U.S. defense officials have become almost frantic about what they see as the need to find a way of offsetting the perceived loss of American military-technological preeminence over prospective adversaries. Our adversaries have gone to school on our approach to warfare and have developed a host of responses, often lumped under the general heading of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). In addition, the richer and more sophisticated opponents are investing in advanced technologies too, most notably ballistic and cruise missiles, electronic warfare and cyber. This new reality led Defense Secretary Hagel to observe recently that “Our military could arrive in a future combat theater facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that thwart our technological advantages, limit our freedom of maneuver, and put American lives at risk.”
The Pentagon is now looking for a new offset strategy, the third since the end of World War Two. The first one, beginning in the mid-1950s was nuclear escalation as a means of offsetting the Soviet Union’s massive superiority in conventional forces. The second, triggered by Moscow’s attainment of nuclear parity with the United States and extending from the late 1970s until today, focused on exploiting a series of advanced technologies such as stealth and precision-guided munitions as well as new operational concepts such as AirLand Battle to undermine the Red Army juggernaut. The Soviet leadership faced the choice between accepting the risk of an unsuccessful conventional attack or responding to Western success with its own nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, such a step meant the inevitable annihilation of the Soviet Union.
Successful offset strategies never promised to win the war. They only sought to make it clear that Moscow couldn’t either and that any attempt it made to start a conventional war would inevitably lead to escalation. Strategically, they were based on a very simply premise: success lay in making the Soviet Union uncertain about the outcome of any initial conventional attack. It was challenging operationally and quite expensive. However, the two offset strategies basically deterred war.
One potential offset strategy is to rely on air and missile defenses, both strategic and theater, to counter the threat posed by prospective adversaries’ growing stockpiles of ballistic and cruise missiles and strike aircraft. China, Russia, North Korea and Iran are relying on massive initial salvoes of ballistic and cruise missiles in the opening minutes to shape the course and outcome of a future conflict with the West. The offset strategy must make the leadership in Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and Teheran uncertain that they can achieve their initial goals.
The recent Gaza conflict is illustrative of the role of defenses in offsetting an adversary’s reliance on rockets and missiles. Hamas and Hezbollah built up massive arsenals of tactical rockets and ballistic missiles in an attempt to achieve something akin to strategic parity with Israel, given the latter’s total superiority in air and conventional land forces. Under the threat of massive rocket and missile salvoes, Israel would have only two choices: succumb to the pain of attacks on its cities and citizens or launch a massive ground invasion of Gaza or southern Lebanon.
The Israeli defense against short-range rockets and missiles, Iron Dome, completely turned the terrorists’ strategy on its head. An analysis by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance comparing the effects of Hamas missile offensives with and without Iron Dome from 2006 until 2014 makes the role of defenses as an offset clear. The analysis examined the number of rockets fired, the casualties inflicted and the costs to Israel per rocket fired in terms of insurance claims for property damage.
In 2006, before Iron Dome was deployed, 4,600 rockets were fired at Israel. There were 53 deaths, one per 79 rockets fired and 7.34 insurance claims for property damage per one rocket fired. In 2012, Israel had deployed five Iron Dome batteries. Hamas launched some 1,600 rockets and missiles, killing five Israelis or one per 320 rockets fired and just two insurance clams per rocket. In 2014, some 4,500 rockets and mortar rounds were fired into Israel. This assault resulted in just two civilian deaths and less than one insurance claim per rocket launched. The same number of projectiles fired in 2006 and 2014 produced more than 30,000 insurance claims after the former but about 10 percent of that number in 2014.
Israel’s ground offensive into Gaza was triggered by the discovery of the massive tunnel network that reached across the border, not because of the pain caused by thousands of rockets and mortars. In fact, 2014 compared to 2006 suggests that there was not much pain to Israel, although a lot of inconvenience.
A U.S. offset strategy to adversary missile arsenals needs to shift the cost exchange ratio by investing in capabilities with a low cost per shot. This means getting serious about developing advanced anti-missile systems such as directed energy weapons and rail guns. It also means leveraging tactics, techniques and technologies such as hardening, dispersal, repair and camouflage to complicate the enemy’s targeting and reduce the effectiveness of incoming strikes against military facilities.
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