Since its founding 40 years ago, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment has served as its strategic radar and the originator of some of its biggest ideas.
Led by Andrew Marshall, the office diagnosed long-range trends and threats, developing novel strategies that helped win the Cold War by imposing increasingly prohibitive costs on Moscow; leveraged technology to boost precision combat power; and gave birth to strategic concepts like Air-Sea Battle.
Critics say the office is too secretive and spends too much on studies not aimed at today’s problems. But given a mission to consider sometimes unthinkable challenges, secrecy is vital. Marshall’s spending is modest. The office’s widely spread, comparatively small contracts have helped America glean insights to out-think its adversaries.
Now, as part of a broader streamlining move, DoD leaders are considering subsuming the office into its policy operation, disconnecting Marshall and successors from a direct line to the defense secretary.
That would be a mistake. The function of net assessment as a dedicated office is to provide the secretary a strategic tool outside of his normal policy apparatus, insulated from politics.
Retaining this office’s unique ability to offer unvarnished, independent analyses of military competitions and to highlight new challenges — directly to the defense secretary without multiple filters or conflicts of interest — is critical.