Shadow Government

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In Search of Strategic Foresight

"The current situation is such that the U.S. cannot afford to continue devoting resources to defense without a well-thought-out strategy for competing…We can no longer indulge in the ‘rich man’ strategy of insuring against all possible adverse futures…We can no longer afford to compete by simply doing more of the same" Andrew W. Marshall, the ...

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

"The current situation is such that the U.S. cannot afford to continue devoting resources to defense without a well-thought-out strategy for competing...We can no longer indulge in the ‘rich man' strategy of insuring against all possible adverse futures...We can no longer afford to compete by simply doing more of the same"

Andrew W. Marshall, the Director of the Defense Department's Office of Net Assessment, wrote the above in a memorandum dated July 26, 1976. In the midst of a defense drawdown and facing an uncertain geopolitical environment and changes in the character of war, Marshall was recommending that the department develop a well-thought-out strategy for the long term.

Now, as the United States enters a new period of fiscal and geopolitical uncertainty, another period that demands strategic foresight, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appears to be considering putting the office responsible for advising him on long-term issues on the chopping block. According to press reports, Hagel is considering either eliminating the office outright or submerging it within the Pentagon's policy organization as part of a broader drive to reduce the Defense Department's headquarters staff by twenty percent and trim its budget by $20 billion.

"The current situation is such that the U.S. cannot afford to continue devoting resources to defense without a well-thought-out strategy for competing…We can no longer indulge in the ‘rich man’ strategy of insuring against all possible adverse futures…We can no longer afford to compete by simply doing more of the same"

Andrew W. Marshall, the Director of the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, wrote the above in a memorandum dated July 26, 1976. In the midst of a defense drawdown and facing an uncertain geopolitical environment and changes in the character of war, Marshall was recommending that the department develop a well-thought-out strategy for the long term.

Now, as the United States enters a new period of fiscal and geopolitical uncertainty, another period that demands strategic foresight, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appears to be considering putting the office responsible for advising him on long-term issues on the chopping block. According to press reports, Hagel is considering either eliminating the office outright or submerging it within the Pentagon’s policy organization as part of a broader drive to reduce the Defense Department’s headquarters staff by twenty percent and trim its budget by $20 billion.

As Peter Singer has written, the idea that eliminating an office of a dozen or so people with a modest research budget will help Hagel achieve his goals is dubious at best. To the contrary, it would rob the Pentagon of one of its few sources of strategic advice, and its most influential.

Much of the current discussion of the office ranges from the important but not crucial (personality and influence of its director) to the petty and potentially misleading (what organizations have received contracts from the office). Ultimately, however, the case for an Office of Net Assessment rests on the answer to two questions: Does the secretary of defense need an office to "identify problems and opportunities that deserve the attention of senior defense officials"?  If so, where should it be located?

Does the Secretary of Defense need an Office of Net Assessment?

Melvin Laird thought so; he came up with the idea of an Office of Net Assessment to advise him directly.

So did James Schlesinger, who made the office a reality and hired its first director.

So did Harold Brown, who was an avid reader of the office’s products.

So did Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, who translated the office’s work on ways to compete effectively with the Soviet Union into the Defense Department’s Competitive Strategies Initiative.

So did Dick Cheney, who sought the office’s advice as he attempted to develop a post-Cold War defense strategy and force structure.

So did Donald Rumsfeld, who incorporated the office’s insights into the 2001 and 2006 Quadrennial Defense Reviews.

Tellingly, although several times in the office’s 40 years of existence a secretary of defense thought about shuttering it, each time they reconsidered and retained it.

Perhaps Hagel, unlike his 13 predecessors, doesn’t feel the need for an Office of Net Assessment, but his successors would suffer from its elimination or downgrading. The office is one of the few places in the Pentagon dedicated to studying long-term strategy issues, and the fact is that many of the decisions that a secretary of defense makes benefit from a long-term view. Research into new technologies, acquisition of new capabilities, and the development of innovative doctrine are all tasks measured in years if not decades.  

Take, for example, the notion that the United States faces increasing constraints on its ability to project military power due to the development of so-called "anti-access/area denial" capabilities by potential competitors. The need to respond to such a challenge has figured prominently in the 2001, 2006, and 2010 Quadrennial Defense Reviews (and, I would predict, will do so in the 2014 QDR as well). However, the notion of having to defeat anti-access threats, indeed the very term "anti-access/area denial threats," emerged from the office in the early 1990s, when the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile was nothing more than a gleam in a Chinese missile designer’s eye. In other words, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates depended upon analysis performed on William Perry’s watch as they crafted the Defense Department’s future strategy and capabilities, just as Hagel’s successors will rely upon intellectual capital built up or squandered on his watch.

Indeed, so many of the concepts that have become part of the Defense Department’s lexicon emerged from the Office of Net Assessment. Similarly, a broad swath of the U.S. defense policy and academic community have served in the office over the years, including former Secretary of the Air Force Jim Roche as well as Hagel’s Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Mike Vickers. Closing the office would eliminate one of the U.S. Government’s few incubators of strategic thought.

If a secretary of defense decides he needs an Office of Net Assessment, where should it be located?

Rather than eliminating the office outright, there are indicators that Hagel may, in the name of achieving "efficiencies", instead choose to demote the office to a place within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Most secretaries of defense have seen value in having an Office of Net Assessment that reports directly to them, providing independent, unfiltered advice, including that which may cut against the grain of the Pentagon’s major subdivisions. A demoted office would have to climb through layers of bureaucracy to reach the Secretary, bend to the here-and-now focus of the Pentagon rather than exploring the future, and stave off raids on its resources.  One fears that this would amount to execution by strangulation rather than firing squad.

One hopes that Hagel will display foresight and preserve the Office of Net Assessment as a source of strategic advice to him and as a source of insights to his successors.

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