An ode to Andy Marshall the strategist

He is an anachronism as the current longest-serving government leader. He is Andrew Marshall the strategist not the footballer and like a ghostly figment he haunts my studies and thoughts. As the head of the Office of a Net Assessment in the Department of Defense he has ushered in and provided early warning of significant changes in military theory and affairs. He doesn’t like notoriety and I don’t like being bored so I thought I’d figure out who this person who haunts my research like some specter from a Get Smart television show.

To put things in context I have on no less than a dozen occasions been told I should meet this guy “Andy Marshall” by alumni of his office. Intrigued by the way his name casually comes up in conversations I was made curious by the broken link to the Office of Net Assessment on the Department of Defense web page. I was left wondering what was this office. With likely dozens of contractors hired to do nothing but make sure broken links simply don’t happen a sin by admission or omission the broken link was interesting. Who is this guy called the Yoda of the Pentagon?

I read up on the idea of Net Assessment to get an idea of what was going on. To be sure I’m not the first person to turn my attention towards the personage of Andy Marshall born circa 1921. Having served in his current position since 1973 that then makes him older than almost anybody else serving in government, and the longest-serving presidential appointee in the history of the United States government. At the age of 42 he was appointed to a position that would be the envy of many.

The list of his protégés is a who’s who (good and bad) of defense analysis:

Chuck de Caro

Andrew Krepinevich

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim

Lance Lord

Jamie Morin

Laurie Mylroie

Michael Pillsbury

Harold Rhode

James Roche

Abram Shulsky

Henry Sokolski

Robert Work

.. and many others.


The list was put together using a Google search string which was kind of interesting. As an example of just how bad Wikipedia can be, examine the Office of Net Assessment wiki page (here), and the linked member of ONA Andrew May (here). The honorable Mr. May died slightly over a decade before the Office of Net Assessment was formed. Perhaps I’m missing something but it seems like it would be kind of hard to work for an organization after you’re dead. Then again the wonders of the Office of Net Assessment are fairly legendary.

The Office of Net Assessment contributions to national security strategy appears to include:

Defining the role of strategic assessment

Analysis that lead to the revolution in military affairs

Analysis of the sustainability of Soviet military investment

Analysis of US Nuclear posture in deterrence

Analysis of Soviet economic weakness

Analysis of the effects of information and technology on the military

Asian and specifically Chinese threat analysis

Analysis of climate change and effects on military readiness


Marshall has been criticized as having seen the Russians as more threat than they are and finding threats where they supposedly don’t exist. Some critics have said that the entire purpose of Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment is to promote the military industrial complex. The criticism is likely valid as the use of information is independent of the derivation of that information. Said more succinctly, you get out of it what you want.

On balance to criticism some research suggests that the Office of Net Assessment is till playing a role in strategy. It also doesn’t take long doing any research to find numerous conspiracy theories about Mr. Marshall. The reality is that most of what he writes is classified and what little product is generated for outside consumption is by the people who have worked for him. A large library of cold war era documents are available online. Many people have done research that was for the Office of Net Assessment. In the end, if I wanted to work for Andy Marshall, The Office of Net Assessment has a standing research study proposal.

What is left for me is trying to understand the relevancy of his ideas in a world without the Russians where a rising China concerns many. In 2003 in a Wired article Marshall discussed the idea that the Swedes were going to be creating some of the newest capabilities in war. He discussed the idea of stealthy ships and submarines. The discussion in the Wired article of 2003 was prescient as we see with details reported in the Economist in 2011. A simple caveat is that I’ve taught at the Swedish National Defense University and discussed some of these topics with their military.

On my path to studying the net assessment process I was led to conclude a few things about the Office of Net Assessment and the strategies used by the alumni of Andy Marshall. Inherently the net assessment process is a linear process of choice and assumption. The strategies suggested and examine in the many reams of documents require an assumption of peering between nation states. There is an inherent gap of nation states between capability of major war and non-state actors without such capacity that is obvious. This is illuminated brightly by the cold war influences found in writers such as Krepenivich writing on cyber war. The net assessment process seems to ignore the impact on the nation-state of the rising non-state actor.

This is less than criticism and more a query about the rising power of the industrial mega corporations and the likely monetary and corporatist risks to the nation-state as blind spots in the process of the net assessment. The theocratic ideologues and religious fundamentalists seem to be absent from writings as recently as 2001. As I came to these thoughts (much less conclusions than perturbations to though processes) I was struggling to figure out how things like 9/11 and rising theocracy worldwide would be missed by this kind of assumption. The points on the conflict spectrum of the Office of Net Assessment are based on the approach of mirrored ambition between nation states.

It would seem that looking 20 years out as the Office of Net Assessment is supposed to be doing they would miss non-peer competitors. Looking for a reason that such a blind spot might exist I was reminded that Andy Marshall has a graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago. Knowing that rational choice theory is a favorite of economists I could only wonder if the search for rationality in ideological fervor might be a blind spot.

Regardless of continued questions on my path to trying to understand the Office of Net Assessment it was kind of fun to tiptoe through hundreds of documents about the cold war era. It helped explain some of the scarred adhesions I see in current national military strategy, and the process gave me some insight into some actions taken in the past.

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