Thursday, October 6, 2016

Offset This!

Military jargon can be handy or it can be confusing.  Today, I sat in on a conference of Air folks--run by the Air Staff College that is hosting me with Japan's Air Defence Force, Australian Air Force, French Air Force, Royal Air Force, and US Air Force folks.  The speakers included people from all of these--majors to colonels.  I missed yesterday's presentations that were mostly about the threat these folks are facing in Asia-Pacific.  Today was about what each air force was thinking about in terms of responding, including new doctrine.  The big US theme--the third offset.

Whuck?  Well, um, hmmmm.  The official definition on the slide (they gave me a briefing book with all of the slides, and yes, death by powerpoint):
"Offset strategies are about technologically enabled operational and organizational constructs that provide the joint force with an advantage, strengthening conventional deterrence."  Or so says the Secretary of the Air Force.
What does that mean?  No idea.  However, we can figure it out by looking at the first and second offsets:
  1. 1950's: Need to offset Soviet Conventional Superiority, which led to Eisenhower's New Look strategy--massive retaliation and all that.
  2.  1970's: Need to offset erosion of US nuclear advantage.  So precision guided munitions.
  3. Future/now Technological advantage is eroding.  Adversaries (China) are innovating faster so US/allies will not have big lead in latest technologies.  
Ah, so offset means that the US/allies are trying to offset or compensate for the strengths of the adversary (used to be Soviet, now China and maybe some others).

But offset by itself does not really sing.  It does not really clearly identify what the basic stuff is about.  I am not sure about a better name.

What I am sure about is that this ain't the third one.  What this count above ignores, among others, is the 1960s, when nuclear supremacy gave way.  The Kennedy administration came up with flexible response, so that the US would dominate every rung of the escalation ladder.  But the big "offset" was political: teaching the Soviets about Mutual Assured Destruction, about Schellling, and about why defenses (ABM) were bad.

Which leads to the challenge of the present day--much work needs to be done so that the US/allies and China share a common language about the relationship and perhaps focus effort on mutual security rather than supremacy.  The recent news about the USAF pursuing a next generation bomber designed to penetrate Chinese airspace bothers the fuck out of me.  Sorry, but I cannot say it more strongly, but the idea of developing capabilities that undermine China's second strike capability is dumb and then some.  China may not accept mutual assured destruction, but it sure as hell will not accept being vulnerable to a disarming US first strike.  Haven't we learned the lessons of the past?  The USAF bomber plans suggests not so much.

While I do admire the folks I heard today, and I think the recognition that the US will not be out-innovating the Chinese, that the technological edge is not going to be as wide (although is China close to having rail guns and frickin laser beams?) is very important, it comes back to politics.  We need to get straight the relationships and what the US needs to do and to avoid before trying to build a plane that might undermine a stable equilibrium that fosters peace.

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