Drop Zone: The Third Offset and Implications for the Future Operating Environment

By Caitlin Thorn

The Third Offset Strategy has implications for the future multi-domain environment as technologies are rapidly being developed to potentially yield a competitive advantage over peer adversaries.



The global environment is experiencing unprecedented technological growth. This exponential rate of technological advancement has direct implications for US national security, and demands the U.S. keep pace with potential adversaries to ensure the military is able to secure national interests. Recognizing the imperative to maintain a technological competitive edge, in 2014 the US adopted a pursuit of next generation technologies with the goal of strengthening U.S. conventional deterrence. Coming some 30 years after a successful Second Offset Strategy that revolved around the use of precision-guided munitions and stealth technology, the Third Offset Strategy aims to exploit advantages in technologies that will successfully counter potential future adversary threats. Although this strategy was implemented by the previous administration and has been seldom mentioned by the current administration, the programs and technology developments relevant to this strategy are still active and in place and remain a high priority as indicated by the current National Security Strategy. Although advancements in technology have generally been viewed as vital to maintaining a military advantage, the Third Offset Strategy is primarily focused on the application of existing technologies that allow the joint force to achieve and maintain this advantage. Specifically, the Third Offset Strategy must include the development of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), policies, and/or processes necessary to frame the operational and organizational constructs in which to apply these already existing technologies operationally on the battlefield. Although the Third Offset Strategy focus is on enabling artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies, gains in other technological areas, notably hypersonics and directed energy (DE), also have tremendous potential to “offset” the U.S. competitive advantage. It is important to acknowledge that the full potential of these technologies will only be realized if they are employed through the development of the TTPs, policies, and/or processes that enable the application of these technologies within the context of the capabilities they provide. The implications for the successful application of these technologies on the battlefield are many and must be addressed in parallel with the technology development.


Of the next generation “game-changing” technologies, autonomous capabilities may have the most significant implications for defining the future fight. The applications for autonomy are numerous, to include unmanned vehicles, swarming weapon systems, and even the capacity for machines to make smarter and faster decisions than humans. Although autonomy is being utilized in a limited capacity for unmanned systems, the application of the technology has yet to be fully exploited in the military realm due to the lagging TTPs, policies, and processes that must be developed to maximize utility. An example is swarming unmanned weapon systems, which hold incredible potential for offensive operations. The technology to enable this capability is surprisingly simple—autonomous systems, intra-swarm datalinks, and cyber-enabled algorithms have existed for a decade. It is the overdue development and tailoring of the TTPs, acquisition processes, and DOD policies for the application of these systems that preclude use operationally. Optimization algorithms that define intra- and inter-swarm behavior have already been developed and demonstrated. These algorithms must be applied to address the TTPs of intra- and inter-swarm behavior for potential future scenarios. Additionally, the acquisition process to develop this capability must be tailored to accommodate the flexible, iterative, and rapid technological evolution that the swarming capability demands. And finally, DOD policy currently restricts the use of autonomous lethal weapons. As U.S. adversaries are closing the gap on the potential of this capability, the U.S. must take a harder look at how to rapidly enable this capability to ensure a future competitive “offset.”


In a time where speed is seen as the new stealth in military operations, hypersonic weapons and vehicles ensure a critical avenue to maintaining the competitive advantage. The application of Mach 5+ speeds are many, to include enhancing the effectiveness of offensive weapons, vehicles, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Although seen as a critical next generation technology, this may be the area where the U.S. is most vulnerable in maintaining pace with potential adversaries. China has shown considerable progress in recent hypersonic weapon tests and is currently on track to out-pace the U.S. in hypersonic technology in the near future. With the U.S. current focus on offensive hypersonic weapons, a focus on developing a defensive hypersonic system may be necessary sooner rather than later. As hypersonic technology is developed, it is imperative the TTPs developed to employ this technology match the projected capabilities of our potential adversaries. Although not currently the intention of the U.S., it is possible that potential adversaries intend to utilize hypersonic vehicles as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons. The U.S. must prepare a defensive strategy for this possibility in parallel with offensive hypersonic capabilities to ensure parity, at the very least, in the future fight. Although hypersonic technology is viewed as a critical game-changer in 2030 and beyond, the current construct of the Air Force labs is not structured for a central, concerted effort to develop this capability. The application of this capability is being worked across different research directorates in various capacities, but perhaps a more streamlined, collaborative approach to fully develop this capability would yield more success. Whatever the answer, the U.S. must ensure it keeps pace in this arena, as there is little doubt that hypersonic technology will be a major force multiplier in future operations.

Directed Energy (DE)

As the only identified game-changing technology with its own dedicated research directorate in the Air Force, DE has tremendous potential for use in offensive and defensive operations. This technology allows for a rapid, low-cost weapon with scalable power and pinpoint accuracy, as well as an extremely reliable means in which to counter threats. As there is not a weapon that currently exists with the capability to shoot down hypersonic weapons, DE has the potential to fill this critical gap in the future operating environment. However, similar to the issues prohibiting timely implementation of autonomous swarming weapon capabilities, DE faces a comparable predicament as the policies, TTPs, and processes to implement this capability in the field has not kept up with the technology itself. Although there are no formal operational constraints on the use of DE, the bureaucratic acquisition process prohibits fielding DE to the warfighter in the time required to keep pace with the growing threats. As technological advances in DE rapidly enable the ability to cost-effectively counter asymmetrical threats, the U.S. must keep pace with the policies and procedures necessary to field this technology to the warfighter.


As history indicates, technological advances that enable an edge on the battlefield are a key component to military superiority. As the technologies of the Second Offset Strategy grow stale, it is critical that the next generation technologies of the Third Offset Strategy are developed and exploited to the fullest extent. It is speculated that the technologies mentioned above will enable a future third offset, but it remains to be seen which technologies will actually provide a military advantage in the next two decades. Furthermore, it is not enough that next-generation capabilities are merely developed, but they must also be timely and effectively applied to yield an advantage. This is accomplished through the development of the TTPs, policies, and/or processes that enable the effective application of these technologies on the battlefield. In the past, these factors have been an afterthought to the technology development, but the rapidly changing environment of the future will no longer be as forgiving to this delay. These factors must be tailored to the capabilities and developed in concert with the technology to facilitate rapid acquisition to the warfighter. A series of forthcoming articles here at Over the Horizon will address the challenges associated with enabling the next generation technologies that will be relevant in the future fight. And finally, as the culmination of these technologies inevitably allow the convergence of these capabilities—DE weapons on a swarm of autonomous hypersonic vehicles, for example—it is not too soon to begin formulating how to most effectively enable the synergistic effects of these emerging capabilities in a multi-domain environment.


Caitlin Thorn is an engineer in the United States Air Force. She is currently in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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