Eight Rules to Guide the Search for the Next Director of Net Assessment


Andy Marshall, the first, long-serving, and so-far-only director of the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), the Pentagon’s internal think tank, is retiring today. “The Future of Net Assessment,” Defense News has opined, is very important. The choice of Marshall’s successor—and even whether to maintain the office—now lies with Ashton Carter, the presumed incoming defense secretary. But should Carter and his team want more than just the advice offered to fourteen of his predecessors, he might consider the broader value of the Net Assessment to the defense enterprise. To guide his thinking, I offer eight rules that seem to have governed the workings of Marshall and his revolving team over the past forty years.

Let’s start with the paeans and indictments that have multiplied since the announcement. As Thomas Mahnken noted, there were indeed a few screeds on either Marshall’s supposed irrelevance or allegedly dangerous ideas. Jefrey Lewis asserted that his lasting (and he claimed pernicious) influence constituted a Force Ghost haunting the Pentagon’s collective thinking. In contrast, Daniel Gouré of the Lexington Institute lamented that the “Cold War’s greatest generation” is now passing. Unable to square all the competing views, I began asking around some weeks ago, seeking first-hand opinions. Pretty much everyone I contacted who had worked at Net Assessment had the same schtick, as exemplified by this line in one e-mail message:
     I will also say, however, that ONA does not ordinarily grant interviews for Mr. Marshall, nor does it ordinarily discuss Mr. Marshall. So, you’ll understand when I say that I am not in a position to discuss Mr. Marshall, either.
Thus did I discover the First Rule of Net Assessment: if you have worked at Net Assessment, you do not talk about Net Assessment. And the Second Rule of Net Assessment is that you do not talk about Net Assessment, except off the record, with circumspection, and in tones of reverence.
At least now the office has a Facebook page. [Correction: Net Assessment called to tell me that’s not their Facebook page.] Otherwise, Net Assessment has been a rather secretive place for the whole of its existence, and its director an outlier in the federal bureaucracy. In tenure, personal mystique, and almost cult of personality, only Hyman Rickover has ever come close. Way back in 1973, Marshall came to the job from RAND, which by then had a legendary reputation for strategic thinking. Wohlstetter, Nash, Kahn, and others there had taught a generation of leaders how to think about deterrence—amongst other lasting problems.
We know about the influence of RAND because RAND has such an extensive paper trail to analyze. In contrast, as Craig Whitlock opined in the Washington Post last year, “few places… are tougher to scrutinize” than Andy Marshall’s outfit. His reticence greatly complicates any assessment of Net Assessment’s net impact: the man has uttered fewer public words than most Jedi Masters or mafiosi. Perhaps that’s because, like Tom Hagen, he has a special practice, handling one client: the Secretary of All Defense. As one of his former military assistants told me, Marshall had a very productive relationship with National Security Advisor and State Secretary Henry Kissinger, and with some of the defense secretaries from the first two decades of business, particularly James Schlesinger.
In that context, some of the criticism could be characterized as the Fourth and Fifth Rules of Net Assessment: only two guys to a fight, and one fight at a time, fellas. The Cold War made for a neatly symmetrical problem, perhaps tractable by the tools of that newfangled game theory, and deep dives into the Soviet psyche. Net Assessment’s influence since the end of the Cold War seems rather less. But was it ever? As Michael Desch of Notre Dame finds, “a review of the memoirs of the secretaries of defense whom Marshall subsequently served turns up only two references to him: a perfunctory mention by Harold Brown, and a fulsome embrace by Donald Rumsfeld”.
What is just as clear is how strongly the alumni of Saint Andrew’s Prep feel about the man and the place. Perhaps Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts have, in Desch’s review, sought to “canonize” their old boss with their forthcoming biography, The Last Warrior. Fairly, Robert Gates wrote the book’s forward, so we know at least that one other of those past defense secretaries thinks positively of Marshall. Even so, what of it? Is direct access to the secretary the metric by which to judge the director and the office?
Net Assessment’s network comprises people not just well-connected, but smart and savvy too. Top schools don’t just admit great students, they teach them. Thus the intellectually wide-ranging Adam Elkus concludes that the work of Net Assessment under Andrew Marshall “educated two generations of defense analysts”—the people he deems, in an allusion to the famous edited volume, the Makers of Late Modern Strategy. This brings me to what seems the Sixth and Eighth Rules of Net Assessment: no shirts, no shoes, and at Net Assessment, you have to fight. Even if external views are less enthusiastic, I’m yet to find anyone who has worked for the guy who doesn’t think him a legend, and the short tour there a formative experience.
These may be entirely the sort of people we now need. As John Seely Brown held forth in the commencement address at Singapore Management University last year, much of the modern world is built on “institutions that can leverage scalable efficiencies”. The American military is no exception—indeed, it’s an exemplar. But such efficiencies are built on predictability, and can become deficiencies as the predictability of this post-modern world wavers. This, Brown asserted,  should lead us to value scalable learning—those “critical thinking” skills are indeed the elusive trait that today’s employers value, and that the modern military needs. Whatever its value as an FFRDC today, RAND is no longer producing Wohlstetters, Nashes and Kahns. Net Assessment seems to have taken up some of that role.
So in looking for a replacement, and on the advice of some of those alumni, I advise Carter to seek not just another Marshall, but a renewed Net Assessment. Andy is a very smart and special character, but he is also a product of his era and circumstance. There is a case for finding another leader for the long haul, as a similar mentor for another generation of military intellectuals. If so, then Carter should consider skipping a generation of leaders in pursuit of a really new director—perhaps a young and highly promising PhD with broad ambitions for not just research into policy, but developing the talent that will guide the American military establishment into the 2040s.
Thus we come to the Third and Seventh Rules of Net Assessment: if someone taps out, the fight is over, but fights will go on as long as they have to. Thanks for the fight, Andy. Your people will fight on.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.