Phil Walter is the founder of Divergent Options.  Divergent Optionscontent does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing “Reflections on Net Assessment” by Andrew W. Marshall, Edited by Jeffrey S. McKitrick and Robert G. Angevine

Date Originally Written:  October 16, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  December 19, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a graduate of the American Academy for Strategic Education’s Net Assessment and Competitive Strategy course.  The author is fortunate to count members and alumni of the Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment as friends and mentors.  Mr. Marshall’s idea regarding the Office of Net Assessment being “diagnostic but not prescriptive” is what inspired the author to start the website Divergent Options.  The author was contacted by The Andrew W. Marshall Foundation[1], asked to review this book, and provided a free copy of it.

Summary:  U.S. national security is recovering from over twenty years of Instant Gratification Warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The threat posed by the People’s Republic of China requires the U.S. to think in decades instead of in deployment cycles, and develop strategies and plans in an integrated manner.  “Reflection on Net Assessment” is the perfect book for someone who needs to shake off organizationally-incentivized impatience and focus on long-term threats.

Text:  Andrew W. Marshall was born in 1921 and worked at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s.  In the late 1960s, Henry Kissinger recruited Andy to apply his approaches in the National Security Council, where Andy worked for several years before becoming the first Director of Net Assessment, a post he held for the next 43 years.  Andy retired from government service in 2015 at the age of 94 and dedicated the remaining four years of his life to supporting all those who sought his counsel and writing his own short essays on the history and practice of defense analysis[2].     

The Andrew W. Marshall Foundation and the Institute for Defense Analyses[3] released “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall[4],” on October 4, 2022.  The book features twelve interviews with Mr. Marshall that were conducted between 1993 and 1999 by defense analyst Kurt Guthe and others.  These interviews discuss Mr. Marshall’s 25 years at the RAND Corporation, and over 40 years in the Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment.  The interviews were woven together by Jeffrey S. McKitrick and Robert G. Angevine and each interview is preceded by a description of world events happening at the time.  These descriptions help frame the reader’s mindset before the interview transcript begins.

For those who have not heard of the term Net Assessment, Department of Defense Directive 5111.11 defines it as “[T]he comparative analysis of military, technological, political, economic, and other factors governing the relative military capability of nations. Its purpose is to identify problems and opportunities that deserve the attention of senior defense officials.”  The Secretary of Defense assigned the Director of Net Assessment the responsibility to “Develop and coordinate independent net assessments of the standing trends, and future prospects of U.S. military capabilities and national potential in comparison with those of other countries or groups of countries so as to identify emerging or future threats or opportunities for the United States, consistent with the April 14, 2017 and October 1, 2019 Secretary of Defense Memorandums. Pursuant to Section 904(b) of Public Law 113-291, these net assessments may be communicated to the Secretary of Defense, without obtaining the approval or concurrence of any other DoD official.”  The net assessments include “current and projected U.S. and foreign military capabilities by theater, region, domain, function, or mission; and specific current and projected U.S. and foreign capabilities, operational concepts, doctrine, and weapon systems[5].”

We are all products of the time in which we live.  In my case, I grew up during the Cold War and participated in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The problem U.S. national security currently faces is that the intellectual underpinnings for the U.S. strategy that won the Cold War came from a generation that won a war.  The intellectual underpinnings for today’s strategies for the U.S. to compete with China and Russia come from a generation that lost two Authorizations for the Use of Military Force.  In the context of U.S. national security having to re-learn Cold War techniques and determine if they are applicable to our present national security situation, this book will help immensely.

The twelve interviews in this book are an absolute treasure.  These interviews illustrate Mr. Marshall’s mindset, and how this mindset evolved over time based on both external national security stimuli and internal bureaucratic friction.  Someone reading this book will close the cover on the last page having not only received a class from a master of strategic thought but will have also learned how to survive and make progress in a large bureaucracy taking into account that “There is only so much stupidity one man can prevent[6].”

Mr. Marshall was highly motivated to ask the right question.  He believed that “Poor, mediocre answers to good questions are more important than getting splendid answers to poor questions.  That means that getting the questions right is very, very important.  Most analysis spends far too little time on what the questions really are[7].”  Mr. Marshall also believed that getting the right people in the room to discuss a topic was a must, even if these people were outside of his organization.  He believed that “…the objective in any analysis is to do the best that this country can do, not just the best that RAND or whatever organization you’re talking about can do[8].”  Mr. Marshall disliked it when organizations would “…rather die than bring in anybody else[9],” and discusses his views on how the Central Intelligence Agency became more insular and therefore less impactful over time.   

Mr. Marshall believed that there were people who focused on reality and wanted to know how the world really functioned and those who focused on their models or hypotheses and barely looked at the world[10].  This reality drove him to observe that during the Cold War there was a tendency “…to treat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance as a real alliance, rather than the situation of a major power and a bunch of protectorates[11].”  Office of Net Assessment research during the Cold War reflected realities such as the Soviet Navy having more weapons than sensors to find targets and Israel and Egypt having the same number of tanks during the 1973 war but Israel’s tanks were able to get into battle three times if damaged and Egypt’s only once[12].  

Imposing cost on a competitor is discussed throughout the book and Mr. Marshall even looks at health care and environmental pollution as factors that the Soviet Union may have to address ahead of military investment[13].  Regarding Soviet operations in Afghanistan, Mr. Marshall speaks to measuring costs from a Soviet perspective, and trying to determine what costs meant the most to them, instead of what costs would mean the most to the U.S. if it were in the same situation[14].

My biggest take away from this book is the idea that, if the U.S. competition with the Soviet Union began in 1947, the impacts of U.S. strategies began to be felt by the Soviets in 1977.  These impacts set the conditions for the 1980s Cost Imposition and Competitive Strategies approaches, neither of which would have worked in the 1950s or 1960s when the Soviet economy was strong.  U.S. national security personnel would do well to embrace this timeline when thinking about the People’s republic of China.  Overall, I found this book to be highly interesting, extremely motivating, and very applicable to current events.  While most of us never met Mr. Marshall, this book gives us the opportunity to learn an immense amount from him.   

“So I have come away, really for the rest of my life, with the belief that what should happen is, if you have a problem, you get the very best people to work on it, and it doesn’t matter if they’re in your organization or not[15].” 


Endnotes:

[1] The Andrew W. Marshall Foundation can be found at:  www.andrewwmarshallfoundation.org/

[2] About Andrew W. Marshall, The Andrew W. Marshall Foundation, https://www.andrewwmarshallfoundation.org/andrew-w-marshall

[3] The Institute for Defense Analyses can be found at:  http://www.ida.org/

[4] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, can be found at: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[5] DoD Directive 5111,11, “Director of Net Assessment,” April 14, 2020, can be found at: https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/DD/issuances/dodd/511111p.pdf

[6] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 14, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[7] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 16, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[8] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 18, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[9] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 18, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[10] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 63, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[11] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 61, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[12] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 199, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[13] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 198, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[14] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 229, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631

[15] “Reflections on Net Assessment: Interviews with Andrew W. Marshall,” ISBN-13: 9780578384221, Page 65-66, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/reflections-on-net-assessment-andrew-w-marshall/1141455631