The Future of Transatlantic Strategic Superiority
The U.S. Defense Innovation Initiative — also referred to as the Third Offset Strategy (TOS) — was announced in November 2014 to address the erosion of U.S. technological superiority and deterrence. The U.S. Department of Defense launched an ambitious innovation-based program to offset the competition from states in a long-term perspective and to “identify and invest innovative ways to sustain and advance U.S. military dominance for the 21st century.”
When U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel announced “a game-changing third ‘offset’ strategy,” the expression in itself highlighted the ambition of this initiative. An offset strategy is a way, through innovative technologies and operational concepts, to compensate for a military disadvantage vis-à-vis peer competitors, or to reaffirm its military primacy in a context of intense international competition. In the 1950s, the first offset strategy, part of Eisenhower’s New Look policy, aimed to overcome the superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces in conventional capabilities by investing in the nuclear arsenal. Instead of engaging in a direct — and pointless — attempt to match the numerical military power of the USSR and its allies, the United States would offset its enemy by ensuring the superiority of its nuclear deterrent. When the Soviet bloc reached near parity in the nuclear domain, a second offset strategy enabled the United States to overcome the challenge in an asymmetric way. In the 1970s and 1980s, the development of long-range precision-guided munitions, stealth technology, and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, became the game-changer that guaranteed U.S. superiority. The first Gulf War and the outstanding victory of the U.S. Air Force over Saddam Hussein’s military provided a clear illustration of the implications of these investments on the battlefield.
More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the United States enjoys a clear dominance in the military realm. However, the rapid development of countermeasures to U.S. capabilities by state competitors — in particular China and Russia —has been identified as a threat to U.S. capacity to project power. In the early 2010s, the undermining of the power projection capacity was understood as a major issue for the future of U.S. deterrence. Driven notably by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the process leading to the announce of the Third Offset Strategy was therefore different from the first two offsets in nature — the aim was not to compensate the conventional superiority of the adversary, but to share a common goal: the United States sought for technological and operational tools to regain and maintain a strategic superiority that constitute the bedrock of U.S. deterrence worldwide.
The assessments that served as the basis for this strategy — the rapid modernization of China’s defense, emerging Russian ambitions and capabilities, the need to foster exchanges between public and commercial actors in defense innovation, the challenges of new anti-access/area-denial capacities, and the general spread of precision munitions and guided weapon systems — have remained relevant after the 2016 elections. The Trump administration, which does not use the terms TOS, continues to invest in the field of defense innovation in order to develop concrete answers to the erosion of U.S. deterrence. As the United States aims to preserve its ability to project power globally while its traditional sources of military advantage have been undermined by the maturation and proliferation of disruptive technologies, European partners must consider how this initiative may affect transatlantic military cooperation in the long run.
The launch of the U.S. Third Offset Strategy did not trigger a major reaction among European powers. Although they were aware of the long-term strategic issues that led to TOS, Europeans had other priorities for their defense policy, and could not invest politically and financially to design an ambitious response to the U.S. effort. Moreover, Washington’s strategy did not offer a clear role for its allies, and left them unsure of what the United States expected from the transatlantic partnership.
A widening defense innovation gap between the United States on the one hand and European powers on the other could have detrimental implications for the future of transatlantic military cooperation. Indeed, the need to maintain a workable level of interoperability among allies cannot be overstated. Unless transatlantic coordination is reinforced, the recent U.S. initiatives could not only offset adversaries but also make its European partners more dependent and weaken their industrial and innovative assets. This requires a better understanding of the institutional and political mechanisms behind defense innovation policies on both sides of the Atlantic.
In this collection, Dr. Sylvie Matelly, Dr. Christian Mölling, and Prof. Trevor Taylor present the French, German, and British approaches to defense innovation. Considering the U.S. assessment of an erosion of conventional deterrence, the authors study the way each country defines its strategic environment and the evolution of its defense capacity. The authors also highlight the political and institutional processes that define technological innovation in their respective national defense sector, and the recent initiatives that the three main European powers have launched to address 21st century threats.
While none of the these countries has aimed to propose an official response to the U.S. Defense Innovation Initiative, French, German, and British threat perceptions share many of the U.S. concerns. The need for a better integration of civilian innovation into the defense world is also underlined by the papers, although their methods and achievements differ. The global ambition of the U.S. effort is a point of transatlantic divergence: Europeans do not agree on the threats posed by China, and are forced to prioritize more short-term issues due to budget constraints.
Each country also faces its own difficulties. For France, the question of a widening technological gap with the United States reveals the complex articulation of industrial and strategic goals. While cooperation with the United States in the domain of defense innovation is necessary in order to prevent the downgrading of the French military, a deepening of the cooperation with the United States could increase its defense dependence on U.S. capabilities and weaken its strategic autonomy. In Germany, this issue highlights the lack of awareness of the political leadership in this domain. In particular, the fact that new technologies, even if not military in nature, generate military threats, remain misunderstood by many, which hinders the prospect of a constructive collaboration between military and civilian innovation sectors. In the U.K., budget shortage and the implications of Brexit — at a time when the EU becomes more involved in capability development through the European Defense Fund — pose a problem of implementation of the industrial policy.
The United States and its European allies do not share the same global ambitions, nor do they face the same budgetary constraints. Yet, beyond these structural differences, a more fundamental divergence of approach toward defense innovation would jeopardize the mid- and long-term defense cooperation among allies. The following papers provide crucial information to understand the context in which the transatlantic dialogue on defense innovation can take place. Fostering the convergence of European approaches, while taking into account the national specificities, will be necessary to address issues such as the use of commercial technologies in the military realm, the integration of civilian personnel and talents into the defense world, the asymmetric response to peer-competitors’ increasing capabilities, and the development of new operational concepts allowing for the creative use of new technologies.
 U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Memorandum,” November 15, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/OSD013411-14.pdf.
 Chuck Hagel, “Secretary of Defense Speech: Reagan National Defense Forum Keynote,” U.S. Department of Defense, November 15, 2014.