Yoda Has Left the Building

Andy Marshall, 93, has been the Pentagon’s futurist in chief for over 50 years. He hasn’t had a new idea since the 1970s.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Department of Defense
Department of Defense
Department of Defense

Well, the news is out. Andy Marshall is finally retiring.

Well, the news is out. Andy Marshall is finally retiring.

Last year, word leaked that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was considering shutting down Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment and shunting him off into retirement. The decision was framed in terms of sequestration, but you can’t balance the budget with Marshall’s meager $5-10 million budget.

Previous secretaries of defense have considered ways to ease Andrew Marshall off the stage in fatter economic times. He has held the same job in the Pentagon — director of the Office of Net Assessment — since Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger hired him away from the RAND Corp. in 1973. Originally set up to provide the Pentagon with a long-term perspective, the Office of Net Assessment outlived even Schlesinger himself, who passed away in March.

A furious rearguard action seemed to save Marshall and his Net Assessment sinecure, but now Yoda is leaving on his own terms. Earned it, has he.

Now that Marshall is leaving, I am sure we’ll be treated to one long fawning remembrance after another telling us that Mr. Andy Marshall, 93, was a wise old cipher who earned his nickname, Yoda. This is silly. The only way in which Andy Marshall resembles Yoda is that he is old. Marshall is not a cipher and, once one understands his views, I think one would conclude that he wasn’t particularly wise.

Now, my complaint is with the man’s ideas, not the man himself; Marshall is invariably described as kind and thoughtful. Unfortunately, praise for the Office of Net Assessment is inextricable from praise for the man himself. As a result, the image of Andy Marshall as Yoda serves to obscure what are some pretty awful policy ideas.

Although he rarely publishes or even speaks at length, Marshall’s views are neither hard to decipher nor particularly groundbreaking. Marshall’s opinions in print — two hard-to-find examples of which I am making available online here and here — are broadly similar to those of his hawkish colleagues from his RAND days. (Check out this great 1958 image of Marshall holding forth at a late night bull session in Albert Wohlstetter’s home. Also present are Fred Hoffman, Harry Rowen, and Alain Enthoven. These characters all make the requisite appearance in Fred Kaplan’s tour of the bestiary, Wizards of Armageddon.)

Marshall’s main contribution is something called "competitive strategies." He described the approach in great detail in a 1972 study while he was at RAND, Long-Term Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Strategic Analysis. Competitive strategies was the notion that the long-term strategic competition with the Soviet Union — the nuclear arms race — was inevitable. Strategic stability, which was still an emerging notion in 1972, was anathema to Marshall, who ultimately believed that international politics is a steel cage match. Two will enter, one will leave.

Over the years, Marshall’s views simply didn’t change very much. In 1988, he gave a talk that repeated the same themes as the 1972 study — although by then, Marshall was worrying about how to run simultaneous arms races against the Soviets, the Chinese, and, in all likelihood he thought, the Japanese. Marshall was also taken by the so-called "revolution" in military affairs, although largely because racing the Soviets in precision munitions seemed like an area of advantage.

I am sorry, but I don’t see a genius at work here. Optimizing U.S. defense policy for simultaneous arms races seems like a pretty poor basis for defense planning, either in an era of austerity or otherwise. At this particular moment, spending other countries into the ground seems pretty improbable — especially if we’re talking about the ones financing our deficits. 

More importantly, however, committing the United States to arms racing means forgoing efforts to forge more stable relationships with Russia, China, and others. Back in 1972, Marshall’s basic attitude toward strategic stability was, "Who cares?" Missing in Marshall’s 1972 and 1988 accounts of arms racing during the Cold War is any sense that nuclear weapons pose a shared danger that compel us to cooperate, even with our adversaries. The notion of competitive strategies is all about winning an arms race, without any emphasis on simply finishing it alive.

In fact, when Marshall argued that an arms race with the Soviets was inevitable, he meant there was no choice as long as the two countries existed. For example, remember that picture of Marshall, Wohlstetter, and friends, palavering late into the night? They were discussing "recovery" models — as in, whether the United States or Soviet Union would recover more quickly after a nuclear war, gaining a head start in the inevitable rearmament race. Remember that joke in Dr. Strangelove about the "mine shaft gap"? That was, in fact, what Marshall was discussing.

Over the decades, Marshall funded one study after another on how to better run an arms race with the Soviets, all premised on the fact that there was no escape.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Marshall commissioned a study by BDM Federal, Inc. in which researchers interviewed vanquished Soviet military and political leaders, presumably as a postmortem on competitive strategies’ greatest success.

BDM, however, found something surprising. The authors of the study concluded that the United States had overestimated Soviet aggressiveness, while underestimating the degree to which Soviet leaders had been deterred from invading Western Europe. The study concluded that Soviet deployments had been driven not by military strategists, as Marshall argued, but by the Soviet defense industry, in a perverse version of the Russian propaganda line about the role of the military-industrial complex in fueling the arms race. Each side, the BMD study implied, was really racing with itself. It is hard to read the BDM study and not think of Paul Warnke’s description of the United States and Soviet Union running the arms race as "apes on a treadmill."

The BDM study is a surprising peek into Soviet decision-making. It was the best thing Net Assessment ever funded. And Andy Marshall hated it.

