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Aerial view of the Pentagon October 21, 1948. (National Archives/Newsmakers)

The Sage of the Pentagon

Arthur Herman

Ashton Carter, Obama’s new secretary of defense, will face some tough decisions about how to protect America’s security abroad: about what to do about ISIS; about Russia and Ukraine; about China and its bullying of Asian neighbors in the East and South China Seas; about defense budgets that are shrinking through sequestration — and about shrinking them without sequestration.

One decision he will make may affect America’s security not now but 20 or even 30 years from now. It’s about who will replace the legendary Andy Marshall as head of the Office of Net Assessments, or the ONA, at the Pentagon. The office is small, its budget by Pentagon standards quite tiny (barely $10 million a year). But by providing detailed and quantified assessments of future challenges and threats to America’s security, Marshall and his team of assistants and a larger team of consultants have been guiding the Pentagon’s forward thinking under every president since Richard Nixon.

When the 93-year-old former RAND thinker turned Defense Department fixture retired in January, the question in the Pentagon’s inner circle was: Who can replace Andy Marshall? The question in the rest of America was, Who is Andy Marshall, and why did 14 successive secretaries of defense come to hang on his every word?

So as Ashton Carter weighs his decision, it’s time to bring everyone else up to speed. In Pentagon circles, Andy Marshall is known as Yoda, after the Jedi grand master from the Star Wars movies. The comparison is apt. Although he was virtually unknown to the general public, for five decades, from his desk at the ONA, Marshall did more than any other person to shape how the U.S. military thought about its role in the world and the challenges it faced, starting with the Soviet Union and finishing with China — with the War on Terror thrown in.

His disciples (known as Saint Andrew’s Prep) have populated virtually every think tank and defense-policy group in Washington. They include Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, former ambassador Dennis Ross, former Air Force secretary Jim Roche, and Jeff McKittrick, Steve Rosen, and Mike Pillsbury of the Hudson Institute — as well as dozens of others who worked on research projects that fed Marshall’s “classified net assessments.”

“He’s the most influential person you’ve never met,” one of his former aides has quipped. Yet in his self-effacing way, Marshall served eight presidential administrations during 41 years in the Pentagon. His wisdom became a byword — and not just in military and Pentagon circles or on Capitol Hill. During the Cold War, Marshall earned the grudging admiration of his Soviet opponents, who read his published works, and later he earned it as well from the Chinese military. “Our great hero was Andrew Marshall,” former general Chen Zhou told The Economist in 2012. “We translated every word he wrote.”

Marshall has tended to convey his wisdom on America’s strategic outlook obliquely. His published writings are few. His famous net assessments were for the eyes of the secretary of defense only, who decided to share sections with others only when he felt he had to. His other remarks tended toward the cryptic, even epigrammatic. The messages from Marshall to the CIA during the 1970s when he and it were fighting over the true size and scope of the Soviet military buildup became known as “Andygrams.” When they arrived, according to one witness, they caused an institutional shudder.

Marshall’s record of service is without parallel; all agree that at age 93 his powers of mind and insight are undiminished. They also agree that in today’s Pentagon, where political correctness and wishful thinking about the future have seeped steadily in these past five years, a powerful independent mind such as Andy Marshall’s is needed more than ever.

“Short-term thinking drives out long-term strategy,” one of Marshall’s mentors, economist Herbert Simon, used to say. It’s been Andy Marshall’s lifelong mission to keep the long term on the agenda of the most important shield the free world has, the Pentagon — largely because experience has taught him that the biggest questions the U.S. military faces are often ones it doesn’t have time or energy to address itself.

Marshall met Simon at the University of Chicago when the former arrived in September 1945, days after Japan surrendered and World War II ended. Born in Detroit, Marshall belonged to that part of the Greatest Generation that spent World War II on a factory floor. He worked as an engineer at an automotive plant; a heart murmur kept him from serving in uniform. Marshall worked with the legendary physicist Enrico Fermi in upgrading the university’s cyclotron and would go on to be a leading analyst of the use of the nuclear weapons Fermi helped create. In the new biography The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, Marshall’s protégés Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts explain, however, that Marshall found his true home in the economics department, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman, Herbert Simon, and Kenneth Arrow. (Another influence was Friedrich Hayek.) Marshall learned that the unpredictability of human conduct and motives consistently wrecked the clean abstract models favored by more conventional economists — which was why economic forecasts were so often wrong. Later, he would show little patience with the similar numbers-crunching systems analysis that prevailed in parts of the RAND Corporation, when he first arrived there in 1949, and in the McNamara Pentagon. Instead of capturing reality, Marshall decided, the systems approach largely missed it (as Americans discovered with tragic cost in Vietnam). A new method for analyzing strategic trends was needed. Marshall would dub it “net assessment.”

