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Research Questions

  1. What intellectual changes did the Third Offset foster within DoD?
  2. To what extent can the Third Offset be considered successful?
  3. How did the Third Offset influence the 2018 NDS?

The Third Offset emerged at a time of transition within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In 2014, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to be winding down. At the same time, it had become clear to U.S. defense planners that for the previous two decades, while the U.S. military was concentrated on Afghanistan and Iraq, China and Russia had significantly increased their warfighting capabilities. The aim of the Third Offset, as envisioned by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, one of its key creators and advocates, was to draw on U.S. advanced technologies to offset China's and Russia's technological advances. This report documents the history of the Third Offset from 2014 to 2018.

A key finding in this history is that the Third Offset was less a military strategy for offsetting what were perceived to be the recently acquired military advantages of China and Russia and more a mechanism for intellectual change within DoD at a time when changes in thinking about future warfare were needed. As a result, this history focuses on institutional efforts to effect change within DoD and the key defense leaders who strove to bring that change to fruition. These efforts were successful in that the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) embraced many of the fundamental tenets of technological advances and organizational changes developed by the Third Offset. In that sense, this history provides an example of how to effect organizational and process changes in large military institutions like DoD.

Key Findings

The Third Offset referred loosely to a set of ideas

  • One of these ideas was the conviction that China and Russia — but especially China — were strategic competitors and needed to be treated as such.
  • The corollary to this idea was the conviction that the United States must develop a strategy to compete with China and Russia.
  • This meant, among other things, refocusing the military on the kind of military capabilities required to confront peer adversaries. In particular, there was concern with countering China's and Russia's anti-access/area denial technologies.
  • Another idea pertained to DoD's diminished role in driving innovation; the Third Offset featured a drive to find new ways to cultivate technological innovations and interact with the commercial world, including Silicon Valley.

During its brief lifespan, the Third Offset did not result in a set of capabilities that offset Chinese and Russian capabilities; however, it promoted many ideas that shaped the 2018 NDS

  • Work gave these ideas — from the return to great-power competition to the need to shake up DoD business practices — a focus and a direction that, up to that point, were lacking.
  • The Third Offset was less a military strategy for offsetting Russian and Chinese military advances and more a mechanism for intellectual change within DoD at a time when changes in thinking about future warfare were needed.
  • The history of the Third Offset showcases the importance of positive, inspired leadership in effecting organizational change.

This research was sponsored by the Joint History and Research Office and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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