In May 2015, Andrew Marshall retired as director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Mr. Marshall had a laudable career that entailed over half a century of thinking through some of the United States more challenging security threats. Marshall was replaced by Jim Baker, a retired Air Force colonel. Baker was chosen by Sec. Def. Ash Carter and, according to the Washington Post, signifies “a shift from concentrating on long-term threats to one more on near-term threats, while still thinking about the future.” Never mind the preceding clause in the quote, for I am convinced it is nothing but a save-face qualifier that will have no actual bearing on policy. Essentially, the long game is being replaced by the short one; the strategic for the tactical. And who can blame the Pentagon for this shift? The United States has not fought a war at land or sea since 1945 and hardly experienced any great power conflict since the end of the Cold War. Today, national security threats that dominate the media are much more likely to be terrorism, irregular warfare, , and propaganda — tactical stuff. And besides, according to the Steven Pinker, “War really is going out of style” — by which he means the great power wars of the 20th century.
So, why is this shift so concerning? Well, for one, Andrew Marshall was good at his job. He provided ground breaking analysis that changed how we faced the Soviet threat. He gave great commentary on the Revolution in Military Affairs. Instead of replacing him with one of his acolytes, the James Baker choice seems to be a sign of divergence from the Office of Net Assessment. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Secondly, I think the shift de-emphasizes the growing China threat. China has built more warship and warplanes than other nation the last several years and seems to be poised to achieve military parity with the United States sometime in the next few decades. Marshall himself warned that a conflict with China was inevitable, and pissed many Luddites in Pentagon off by conducting war games between China and the U.S. Thirdly, I believe we are experiencing another revolution in military affairs — robots! China is clearly taking advantage of new technologies in preparation for future conflicts. See “Informationalized warfare.” And as P.W. Singer has claimed, the technological advantage the U.S. has relied on during the past century to “off-set” foes are deteriorating. “This advantage of technology, though, is an inheritance that simply may not be there for our militaries in the future.” And China is also spending more on technology R&D than all of the EU, and is on pace to match the US in five years.
A rising, aggressive, determined China is what makes the ONA shift concerning. Better to stay true to form and keep doing what works. We need an organization to think strategically about the next several decades and what threats our foes may pose, and it seems as if the ONA can no longer provide that.