When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the US was taken off guard. Seriously off guard. While Eisenhower didn’t think the pointy satellite was a major strategic threat, the public perception was that it was. The Soviets could launch rockets into space, and if they could do that, they could easily launch nuclear missiles at the US. So, aside from a damaged US ego about losing the “space race,” the strategic landscape shifted quickly and the “missile gap” fear was born.
The US’s “strategic surprise” and the subsequent public backlash caused the US to embark on a variety of science and technology ventures to ensure that it would never face such surprise again. One new agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), was tasked with generating strategic surprise – and guarding against it. While ARPA changed into DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Agency) in the 1970s, its mission did not change.
DARPA has been, and still is, the main source of major technological advancement for US defense, and we would do well to remember its primary mission: to prevent strategic surprise. Why one might ask is this important to the students of international affairs? Because technology has always been one of the major variables (sometimes ignored) that affects relations between international players. Who has what, what their capabilities are, whether they can translate those capacities into power, if they can reduce uncertainty and the “fog and friction” of war, whether they can predict future events, if they can understand their adversaries, and on and on the questions go. But at base, we utilize science and technology to pursue our national interests and answer these questions.
I recently brought attention to the DoD’s new “Third Offset Strategy” in my last post. This strategy, I explained, is based on the assumption that scientific achievement and the creation of new weapons and systems will allow the US to maintain superiority and never fall victim to strategic surprise (again). Like the first and second offsets, the third wants to leverage advancements in physics, computer science, robotics, artificial intelligence and electrical and mechanical engineering to “kick the crap” out of any potential adversary.
Yet, aside from noting these requirements, what exactly, would the US need to do to “offset” the threats from Russia, China, various actors in the Middle East, terrorists (at home and abroad), and any unforeseen or “unknown unknowns?” I think I have a general idea, and if I am at all or even partially correct, we need to have a public discussion about this now.