems (hardware and software) required to communicate with, and control these technologies. The Third Offset builds upon the Second Offset by continuing to advance complex networked weapon systems, but with increasingly blurred lines between man and machine.  As new technologies are envisioned and deployed, the Third Offset definition will continue to evolve.  The next big thing represents a moving target with projections typically limited to five years in the future.  To the uninitiated, the many facets of the Third Offset appear disparate, but in reality all of the technologies point toward increasing synergies between soldiers and machines.  These synergies are found in deep-learning systems that use big data analytics to sift through data in order to simplify decision making for humans and weapon systems such as unmanned drones and computer guided missiles where human-machine collaboration is required.

Why Stop with Collaboration?

In the near future, I foresee a rapid transition from man-machine collaboration to machine integration as part of an inexorable pull towards cybernetic organisms. Already, machines are being actively integrated in the form of exoskeletons and multi-purpose biosensors as a natural extension of the soldier.  Think of first generation cyborgs or Iron Man.  Futurists pay heed to Kurzweil’s conceptualization of an apex organism— the man-machine hybrid through real dollars in funding of high risk/high reward projects at places like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and through endless hours spent imagining and writing on these subjects in journals such as the Futurist Magazine.  For them, the days ahead are no different than those at the Tower of Babel when the Lord proclaimed, “nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” Is this stance too extreme?  Likewise, are the doomsayers’ proclamations of a Rise of the Machines of Terminator film lore mere science fantasy?   Whether the prognosticators prove to be right or wrong, the DoD is taking no chances in inadvertently spawning a self-aware Skynet.  Specifically, cybersecurity and network-enabled cyber-hardened weapons have been elevated as core features of the Third Offset.  As the melding of man and machine continues to evolve, cybersecurity must also adapt to stay ahead of the many potential threats.  Threats to cybersecurity are diverse and growing and include nation states (e.g. Russia, China, and North Korea), decentralized entities such as ISIL, and perhaps the most dangerous of all – insider threats (either groups or individuals) who have knowledge of, and control over, the inner workings of computer networks and advanced weaponry.

What then is the path forward in balancing the danger of losing our current offset while maintaining the grip on our own destiny? How can societies sustain ownership of technology instead of it owning us?  I propose that in the years ahead, the United States must implement all facets of the Third Offset, despite the potential risks. We should address uncertainties by evaluating progress at intervals of three to five years while adjusting course whenever necessary to protect and ensure our strategic competitive advantage.  The DoD cannot accomplish these objectives alone.  Partnerships between the government and private companies are critical for maintaining an offset.  At Elder Research we believe that humans need to remain a key part of the loop. Analytics must be conducted in a collaborative environment that brings together the expertise of decision-makers, analysts and investigators, behavioral scientists, and engineers, aided and empowered by the promising technologies of the Third Offset.

(In my next post, we’ll see that companies who adopt the advanced analytics techniques described in Davenport’s Analytics 3.0 and 4.0 are best positioned to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.)

1.Thomas H. Davenport, Era 4.0: The Scary Age of Automated Networks (The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015)
2.Katie Lange, 3rd Offset Strategy 101: What It Is, What the Tech Focuses Are (DoDLive, March 30, 2016)