When Marshall circulated the study, he attached a cover note damning it with faint praise, calling it "quite interesting," but declaring himself unpersuaded by its chief conclusions — particularly the finding that the Soviet defense industry had driven defense investments. On the central finding of the study, that Marshall’s emphasis on arms racing was completely futile, he wrote, "It remains for other analysts to determine if it was the General Staff or the defense industrialists who drove Soviet strategic force deployments."

By this time, Marshall’s interest had turned to China.

In a 2009 essay, included in a Festschrift for Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, Marshall noted that the problem was finding people who understood "the competition we are involved in, now and in the future," without really saying what the competition was or questioning the basic premise. If your major innovation is a strategy for running an arms race, it’s awfully inconvenient to want for a peer competitor. Not surprisingly, Marshall’s office has spent much of the last decade or so funding work trying to fit competitive strategies to China. 

Marshall sometimes gets credit for the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, one of the first articulations of the notion that, even without the Soviet Union, the United States should keep running the arms race itself to discourage other countries from joining in. This picked up the term "dissuasion" which, during the Rumsfeld Pentagon, really became a strategy to cow the Chinese into submission.

Marshall’s office has also received credit for AirSea Battle, a proposed concept to deal with Chinese capabilities to deny U.S. military forces access to the Pacific in crisis. Whatever the merits of the operational concepts — and the Chinese are investing in an awful mess of conventionally armed missiles — the conceptual approach has alarmed the Chinese and triggered a debate within the United States about whether AirSea Battle is a recipe for nuclear war. AirSea Battle is, in many ways, a warmed-up serving of Cold War leftovers — the name deliberately evokes the AirLand Battle concept to defeat the Soviets in Europe. (Beijing surely gets the joke.)

Marshall’s enthusiasm for long-term strategic competition with the Chinese is particularly unwelcome at the moment. There is an emerging consensus in Washington that we’d be better off avoiding an arms race with the Chinese, especially now that relations with Moscow are down the toilet. The Obama administration is trying hard to start a dialogue with the Chinese on strategic stability, a topic about which I have a few ideas.

Against this backdrop, having a full-time office of threat inflation isn’t particularly helpful. If we stumble into an arms race with Mr. Putin’s Russia, so be it. But I don’t need Net Assessment spending my tax dollars to make that outcome more likely. And I sure as hell don’t feel like trying to run two at the same time, if I can avoid it.

When I speak to defenders of Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment, they all make broadly similar arguments: People who have worked with him unfailingly describe him as kind, thoughtful, and helpful. Net Assessment is a source of funds for long-term issues. Net Assessment funds issues outside traditional national-security areas. Net Assessment is independent of the prevailing notions in the Pentagon. And so on.

To some extent, this is true. Marshall has funded a large amount of work in areas such as demography. Not by demographers, I admit, but the man’s interests are wide. (I suspect that Marshall would have argued for a birth race against a sect of polygamists if you gave him half a chance — or at least have funded a study on it, anyway.)

There is, I confess, a constituency for Marshall’s worldview. When he was secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld was very interested in Andy Marshall and Net Assessment. Rumsfeld himself held an antagonistic view of the Chinese, and once voiced fears that they were poised to "sprint to parity" with the American strategic nuclear arsenal, notions right out of Marshall’s studies. When word circulated that Chuck Hagel might shutter Net Assessment, Rumsfeld called Net Assessment his "brain" at the Pentagon. That’s a telling compliment.

Over the years, however, Marshall funded a fair number of crackpots. Others will certainly bemoan the contract Marshall gave Keith Payne to serve up some leftover talking points against minimum deterrence; the pair of studies on Iraq written by a crackpot who thinks Saddam planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11; the study on "Islamic Warfare" by the guy who fabricated both a Ph.D. and an interview with Barack Obama. And — I saved the best for last — the late Laurent Murawiec, the former associate of Lyndon LaRouche who gave a presentation to the Defense Policy Board that contained this humdinger of geopolitical analysis:

"Iraq is the tactical pivot
Saudi Arabia is the strategic pivot
Egypt the prize."

No, I have no idea what that means either. Murawiec worked on a number of Net Assessment studies at the Hudson Institute, even after the embarrassing flap when he called the Saudis our "enemies."

If this really were the Department of Defense’s brain, the Pentagon would deserve a lobotomy.

Having said all this, I hate to see study money dry up. Even if I think Marshall spent his funds badly, I happen to have a soft spot for a couple of his favorites. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments gets a lot of stick for winning too many awards from Marshall, but they actually produce great work. I don’t want Uncle Sam to spend less on studies with a long-term outlook; I just want him to spend it better. There are already a number of proposals floating around to either roll Andy Marshall’s money into an existing Defense Department fund, or move the funding stream out of the Pentagon.

Which brings us back to the man himself. If Andy Marshall is Yoda, does this mean he’ll be hanging around like a force ghost? If so, the prospects for reform are limited. The most important change — whether Net Assessment survives or not — is evolving to a broader conception of "long-term" beyond competitive strategies. Marshall’s acolytes are taking comfort from the fact that Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work is a strong advocate for long-term studies and an alumnus of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. They may be hoping that Work is a loyal Padawan who learned at the feet of Yoda. 

Me? I am hoping, when it comes to reforming the Office of Net Assessment, that Work has a little more Darth Vader in him: I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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