After Andy Marshall, what will happen?
Large bureaucracies, like great ocean liners or stubborn pachyderms, are difficult things to move. This is particularly true of the Department of Defense (DoD). Only a handful of individuals have had a lasting impact on the way the Pentagon operates. Even fewer were ever able to alter the way the organization thought.
One of these few is the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA), Andrew W. Marshall. The very foundations of the Pentagon shook yesterday when DefenseNews broke the story that Marshall will retire in January after serving as the first and only head of that office for more than 40 years. Some of you, particularly those who were not present during the decades of the Cold War, may well ask, who is Andy Marshall? Others may just be interested in learning the secret of his longevity. The legions who worked for or with Marshall and now occupy the senior levels of the Pentagon, think tanks, academia and industry know they are seeing the end of an era.
Marshal’s legacy is so extensive and rich that it is hard to accurately recount it within the limit of a single commentary. I, like so many others, did my first analytic work as a defense contractor for ONA. There was the development of the sophisticated methodology of Net Assessment which replaced the state “bean counting” approach to force-on-force analyses that had been the tradition for decades. This methodology drove a number of major U.S. strategic innovations during the Cold War, most notably the Maritime Strategy that forced the Soviet Navy back into its bastions. Then came the competitive strategies, an approach to long-term international competitions that focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors and ways of shaping the struggle to place U.S. strengths against adversaries’ weaknesses while minimizing their ability to do the same to us. At the turn of the century, Marshall focused much of his office’s energies on understanding and exploiting the revolution in military affairs being created by the explosion of advanced technologies, particularly those associated with information.
Net Assessment was the proving ground for two generations of strategic analysts who either worked there or received contracts for independent studies. The result was a community of like-minded analysts and government officials that has dominated the development of defense strategy to this day.
It is interesting that Mr. Marshall’s decision comes only months after the death of the man who brought him to Washington to create the ONA, former Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger. Marshall’s retirement and Schlesinger’s passing remind us that the Cold War’s greatest generation is also leaving the stage. It is not clear that anyone can be found with the unique combination of skills and vision that allowed Mr. Marshall to advise Administrations of both parties for four decades. But we need to try. ONA is a national asset and must be preserved if at all possible.
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