The Office of Net Assessment was created with the intent of introducing long term strategic analysis and planning directly into the upper echelons of the Department of Defense’s leadership. However, the ONA is not the only think-tank styled organization known for this capability and a close relationship with the DoD. RAND Corp. and various private and semi-private think tanks offer similar capabilities and specialize more wholly in strategic analysis and planning. Many of these organizations, particularly RAND corp., is much better known for its role in the Defense Establishment and its importance to policy makers. The ONA has attracted significant criticism over its apparent lack of output in recent decades. Is the ONA being overshadowed by entities better equipped to address its own mission? What role has the DoD’s seemingly redundant arm maintained?
These questions seem more pertinent today than at any time since the fall of the USSR. If the actions of the new Secretary of Defense Ash Carter are anything to judge by then the DoD’s highest official is also questioning its purpose.
The ONA was formed in 1973 during by the Nixon administration. The ONA’s purpose was to act as a dedicated, compartmented long term planner for the Department of Defense. The ONA’s bureaucratic compartmentalization and close access to the Secretary of Defense was no accident of creation but purposeful. By removing the ONA from the direct scrutiny of Department Chiefs and other lesser, service specific officials the ONA’s ability to think, plan and chart the waters ahead for the DoD as a whole would be preserved. Andrew Marshall, the ONA’s long time and recently retired head, was known to guard his office’s access to the Secretary of Defense jealously, fighting any attempt to shift its centrality. Andrew Marshall, like the ONA he ran, kept his counsel to himself and the Secretary of Defense and was known by his associates as quiet, and unassuming.
Nonetheless, Marshall is often proclaimed to be the father of the Net Assessment framework and the man responsible for a revolution in military thought. Both critics and advocates describe him as the DoD’s very own Yoda – hearkening to the iconically wise, wizened character from the Star Trek films. Marshall may not have spoken publically about his work or his perception of what role the ONA played in the broader DoD but his silence, when considered with his actions, carries significance.
As Marshall fought to maintain the ONA’s close contact with the Secretary of Defense and its independence from the demands of the individual services he sought to keep his precious ONA above the bureaucratic horse trading of the DoD establishment. Marshall’s silence on the exact nature of the Net Assessment framework and the ONA’s role helps confirm this goal – Marshall understood that to give the ONA a public voice he would subject it to the scrutiny of the numerous interests which made up the DoD. If the ONA’s purpose is truly to be the think tank of the Secretary of Defense, an organization which produces analysis and assessment over the scale of decades specifically for the desk of the Secretary of Defense, then it would necessarily produce literature which would alienate it from the good graces of service chiefs. Recommendations on the future resource requirements of the DoD’s many missions, which the ONA produces, would undoubtedly threaten or privilege certain services over others. That this product is distributed directly to the Secretary of Defense would make the ONA even more suspect.
The ONA’s competitors in long term strategic assessment like RAND are already subject to the influence of the services. RAND’s many contributors and partners peddle their own perspectives independent of a single, guiding light of impartiality which Marshall supposedly held. Therein lies the ONA’s value.
The Secretary of Defense can commission studies and analysis of the strategic long-term to help inform policy decisions from many sources. None of these sources are simultaneously directly under the Secretary’s oversight and uniquely placed to remain impartial of the grand, byzantine labyrinth of the DoD’s bureaucracy. The ONA doesn’t need to compete by virtue of strategic assessment or by the application of Marshall’s net assessment framework. Rather, the ONA is valuable because of its isolation, mysterious operation and unpressured analysis.