These days, defense officials and outside experts are fond of referencing a remark allegedly by Winston Churchill to the effect that “we have run out of money; now we must think.” So it is surprising that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would approve the closing of one of the few entities within the Office of the Secretary of Defense devoted to thinking. It is reported that as part of its budget-cutting efforts, Secretary Hagel is proposing to close the Office of Net Assessment (NA) in fiscal year 2015.
For some 40 years, NA has served as an incubator for new ideas, concepts and insights. Its efforts have led to the development of new defense strategies and programs. One of the most significant of these was Competitive Strategies which envisioned the East-West struggle as a long-term competition on multiple levels which had to be managed in a manner to apply our strengths against adversaries’ weaknesses in a series of moves and countermoves. The principles of Competitive Strategies were applied to develop a series of plans and programs that successfully countered emerging Soviet strategies and capabilities. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Competitive Strategies model has been used to develop approaches for dealing with the global terrorist threat, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and even the rising anti-access/area denial problem.
NA also conducted ongoing assessments of the changing strategic environment. It sought to understand the implications of the proliferation of advanced technologies on the future of warfare. NA brought to U.S. defense audiences the concepts of the Military-Technological Revolution and the resulting Revolution in Military Affairs. These two ideas percolated throughout the defense establishment for some 20 years and were instrumental in the development of Network-Centric Warfare as a driving force in the creation of a 21st century military. More recently, NA was instrumental in bringing forth the concept of AirSea Battle which all the military services have embraced as a central aspect of the solution to the anti-access/area denial threat.
The decision to eliminate NA might make sense were it an expensive endeavor, employing a large staff that might be better deployed elsewhere. However, NA is a tiny organization, less than a dozen staff. Its budget is a few million dollars annually, much of that devoted to outside studies and analyses. You wouldn’t save enough from this action buy even one tactical fighter. Furthermore, the loss of the intellectual energy NA provides at a critical time for the Pentagon’s future could have negative effects far outweighing the utility of the few dollars that would be saved.
Several members of Congress have recognized the error of eliminating what is a clearly unique institution. Led by Representative Randy Forbes, a strategic thinker in his own right as well as chairman of the Sea Power Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, four members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary Hagel criticizing the proposed closure. As these Representatives observed, “Given the critical contributions to U.S. national security thinking made by the Office during its 40 year history and its role as a central repository of long-range strategic thinking, we believe it would be a serious error to further consider its elimination.”
This is the time to protect sources of innovative thought in the Department of Defense. The Army made the very wise decision to protect the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) from elimination. The REF provides a unique blend of concept and technological development resulting in the rapid fielding of interim solutions to urgent operational needs from the field. But more important, the REF thinks differently about problems and brings together unique constellations of experts and users. NA is the crown jewel of innovative thinking in the Department of Defense. Its value cannot be calculated using standard metrics. It must be preserved and supported. Bravo to Congressman Forbes and his colleagues for calling the Secretary of Defense to account for this unwise decision.
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