James Holmes

The Pentagon Still Needs to Think

Shutting down the Office of Net Assessment would be imprudent, although more oversight would be wise.

James R. Holmes

In these austere times for defense, experts have taken to quoting Winston Churchill's old saying that when you run out of money, it's time to think. So often does it come up that Churchill's quotation has gone from obscure to hackneyed almost overnight. I've heard it on three continents the past month alone. (What bliss it is to use such a pompous line!) One hopes the Pentagon isn't reformulating it thus: we're so broke that we can no longer afford to think. That's the gist of reports suggesting that Defense Department officials are mulling shutting down the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), headed by Andy Marshall since the Nixon administration. Forty years in the same post: that's longevity for you.

A shutdown would be a cost-cutting measure, but also an act entailing potential strategic consequences. Naval Diplomat pal Bryan McGrath raises a reasonable point though. Has anyone surveyed ONA's track record to see how well it has performed over the decades? What has it gotten right, what has it gotten wrong, and what have its studies missed entirely? For instance, Congressional Research Service reports on various defense programs — the Littoral Combat Ship, DDG-1000, and on and on — routinely come over the transom. No similar review of ONA comes to mind. Without standards of measurement, how do we know whether the office justifies its (rather modest) budget? Can't the array of think tanks and, ahem, lone cranks writing about strategy perform the same function while sparing taxpayers the expense?

Maybe. And yet. Let me offer two personal anecdotes from my limited interactions with ONA. One, back in 2010 the Naval War College convened a conference to debate whether the "competitive strategies" approach pioneered by ONA during the 1980s is worth reviving for peacetime strategic competition with China. Competitive strategies refer to the commonsense but often overlooked idea that competitors ought to seek out low-cost stratagems that induce competitors to take high-cost countermeasures. Why not compete cost-effectively? The organizers asked various questions of contributors while making zero effort to steer them in any particular direction. If you're curious about the proceedings, Stanford University Press released revised versions of the papers as a 2012 book. You judge.

And two, last year about this time a shadowy ONA agent (actually, a quintessential professorial type) stole into Newport under cover of darkness to commission papers relating to China's "three warfares." That's the project to which I alluded to vaguely a couple of weeks back. Same template from 2010: pose a question while making no attempt to bias the answer one way or the other. Mine was, in effect, to what extent is legal, media, and psychological warfare rooted in Chinese strategic traditions? Short answer: Chinese strategists are no more captive to history than the rest of us, but trying to shape the environment to win without combat does seem to be encoded in Communist China's national DNA. In part that must be a legacy of the military classics, romances, and other wellsprings of strategic insight. The three-warfares study, which ended up being a doorstop, is undergoing final edits.

So there's my personal testament, sample size of two. Two interactions with the Office of Net Assessment resulted in two profitable lines of inquiry that likely never would've occurred to me. When it comes down to it, how to gauge ONA's merit is a philosophical question. Namely, what dollar value do you place on strategic thought? Clausewitz notes that a Sir Isaac Newton would pull out his ample hair trying to fathom the countless variables at work in net assessment. Sizing up a potential antagonist's material strength, the capacity and likely behavior of its people, government, and armed forces, and so forth is taxing, elusive work. Predicting the future, then, is a fool's game.

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We all fail if clairvoyance is the standard. But by the same token, thinking about possible futures is the inescapable task before statesmen, commanders, and those who advise them. ONA is one catalyst for this enterprise. When money gets tight — heck, even when you're flush with it — you've gotta think. Seems Churchill had it right all along.