Don't Worship at the Altar of Andrew Marshall

December 17, 2014 Topic: DefenseHistoryPolitics Region: United States

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.

In fact, Marshall consistently hedged his strategic bets. In the foreword to a 1999 RAND volume on information warfare, after almost twenty years of studying the RMA, he conceded that we still “do not have an analytic framework to get at [the effect of information warfare], and we certainly do not have adequate models.” Krepinevich and Watts suggest that “the work outside ONA by some members of St. Andrew’s Prep whom Marshall mentored provides perhaps the best window currently available into how net assessment worked in practice.” It certainly makes sense to gauge Marshall’s influence by proxy in the work of his protégés such as Rosen, Friedberg, Cohen, James Roche, Krepinevich and Watts. The authors hold up the major debate on net assessment and the state of the Cold War conventional balance in Europe in the pages of Harvard’s International Security in 1989 as one such exemplar. Readers should peruse for themselves the various contributions. They might ask whether St. Andrew’s Prep alum Eliot Cohen’s similarly Delphic approach to net assessment offered a compelling critique of Cold War conventional-balance optimists who did not think NATO was hopelessly outgunned by the Soviet Union. Indeed, the U.S. military’s stunning performance in the ground war against Iraq in 1991 seems more in line with the optimists’ expectations for future combat.

Unfortunately, this is not an exercise that can be repeated across the board, because the ONA’s relationship with the handful of external contractors and individuals that Marshall relies upon to provide alternative expertise and perspectives to those of the Pentagon bureaucracy is, as Krepinevich and Watts delicately put it, “opaque.” During the Cold War, one of the major recipients of ONA largesse was Phillip Karber of the BDM Corporation, a for-profit defense research organization in Washington, DC. Today, one of the largest recipients of ONA alms is none other than—you guessed it—Krepinevich and Watts’s own Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which reportedly gets almost $3 million per year (or 40 percent of its budget) from Marshall’s office. That kind of largesse can inspire an awful lot of pious devotion, even in a city as cynical and opportunistic as the capital of the free world.


DESPITE MARSHALL’S admission that net assessment could not provide clear predictions or concrete advice, he nonetheless had a clear and consistent policy agenda: the United States needed to gird itself for a long-term rivalry with the Soviet Union in which it should be prepared to use military force to win. In a 1972 RAND report, for example, Marshall maintained that “the United States is now, and will continue to be, in an extended, continuing strategic arms competition with the Soviet Union. . . . The competition will be prolonged—indeed, for planning purposes, endless [emphasis added].”

Marshall was enamored with nuclear weapons. He was a long-standing proponent of nuclear war-fighting strategies for the United States. Rejecting “mutual assured destruction” and the arms-control community’s “overstated” preoccupation with strategic stability, along with the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” policy of threatening “massive retaliation” to deter Soviet aggression, Marshall consistently pursued different nuclear strategies. Beginning with his participation in RAND’s “Strategic Objectives Committee,” which advocated that the United States develop a nuclear force capable of executing a first strike that could eliminate the Soviet Union’s strategic arsenal (or a “counterforce” strike, as it was known), and continuing in his intellectual collaboration with Herman Kahn, a model for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Marshall never showed any hesitation about thinking the unthinkable: fighting and winning thermonuclear war.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marshall worked together with former U.S. Air Force targeteer and intelligence analyst Joseph Loftus. Through Loftus, Marshall gained access to sensitive intelligence about the Soviet nuclear arsenal that was off-limits to other RAND analysts. It persuaded him that a successful counterforce strike against the Soviet Union was feasible. Marshall and other proponents of counterforce were not, so far as we can tell, advocating a preventive nuclear war. Instead, their attraction to counterforce was its potential for limiting damage to the United States through preemptive strikes should war with the Soviet Union seem unavoidable. However, this policy was a tough sell to other RAND analysts in the era of the “missile gap.”

Whether Marshall’s privileged access to sensitive intelligence about the actual state of the Soviet nuclear arsenal justified his confidence in counterforce is questionable. But having this detailed information about the rather limited size and scale of the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile should certainly have revealed to him that the missile gap was a myth. Yet despite his access to this information, Marshall apparently failed to convince the Gaither Committee, which played a major role in peddling alarmism and which he served as a consultant. Nor did it stop him from moonlighting for the Kennedy campaign, along with a number of other RAND luminaries. John F. Kennedy, of course, won the 1960 election in part by preaching the false gospel that the passivity of the Eisenhower administration had allowed Washington to fall dangerously behind Moscow in the nuclear sphere.

Nevertheless, there was considerable intellectual consistency in Marshall’s embrace of counterforce. His access to intelligence convinced him that Soviet nuclear strategy was oriented toward war fighting. Given that, Marshall thought that the United States should embrace a similar doctrine. This would be the first of several occasions in which Marshall would use Soviet military doctrine as his guide for the United States, sometimes by emulating it, other times by exploiting its weaknesses. Given what he saw as the imperative to meet the Soviet challenge on its own terms, Marshall consistently advocated hardware and doctrinal developments that would make counterforce and nuclear war fighting possible for the United States. This would be a major theme, for example, of the preposterous Team B exercise, which granted hard-line anti-Soviet ideologues access to sensitive intelligence to see if they came to different conclusions from CIA analysts (spoiler alert: they did), to which Marshall contributed, and which offered a far gloomier assessment of the strategic balance than did the U.S. intelligence community.


IN KREPINEVICH and Watts’s account, Marshall made his most important contributions to U.S. national security in three particular areas: in forcing a much-needed debate about the CIA’s supposedly flawed assessments of the Soviet economy and defense spending; in identifying before anyone else in the Pentagon the outlines of an imminent RMA flowing from new technologies and innovations; and in predicting the rise of China as a “peer competitor” for the United States after the Cold War.

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.