New leadership within the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) threatens to stifle creative capacity for military strategic problem solving. Retired Air Force Col. Jim Baker has replaced the legendary strategist, Andrew Marshall. The ONA’s core purpose has been to examine and dissect issues that do not necessarily hold weight in current strategic issues. These issues could even include factors as seemingly irrelevant as examining Putin’s body language for clues to his demeanor. Such superficially irrelevant factors can often prove to make long term strides in threat assessment to national security.
"[H]elp me think about the long-term consequences of near-term policy decisions. Your work remains future focused, but you must ensure the team’s work has present relevance to me."
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter
This new direction will risk turning the historically independent DOD think tank into a policy-driven, intelligence-producing machine. The new directive exactly undercuts the core mission of the ONA and completely misses the point on its value.
A certain degree of irony can be synthesized from this new directive. Net assessment seeks to tackle major confounding or unforeseen issues, decompose them, and appropriate them to departments or agencies within the US government. This allows departments to chew pieces of the problem, rather than the whole meaty, threat assessment steak at once. Issues can then be compared against departments and checked for congruency. The transformation of the office pulls away from the essence of discovering new issues that will affect future policy, to short term policy driven intelligence production, cloaked as ‘long term goals’. These threat assessments will not appropriately represent unforeseen future threats that are not yet of focus.
It is unclear what weight the transition will bear on US national security policy, as the ONA’s success is rarely publicized or quantified as being the primary cog that aids the national security machine. However, it is somewhat of a disservice that this independent think tank will lose its ability to investigate potential rising threats that are out of the popular scope of focus. One can only hope that we won’t look back in 50 years and regret not studying something as incredulous as “Putin may develop a lightsaber”, had it been a noteworthy issue for threat assessment.