DOD's Third Offset Strategy: what man and machine can do together

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work provides some context to the plan to make use of autonomy and artificial intelligence.

The Defense Department’s Third Offset Strategy, which seeks to outmaneuver advantages made by top adversaries primarily through technology, is at heart based on the time-honored military concepts of being able to win a war if necessary but also having enough capability to deter one, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said this week.    

“The Third Offset is really kind of simple at its core. It basically hypothesizes that the advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy – autonomous systems – is going to lead to a new era of human-machine collaboration and combat teaming,” he said in an appearance at the Atlantic Council on May 2. “Collaboration is using the tactical acuity of a computer to help a human make better decisions and human-machine combat teaming is using manned and unmanned platforms.”

Typically, wide-reaching initiatives can be difficult to implement given various cultural, structural and bureaucratic barriers. “We’re trying to conceive of how this will unfold. That’s very important. We don’t have an endpoint in this. This is very much a walk, crawl, run – see what we can do, how we train our people, how our people react,” Work said. Such an effort, therefore, is going to need big changes in training, doctrine and integration of new concepts and technologies.   

The strategy, Work should, should also be able to develop battle networks that will leverage human-machine teaming and be applicable across a range of threats, from counterterrorism to hybrid warfare. “The ‘little green men’ problem is a learning machine, big data analytics problem,” he said, referring to the un-uniformed Russian special forces that infiltrated and undermined Ukraine’s political protests, eventually leading to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. According to House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calf.), “The biggest intelligence failure that we’ve had since 9/11 has been the inability to predict the leadership plans and intentions of the Putin regime in Russia.” 

Reports that major competitors such as Russia and China are closing the advanced weapons gap engender a sense of haste. “These things take a long time,” Work said. “What I worry about, and what we’re trying to think about at the department, is we don’t think we have much time.” 

Work analogized the world right now to the interwar period between the first and second World Wars, during which everyone had access to radios, airplanes and other technologies, “but only the Germans put everything together into an operational concept called Blitzkrieg,” he said. “Now we were all fast followers. As soon as we saw it we all said ‘God, why didn’t we think of that!’ By 1944 we were out Blitzkrieging the Germans.” 

“Today technology moves real quickly…we’re in a competitive situation, as with China and Russia, for example. They’re innovating every day,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, using an alternate acronym for ISIS, said at an event in March. “And [Russia and China] live out there as we do in a world where a lot of technology doesn’t come from us. It comes from the commercial world and we need to feed upon that. And that’s rapidly changing. So for those two reasons – the immediacy of the possibility of conflict and the need to react quickly and also the pace at which technology changes – I have to challenge our folks to get faster.”  

Work said that while the Third Offset Strategy is based the idea of countering other powerful countries, the strategy ultimately aims to keep the peace, ensuring that major conflicts don’t occur. “We organize, train and equip our forces to win wars, but we operate forward to preserve the peace. So we hope that we will never have to use these technologies in any war but if we do have a war we’re absolutely certain that they’ll be applicable in anything we do,” he said.   

Work also assured his audience that the Pentagon is not trying to create systems akin to Skynet or the Terminator—that is, machines that can write their own code, make decisions, or lock out humans from intervening. “I think more in terms of Ironman; the ability of a machine to assist a human where the human is still in control and all matters…but the machine makes the human much more powerful and much more capable,” he asserted.

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