Net assessment is essentially whatever the office’s director wants it to be. Different bureaucratic organizations focus on different parts of the system that keeps the U.S. up and running. Net assessment is an attempt to take into account every little aspect of the system and spew out an analysis. It is unreasonable to think that such a large-scale analysis could realistically incorporate every detail critical into the overall product.
Andrew Marshall was the Director of the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) for 65 years. His foundational perspective was to assume a state of perpetual conflict. He used the term “net assessment” to analyze the likely outcome of a major military campaign or war. For him, net assessment involves highly quantitative operations research, cost-benefit analysis, leadership and psychology, models of bureaucracy, and capabilities watching.
Andrew Marshall, Director of the Department of Defense's Office of Net Assessment, 1973-2015
Two of Marshall’s protégés wrote a shining biography of him entitled “The Last Warrior.” According to the authors, Krepinevich and Watts, Marshall “was—and remains—a pragmatic strategist who has consistently looked further into the future and focused more on the first-order problems of long-term competition in peacetime than those around him.” They go on to claim that “Pentagon decision makers would do well to take Marshall’s views to heart. His observations on such matters over three score years reveal a brilliant strategic mind with an uncanny ability to peer into the long-term future and see the situation ‘plain’—for what it is—more clearly than most around him.”
Michael Desch offers a critique of this biography, claiming that the authors weren’t willing to address Marshall’s faults. Desch positions himself as the “devil’s advocate” in the argument that upholds Marshall’s honor.
Only one of the 25 net assessments performed throughout Marshall’s career has been declassified, leaving us with a limited knowledge of what constitutes a net assessment. This leads to skepticism of the viability and necessity of the program. However, the reports may contain valuable information that needs to stay classified. These net assessments are either extremely important, or not useful at all. If they are important, they should stay classified. If they aren’t, then it would fall upon the Secretary of Defense to reform or remove the ONA since he is the ONA’s direct supervisor.
Is Marshall’s way the correct way to view net assessment? There isn’t a definitive answer to this question.
After Marshall retired last year, he was replaced by Jim Baker. Ash Carter took over as the Secretary of Defense in the same year. This turnover allows us to reasonably expect a few changes in how the ONA operates. Carter plans to turn the ONA into another intelligence analysis service instead of maintaining its current role as the Department of Defense’s internal think tank. The ONA is currently designed for the Cold War, and Carter plans to modify it to meet current analysis needs.
Time will tell if Carter and Baker’s modifications to the ONA are well-placed. But if the reports remain classified, those of us outside the Pentagon may never know which approach to “net assessment” is more effective.