Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Assessing the Office of Net Assessment

2002 ONA Publication
      Recent discussion around changing or perhaps eliminating the Pentagon’s highly respected Office of Net Assessment (ONA) has centered on its contributions to national security over the years and its venerable and iconic leader Mr. Andrew Marshall. Arguments have been made that perhaps what ONA does is duplicated by other Pentagon offices. Reports also indicate that much of ONA’s work is sub-contracted to various think tanks rather than indigenously produced. Many of ONA’s products deal specifically with defense policy, so some experts have suggested that it should reside under or be replaced by the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. A review of how the United States, as opposed to other historical great powers, makes grand strategy should readily inform those interested in U.S. national security of why moving or eliminating ONA is a very bad idea.
Andrew Marshall
     The U.S. method of creating grand military strategy is very different from that of other great powers of the recent past. Imperial Japan and Imperial Germany were dependent on small, elite military staffs to provide concepts of grand strategy to even smaller groups of military or civilian leaders. Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union relied too on military staffs but reserved final decisions for a single dictatorial ruler. The British Empire for a long period of its history relied on a fairly large professional national security organization of appointed departmental civilian permanent undersecretaries. These powerful individuals advised (and in many cases) moderated or controlled the decision-making of elected officials. This system created a relatively constant British foreign and defense policy over decades rather than just over the tenure of one leader. One such official, Royal Marine Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey became the powerful Secretary to the Committee for Imperial Defence, and held that position for the next 26 years. He advised numerous Prime Ministers including his near-contemporary Winston Churchill and eventually left government as Lord Hankey. These non-political officers constituted what British Imperial historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher referred to as “the official mind” and they gave it credit for the remarkable stability in the management of the British Empire from the 1860s through the 1930s.
Maurice Hankey
     The United States is unique among global powers in that the vast bulk of national security decision-making authority is vested in elected civilian leaders and their political appointees, whose authority extends deep into the organization structure of the Department of Defense. This arrangement began after the Second World War with a need to manage the awesome power represented by nuclear weapons, and a desire to ensure firm civilian control over both this technology and the military officers who would wield it on the battlefield. It has continued and grown over the last sixty years with a much expanded civilian presence in the business of national security. Military advisors such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) provide strategic advice and geographic Combatant Commanders manage battle plans for their theaters of operation. The U.S. however has no “General Staff” of long service professional military officers devoted to the creation of grand strategy, nor a powerful staff of professional defense civilians capable of resisting political pressure to sea changes in defense or foreign policy. There have been positive proposals for a U.S. system of “national security professionals”, most recently through the now defunct U.S.-based Project for National Security Reform (PNSR), but these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. U.S. politicians enjoy their power over the U.S. Defense Department and prefer to choose from sources of additional advice rather than be forced to accept them from unelected bureaucrats.
     Many of these come from the vast “unofficial mind” of the U.S. in the form of its large number of defense-oriented think tanks. These organizations, both government and privately funded, are staffed with knowledgeable public intellectuals and provide an array of analysis and opinions for politically-appointed defense officials. Think tanks also have professional and in some cases partisan divides based on their expert staff and funding sources. A U.S. presidential administration may rely on think tank advice and appoint its experts to defense-related positions, but it is not required to accept advice contrary to its own position. Multiple think tanks united around a single cause can apply significant pressure to change administration policy. This happened in the early 1980s when several of these institutions combined forces in support of the defense reorganization reform movement that culminated in the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986. This is a rare occurrence however and administrations are usually quite effective in pursuing their own course in defense policy. The legislative branch is usually required to intervene in a bipartisan fashion in order to affect change as occurred at the end of the Vietnam War. Given this situation, a presidential administration and its political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense might easily create a poor climate for truly efficient national security decision-making by surrounding themselves with too many people and opinions in direct agreement with their own.
     This situation is why the retention of the Net Assessment office and its direct access to the Secretary of Defense is so vital. This is one independent institution within a very political defense establishment. Mr. Marshall is the closest equivalent the U.S. has to a “permanent undersecretary”. He and his staff of experts owe no allegiance to a specific party or ideology. Since 1973 a succession of thirteen Defense Secretaries has been beneficiary of ONA’s academic, research-driven insights and analysis. The office has not always been correct, but its presence as an independent source of national security thinking must be maintained. Anyone who has worked in an office or organization that resists outside influences or advice is aware of the dangers such behavior presents to an institution and its mission. Without the check of an independent Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon establishment is even more in danger of such  “group think” mentality. It is vital to retain the ONA in its present form and reporting arrangement in order to ensure that at least one independent voice is heard in an increasingly partisan Department of Defense.


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