Marshall saw the flaws in other approaches firsthand when RAND began studying the strategic nuclear capability of the Soviets. While most analysts thought that Soviet strategic bombers posed a serious threat because of their numbers, the truth was that most bombers suffered from so much engine trouble that they couldn’t cross the Arctic, let alone reach the United States. This crucial fact was known through U-2 over-flights but had been kept secret from the analysts. The lesson was that any analysis, no matter how painstaking or sophisticated, is only as good as the intelligence backing it up — a point Marshall would return to again and again in his ongoing war with the Cold War CIA. (It would haunt CIA analysts again with respect to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

Yet good intelligence was still not enough. “Merely adding up all U.S. forces and comparing them to Soviet forces,” whether tanks, missiles, or bombers, “does not really tell one very much,” he wrote in a pathbreaking essay in 1966. Instead, a strategy analyst needs to understand which data are and which are not relevant in a given situation or context, and also to recognize what the other side considers relevant. The latter insight expressed Marshall’s other worry: that too often analysts assumed, according to a standard “rational actor” model, that the Soviets knew how to maximize their advantages and make optimal use of their forces. His training in economics had taught him that there are no true rational actors. Leaders of countries, like leaders of corporations and other large organizations, tend to be trapped by groupthink and bureaucratic decision-making, which guide their reaction to the unexpected — often with disastrous results.

The example that caught his attention early on was Pearl Harbor. Japan’s policymakers and best military and strategic thinkers all knew in 1941 that going to war with the United States would be a disaster, but they went ahead anyway. Likewise, the United States knew that a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was coming, and even had specific intelligence that it was coming, but still failed to prevent it. In short, unless a strategic forecast captures an opponent’s mindset as well as captures the reality that underlies appearances, it’s useless for making effective policy.

This is the insight that Marshall would follow after getting the call in 1969 from Henry Kissinger to come to the White House, to reform the way intelligence was being organized, analyzed, and disseminated, especially by the CIA. (It turned out that, in choosing issues to investigate, the CIA often took its lead from the New York Times.) Marshall’s approach was to break down conventional thinking and bureaucratic compartmentalization of information so that officials could gain a clear overall view, including a view of how the other guys — the Soviets or, later, the Chinese or al-Qaeda — would think and react in a given situation, and what resources they would bring to bear.

Hence the term “net assessment,” which Marshall gave to his office when it was formally set up inside the Pentagon in 1973. Just as a businessman knows his net profits when he subtracts his costs from his revenues, so net assessment gives a defense policymaker a bottom-line picture of the future by adding up the resources and limitations of both sides and arriving at a clear-eyed estimate of who will win in a future conflict and who will lose — and, in the meantime, who is gaining and who is falling behind.

That led to Marshall’s first important conflict with the CIA in the 1970s. Reanalyzing much of the data the CIA was using to project the size and scope of the Soviet military threat, Marshall discovered that the agency had consistently underestimated both Soviet military spending and the drain it represented on the Soviet economy. From his tiny perch at the ONA, Marshall foresaw the economic collapse of the Soviet Union as early as the 1970s. Indeed, in 1983 he and his ONA staff ran a war game that ended with the Berlin Wall’s peacefully coming down. As one of them later put it, “we were off by only six years.” It was those insights from the ONA — that the Soviet Union couldn’t sustain a major race with the United States — that helped to buttress the rollback strategies of the Reagan years.

So, although Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was no Marshall fan (Weinberger’s priority was restoring America’s military strength rather than worrying about how the Soviets might respond), he set in motion a U.S. force buildup that wound up fulfilling Marshall’s prediction; the coming of the Strategic Defense Initiative was merely the tipping point. No one can claim that Marshall had a hand in the Reagan strategy that won the Cold War, but he helped others inside the Pentagon understand how it could be done.

But while others were celebrating the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union soon thereafter, Marshall was looking into the future again and identifying Asia as the next great arena of strategic competition — at a time when, after Vietnam, there seemed to be no strategic threats on the continent outside the Korean Peninsula. What Marshall saw was how new technologies, including long-range missiles, could decisively shape the future power of China, and he began to prepare a series of papers dealing with the technologies that the military would have to invest in to meet that future challenge. His views quickly became unpopular with those — including Clinton’s first secretary of defense, Les Aspin — who saw the end of the Cold War as an excuse to cash in on the peace dividend. Although he resented Marshall’s presence, Aspin was reluctant to be the one to fire him or shut his office down. That task fell instead to his successor William Cohen, who proposed in late 1997 to close the ONA and move Marshall’s operation to the National Defense University.

The plan set off a Washington firestorm. The graduates of Saint Andrew’s Prep manned the barricades and bombarded Capitol Hill and the office of the secretary of defense with protests and e-mails. Former Marshall staffer Eliot Cohen told the Washington Post that it was “a frontal lobotomy for the Pentagon,” while three former defense secretaries — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and James Schlesinger — weighed in on Marshall’s side. Major figures in Congress, including Senators Joe Lieberman, Dan Coats, Rick Santorum, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, made their displeasure known as well.

