In Washington these days, bipartisan agreement is hard to come by. Yet in this highly charged atmosphere, both sides of the aisle have harshly criticized the Pentagon’s proposal to neuter the Office of Net Assessment’s (ONA) independence by moving it to the Pentagon’s policy shop. Even before any final decisions have been made, national security leaders from both parties have been outspoken in their defense of ONA. The pushback has focused on ONA’s achievements, including its role in developing competitive strategies during the Cold War and the evolving Air-Sea Battle concept today.
Under the leadership of the 92-year old Andrew Marshall, ONA has become a legendary Washington institution. Marshall, who appears to be straight out of central casting as the “Yoda” of the Pentagon, has been re-appointed to his current position as Director of Net Assessment by every president since the Nixon administration established the office in 1973. ONA performs a vital and unique role within the Pentagon: its main function is to provide in-depth analyses of important issues and bring them to the attention of the Secretary of Defense.
But ONA is no silver bullet. It does not provide policy recommendations. Rather, its assessments are derived through a distinct and “whole picture” process. These studies are unique because they are not vetted by civilian or service bureaucracies. The result is an independent analysis—direct, unfiltered, untouched by political interference, and oftentimes outside of the box.
When the Nixon administration established the Office of Net Assessment, America was reaching the end of a decade dominated by its involvement in Vietnam. The Pentagon—and ONA in particular—came to see that while the U.S. had been fighting communism in Southeast Asia, its principal antagonist, the Soviet Union, had used the interlude to close gaps in both conventional and strategic forces. The result was that the overall competitive balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was far less favorable in 1973 than it had been in 1965. Many of the primary challenges faced by ONA in its early years dealt with the consequences of this new competitive balance and finding alternative ways to advance American power.
ONA proved uniquely well-suited to studying long-term strategic competition. The office excelled at looking beyond rudimentary “bean counts” that conceived of the NATO-Warsaw Pact balance simply as the number of tanks, soldiers, and planes along the inner-German border. Instead, ONA’s analysis included qualitative factors such as alliance cohesion and unit training. ONA was particularly interested in talking with Soviet defectors, using their personal experiences to build a more complete picture of the actual military balance.
While Net Assessment was excellent in its analysis of U.S.-Soviet strategic competition, it arguably has been less effective in analyzing the tough insurgencies America has faced in the post 9/11 era. In fact, some point a finger at ONA and its championing of the Revolution in Military Affairs — a military concept that emphasized technology and highly networked units — as one of the reasons the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon embraced a “light footprint” force posture that proved insufficient for large-scale counterinsurgency operations. But again, the purpose of Net Assessment has always been to describe challenges and opportunities for Pentagon leaders, not to recommend specific policies.
ONA’s independence is especially important given many of the Pentagon’s recent underwhelming documents. While Congress established the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) process in 1996 to create an honest and open dialogue about the Defense Department’s ends, ways, and means, the Pentagon’s recent QDRs have thus far, failed to deliver their full potential. In fact, Congress was so worried about the quality of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that it commissioned a bipartisan Independent Panel to “stress test” the Pentagon’s strategy and conduct an external assessment of the document. Congress has expressed similar concerns with regards to the 2014 QDR, establishing the National Defense Panel to provide a similar outside assessment.
Moving ONA under the jurisdiction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, as is currently being considered, would exacerbate the Pentagon’s deep-thinking problem. Now more than ever, the Pentagon needs an independent voice to raise difficult questions. As during ONA’s formative years in the 1970s, the U.S. is now facing a long-term strategic competition, this time with the People’s Republic of China. And as then, the U.S. is emerging from a decade of tough irregular warfare during which its primary strategic competitor was able to rapidly advance its military capabilities—resulting in a much less favorable military balance.
In this environment, the Pentagon needs to ask difficult and uncomfortable questions. Fortunately for the U.S., ONA has excelled in bringing these questions to the attention of the Secretary. Two and a half decades before the so-called “pivot” to Asia, ONA was conducting war games that presumed a multipolar world in the Pacific by 2010. Even as the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, ONA has dared to “think about the unthinkable” when it comes to state on state conflict in the nuclear world, conducting assessments on the feasibility of victory against nuclear-armed adversaries.
ONA continues to challenge assumptions. A USA Today report found that Net Assessment had recently hired the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP) to conduct a study on America’s strategic arsenal. NIPP tends to hold hawkish views on nuclear weapons, and in 2003, Slate referred to current NIPP president Dr. Keith Payne as the “Dr. Strangelove” of the Rumsfeld Pentagon. Given NIPP’s perspective, its final assessment of nuclear reductions is likely to be skeptical. As Josh Rogin and Eli Lake observe at The Daily Beast, this line of thinking has left ONA off-message with some of the current administration’s policies—perhaps opening the office to political targeting.
While ONA does not provide solutions, it does, more often than not, ask the right questions. These questions are not always comfortable or convenient, but they have provided an invaluable service for the Defense Department’s senior leadership. Removing ONA’s independent role within the Pentagon bureaucracy would effectively eliminate its most important contribution: direct, undiluted, and holistic assessments.
Charles Morrison is a research assistant in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.