In Defense of Net Assessment

The U.S. Department of Defense's big-picture strategy office shouldn't be cut. 

Washington is a slave to short-term thinking. The “kick the can down the road” mentality has been illustrated repeatedly in recent months by the failure of President Obama and the Congress to find long-term solutions to the debt ceiling and budget crises. Driven by two-, four-, and six-year election cycles and a twenty-four-hour news cycle, thinking about the future—and how to prepare for it—is America’s Achilles heel. But since 1973, the Office of Net Assessment and its inimitable director, Andrew Marshall, has been America’s safeguard against the perils of short-term thinking. Plans by the Obama administration to close the office—or curtail its influence—are misguided and dangerous.

This small office located within the Pentagon serves as the Defense Department’s internal think tank and strategy shop; the ninety-two-year-old Marshall serves as the senior adviser to the secretary of defense on the future of the national-security environment. It has been reported in various media outlets that this office has been targeted for elimination. Critics argue that the office has outlived its usefulness and should be shuttered because of the current budget crisis.

Ineffectual programs within the Defense Department should be shut down—but the Office of Net Assessment isn’t one of them. Far from it, the Office continues to provide a valuable service to the nation and is needed now more than ever as the country’s financial position continues to deteriorate and states like Russia and China continue to challenge American hegemony.

Over the years, most press coverage of the office has amounted to little more than contemporary yellow journalism with adjectives like “secretive” and “powerful” used to imply a nefariousness that simply isn’t present. To be sure, Marshall is a fascinating personality and story. He’s served every president since Richard Nixon as the office’s director. The fact that he continues to work full-time at such an advanced age is a testament to his sense of duty and love of country. (For the sake of full disclosure, I have studied his office as an academic and briefly supported his office as a consultant several years ago.) Marshall is a rare intellect, but the office and the analytical tradition that he helped pioneer must survive long after his time as director comes to an end.

First, Marshall and his team of civilian and military staff look beyond the crisis of the hour, examining emerging trends and considering what the world might look like in the next ten, twenty or thirty years. Having an understanding of how the world might evolve provides U.S. statesmen with the best opportunity to position the United States for the future. The office provides insights to senior leaders on a range of issues including weapons acquisition, force structure, and national security strategy. Its contributions are significant and numerous: it positioned the United States for victory in the Cold War by yielding actionable insights on the Soviet leadership and nuclear strategy; foresaw the revolution of information warfare and how the United States could turn it into a strategic advantage; and highlighted the challenges that a rising, assertive China will pose.

Second, at a cost to the taxpayer of $10 million annually, the Office of Net Assessment offers one of the best returns on investment in the entire U.S. Government. To put this figure in perspective, the United States spends over $500 billion annually on defense. In a recent Washington Post article, a former senior defense official who, of course, spoke on the condition of anonymity, is quoted as saying, “You can’t quite tell what the nation is getting out of it [the Office of Net Assessment].” Eliminating the office of Net Assessment on the basis of cost would be like Apple discontinuing the iPhone because research and development costs too much. For those who believe in American exceptionalism and that American preeminence since 1945 has generally been a positive influence in international affairs, then $10 million is an eminently reasonable investment.

Third, the office has served as an incubator for some of the most talented national-security thinkers in the last thirty years. Many of the military officers who served in the office went on to become general officers and serve in senior positions in the Pentagon. Others lead think tanks or are in the top of their profession in academia. This is important because these men and women contribute to the national-security dialogue long after their time in the office is over. These strategy skills are not easily learned, and many do not have the aptitude for type of over-the-horizon thinking in which the office engages. It is good for the nation to have a cadre of seasoned net-assessment practitioners.

Great powers have a history of bankrupting themselves and falling victim to bungled strategies. The strength of the Republic and the duration of American hegemony is dependent on its ability to think about long-term possibilities and capitalize on constantly changing dynamics in the international security environment. Having a robust Office of Net Assessment is a prerequisite if the United States is to continue to fulfill one of its most sacred promises outlined in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Secretary of Defense Hagel and President Obama should move quickly to remove the veil of uncertainty around the office’s future.

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