By January 1998, Bill Cohen had to back down. “We were totally blindsided,” Lieutenant General Jim Jones, Cohen’s chief military aide (and future Obama national-security adviser), later admitted. Marshall, and the ONA, had been saved. But battle lines had been drawn, between those (mainly Republicans) who believed that Marshall’s service was invaluable and indispensable and those (almost all Democrats) who believed Marshall’s best days were behind him — or that his best days had done the country a major disservice.

Marshall is not popular with those on the left. When liberals write about him at all, it is with hostility, in venues such as The Nation and The American Prospect, which ran “The Dubious Genius of Andrew Marshall” in December 2001, shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Even a generally favorable profile in the Washington Post in October 2013 questioned whether what the Pentagon spent on the ONA (roughly $10 million that year, or 0.0019 percent of the annual defense budget) was really worth it.

Some critics upbraided Marshall for not anticipating 9/11, for example, just as earlier he had been criticized for not paying more attention to the war in Vietnam (which was over by the time the ONA was established, and which was not part of his beat at the Nixon White House). But these attacks miss the purpose, and value, of net assessment. Marshall’s job was not to offer strategic advice and counsel for present wars, or even to predict the outbreak of particular future ones. It was to anticipate the nature of future conflicts and how they would be fought — and how new technologies might change the entire character of war.

In that regard, even before the 1997 storm broke, Marshall had once again shifted direction, to a growing interest in how computer and digital technology, including new kinds of sensors and communication electronics, would bring about a major change in the way future wars would be fought. Borrowing a phrase coined by Soviet strategists, he described this change as “a revolution in military affairs,” or RMA. The first paper the ONA issued on the topic was published in 1992; by the time Donald Rumsfeld returned as secretary of defense in 2001, the military had a term for the changes that Marshall said would be needed to take advantage of this high-tech revolution: “transformation.”

Over the past decade, Marshall’s abiding interest in the consequences of this revolution in military affairs rankled many in and out of uniform, who assumed that he should be thinking about how to get them out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It took all of Rumsfeld’s energy, and then Robert Gates’s, to protect Marshall’s long-range focus from those who demanded a different, more urgent role for his brand of strategic thinking. Yet ironically it is precisely that high-tech weaponry, from GPS-guided bombs to digital sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles, that is, and will be, the key to winning the War on Terror — and to dealing with the growing threat from China.

“From a net assessment perspective, China’s rise and the spread of nonnuclear precision munitions were intimately entwined,” write Krepinevich and Watts. Long-range precision-strike anti-ship missiles and similar ballistic anti-satellite missiles, for example, in concert with Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles and sustained cyber attacks on U.S. communications networks, could become the means whereby China overcame the U.S. Navy’s advantage in numbers and strike capability. Deterring China’s effort to shift the strategic balance had to rest on similar precision technologies, Marshall and his disciples argued — just as those technologies are the point of the spear in fighting al-Qaeda and ISIS.

But his perceived shortcomings in the War on Terror aren’t really the problem that the Left has had with Andy Marshall, and they are not why it welcomed retirement after 40-plus years of service. It’s rather that he has dedicated his life to the twin propositions that American power deserves to be preserved and extended, not undermined or reduced, and that America faces real threats that require foresight and vigilance, which no amount of political correctness or utopian wishful thinking (such as infects the White House of Barack Obama) can make go away. In the end, Andy Marshall helped to keep America strong, and to maintain its military technological edge over foes past, present, and (hopefully) future. For that, there will be no forgiveness.

As for the future, Ashton Carter has not yet named a successor, but the issue goes beyond specific names or personalities. Some worry that without Marshall’s vigilance the ONA will decline into a Pentagon version of the CBO, an analytic bureau held captive by its political masters and subservient to their assumptions and policy dictates, under the guise of providing “objective analysis.”

Representative Randy Forbes (R., Va.) and other supporters insist that whoever Marshall’s successor is, the ONA must be allowed to maintain its intellectual independence. “This office is not just Andy Marshall,” Forbes told the Washington Post in 2013. “This office provides incredible value to the country at a time when we need strategy more than ever.”

Others wonder whether the worst outcome might be that the ONA turns into a haven for a Yoda from the Dark Side, an arrogant and preternaturally persuasive charlatan who imposes his agenda on the Pentagon under the guise of long-term strategic thinking — with real long-term damage to the future of our military. Better to shutter the office altogether, they say, than allow that to happen. “All defense secretaries are captives of our inbox,” Donald Rumsfeld said. “Andy Marshall has been unique in that he creates an outbox” through which they can address the future from an independent point of view, one outside the usual Pentagon consensus.

Marshall himself has put it slightly differently. “One of the things you want people to understand is the uncertainty of things,” he once said. “Any notion that you know what’s going to happen, I think, is not going to work.” Marshall’s words now apply to the office he himself created.

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