The Center for a New American Security is working to get its newest project, Beyond Offset: Will the US Maintain Its Military Edge?, off the ground in the hopes of providing a long-term view of where technology is moving and how it could be operationalized to benefit the military.

The project, co-chaired by CNAS chief executive officer Michele Flournoy and Finmeccanica North America CEO and former deputy secretary of defense William Lynn, is meant “to focus on, how do we find the technologies which are increasingly in the commercial sector that are going to give meaningful advantages to the American military in the decades ahead,” Lynn told Defense Daily. Flournoy is considered a top contender to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is leaving the Pentagon as soon as his replacement is confirmed.

Former deputy secretary of defense and current CEO of Finmeccanica North America William Lynn
Former deputy secretary of defense and current CEO of Finmeccanica North America William Lynn

Those involved in the project are still developing their plans for meetings and how to reach the technology experts they seek outside of the defense industrial base. Lynn said it is important to reach as many companies as possible “not just within the defense community but in the broader technology communities because, as I said, I think increasingly that when you look at new technologies they are less in defense and more in the commercial sphere. And the challenge is, how do you operationalize those technologies to enable our military to retain the advantages they’ve had since World War II?”

Lynn said he expected to reach out to technology experts in innovation hubs like Silicon Valley, Austin and the Washington area, in the hopes of being led to the researchers doing cutting-edge work.

“Rather than use conventional processes–get a group of experts together and kind of hone down to a single message–we’re going to kind of invert that and try to pull as diverse a set of individuals as possible and try to use that expert community to see if we can’t develop some kind of direction as to where technology might be going,” Lynn said. He added that the final product wouldn’t be a report to send to the Pentagon, but rather he said he thinks the CNAS project will write several smaller reports and commission some white papers, each exploring the potential that lies in different technology areas.

The Pentagon is also working on developing a new offset strategy–the first being tactical nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet Union’s much larger conventional army, and the second being the development of long-range strike capabilities and intelligence networks once the Soviets caught up to the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Hagel announced earlier this month that one of the five aspects of his new Defense Innovation Initiative would be a look at what technology areas to pursue in its research and development plan to help restore the military’s technological edge (Defense Daily, Nov. 17).

Both efforts will look at similar technology areas, Lynn said–robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, power technology and information technology among them. They will come from different perspectives, though, with different end products.

“Their effort I think is devoted at how do you shape the Pentagon program to ensure that it’s pointed in the right direction. Ours I think is a little bit broader, maybe focused on a little bit longer-term horizon,” Lynn said. “But I think there’s some parallels to what they’re thinking about, and I would hope our efforts would help to contribute intellectual capital to what the Pentagon’s doing.”

Ultimately, the Pentagon’s effort will lead to a long-term research and development roadmap, whereas Lynn said he hopes his effort with CNAS will inform Pentagon policy–not only the R&D roadmap but also the Pentagon’s acquisition reform effort that includes looking at ways to reduce the barriers to doing business with the Defense Department.

The premise that underlies the offset strategy studies is that technology innovation is increasingly happening in a commercial marketplace rather than within industry, and that that marketplace is increasingly globalized.

Lynn said he hopes the Pentagon will seek to “broaden its concept of change in the acquisition process to include lowering those barriers to entry. It’s not that they’ve increased, I think, so much over time; it’s that they haven’t decreased, and the fact of them has now become more important because of the importance of bringing commercial companies in. So the barriers that were a moderate problem before are a more serious problem today.”