Don't Worship at the Altar of Andrew Marshall

Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts’s The Last Warrior seeks to canonize longtime Defense Department strategist Andrew Marshall. But his record was far more mixed than his incense burners are prepared to admit.

January-February 2015

Krepinevich and Watts suggest that Marshall’s “pursuit of an accurate estimate of the Soviet defense burden, enabled by both ONA’s charter and Marshall’s long tenure . . . may well represent his most important contribution to US strategy during the Cold War’s final decade.” Marshall’s experience on the Gaither Committee first alerted him to the difficulty of determining the size of the Soviet economy as well as the extent of its defense burden and sparked his dissatisfaction with the CIA’s approach. But his concern needs to be seen in the larger context of growing conservative dissatisfaction with CIA estimates of the Soviet Union in general, to which a chorus of voices contributed, including neoconservatives and the various other ideological hard-liners associated with Team B and the Committee on the Present Danger.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is far from obvious that Marshall was right. For one thing, it is not at all clear that the CIA got things as wrong in its estimates of the Soviet economy and its defense burden as Krepinevich and Watts maintain. While the state of the art in the 1950s and 1960s may have suffered from serious flaws, as a declassified study in the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence notes, “by the mid-1970s, it was clear from the Agency’s publications that the fears of the USSR’s becoming the foremost world economic power were unfounded.” Marshall, though, consistently took the pessimistic view that the Soviets were using their strategic resources more efficiently than the United States. He was wrong. Krepinevich and Watts, though, seek to shield the sage from error: they reproach the CIA for some mistakes of Marshall’s in estimating the size of the Soviet defense effort.

Whatever private reservations Marshall may have had about the CIA’s Soviet economic data, his public line in a 1991 letter to Deputy Director for Intelligence John Helgerson was that the CIA’s economic estimates of Soviet defense programs have “been the major foundation for my office’s work on a military investment balance report that top defense officials have found very useful in characterizing broad trends in our security situation.” In short, when it suited his purposes, Marshall was perfectly content to rely upon CIA figures. Krepinevich and Watts argue that it was Marshall’s dissatisfaction with CIA estimates that led him to rely upon outside experts, but it is equally plausible that he did this because the political interpretations CIA analysts drew from this data were at variance with his own.

Marshall’s second major contribution, and the one most outside observers are most likely to credit him with, is his advocacy of the notion that we are in the midst of another RMA. As with Marshall’s interest in counterforce, it was Soviet military writings in the early 1970s about what they called the Military Technical Revolution (MTR) that first alerted him to this possibility. Indeed, a retired flag-rank officer who was on active duty throughout the RMA debate told me that Pentagon wags used to joke about the rechristening of the MTR as the RMA to camouflage its Soviet pedigree by imitating a herd of sheep bleating “MTR = Baaaaaad, RMA = goooood.” But it was no laughing matter to Marshall, who, as usual, viewed Soviet interest in the direst of terms: “It is clear that the Soviets have been engaged in a well-financed, steadily growing, increasingly effective effort to catch-up, across the board, in military technology.”

Marshall’s final signal contribution, we are often told, was his anticipation of the rise of China as the United States’ primary “peer competitor” in the twenty-first century. In Marshall’s vision, a rising China was embracing elements of the RMA to develop a strategy and force posture that would increasingly make it impossible for the United States to operate in the western Pacific littoral.

While there is no doubt that the rise of China constitutes the United States’ major strategic challenge in the new century, Marshall’s role in identifying this threat needs to be put in perspective. First, there were plenty of other strategists who came to the same conclusion about China independent of Marshall’s net assessments. Second, China’s strategy is hardly an example of the mature RMA in action that he envisioned during the later stage of the Cold War. Indeed, it is probably better regarded as an example of the sort of “asymmetric warfare” that inferior powers have historically embraced to counter a technologically superior foe. And finally, it’s difficult not to conclude that Marshall’s preoccupation, even obsession, with the RMA and China in the 1990s and early 2000s led him to ignore the very real threat of terrorism that thrust itself onto our national-security agenda so dramatically on September 11, 2001.


THROUGHOUT, KREPINEVICH and Watts also don’t address important inconsistencies in Marshall’s strategic thinking. Despite having helped create the “bureaucratic politics” framework, Marshall never consistently applied it. If Soviet strategic decisions and weapons-acquisition policies were principally the result of internal processes, then why should we have concluded that they reflected the most malign intentions and used them as our strategic polestar? Furthermore, Marshall clearly wanted to have it both ways on the issue of whether and how much U.S. actions could influence adversary behavior. In his early work in the 1950s and 1960s, he was quite critical of action/reaction models of arms racing, arguing that Soviet behavior would be driven largely by internal dynamics. But later he would take a more bullish view of the action/reaction thesis, declaring in 1999 that “every action creates a reaction; every new weapon spurs the creation of a new defense.” So which was it?