European Affairs

"The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy" by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts; Basic Books; 305 pages     Print Email

larrybarrettIn 1969 Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser in Richard Nixon’s new administration, shared his boss’s dissatisfaction with the data and analysis flowing daily from the Central Intelligence Agency. Kissinger decided to enlist an outside expert with top security clearance to evaluate the CIA’s reporting process.

For this delicate task he chose Andrew W. Marshall, who in two decades at the RAND Corporation had become the think tank’s Director of Strategic Studies. Marshall had also earned a reputation among defense intellectuals as an apostate in the cathedral of conventional wisdom.

He accepted Kissinger’s invitation – ostensibly for a couple of months. Then Kissinger drafted him for additional assignments. With the Vietnamese war draining the defense budget and the Soviet Union rapidly expanding its strategic arsenal, the White House groped for more reliable ways to evaluate the competition with Moscow. Marshall was drawn into that effort, taking charge of a prototype “net assessment” unit.

Soon he was telling friends he would stay for a year or two, occupying a rental apartment while keeping the Santa Monica house that he and his wife regarded as home. But they never lived on the West Coast again.

Instead, Marshall migrated to the Pentagon in 1973, when his friend and fellow wonk, James Schlesinger, became Defense Secretary. There Marshall started the Office of Net Assessment, a tiny operation unknown even today to most citizens and rarely mentioned in the general news media. In that post he showed unprecedented durability, serving under seven Commanders in Chief and 13 Secretaries of Defense.

While ONA’s clout fluctuated as bosses came and went, its mandate remained constant. It was to apply rigorous intellectual standards – commissioning research from the private sector as necessary – to measure where the U.S. stands versus adversaries current and potential. 

Its mission was also to peer over the horizon, attempting to match systems that take years to develop with evolving strategic challenges. The uniformed services’ investment in a particular deployment might be labeled redundant or obsolescent, sometimes provoking blowback. “We are here,” Marshall liked to say, “to inform, not to please.” 

Having turned 93 in September, Marshall is retiring at last. Two ONA alumni, Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, anticipated that milestone with The Last Warrior, a respectful biography that tries to illuminate the man and his mission.

They have been only partly successful. One handicap is that most of ONA’s formal products -- the “net assessments” prepared periodically under Marshall’s supervision -- remain classified. And the authors, who became consultants to the Defense Department after leaving government service, offer only tantalizing glimpses of Marshall the human being. It is clear that Marshall cooperated in the book’s preparation, but obliquely. He seems enamored of obscurity.

Still, the authors’ claim that Marshall has had “a subtle but indelible influence on American defense strategy for over half a century” rings true. And Marshall’s constant struggle to coax superiors – civilians and brass – to take the long view using realistic metrics provides an interesting, relevant narrative. If you think America’s herky-jerky national security policies and the hyper-expensive establishment serving it are flawed, The Last Warrior helps explain why.

ONA’s staff rarely exceeded 20, but it could commission research by all manner of experts, most of them outsiders. ONA would of course have access to all relevant government information. Most important, it was charged with raising questions, some of which would discomfit one vested interest or another.

In the nuclear age, facing a dogged rival, how does the United States accurately measure the strategic balance? How does it shore up weaknesses in its own posture and exploit flaws in its adversary’s? Is it time to scrap a venerable force even if it has diehard defenders (as the cavalry did until World War I)? How to discern trend lines leading to the next big turning point in technology or geopolitics?

Marshall first worked on these issues while at RAND. An economist by training with some experience in nuclear issues because of a previous association with the Fermi Institute, he early on made a fetish of skepticism.

Along with a few others, such as Schlesinger, he challenged the heavy reliance on quantitative data alone in evaluating weapons systems’ weight in the overall balance. Researchers, he argued, must bore much deeper to examine the adversary’s decision-making processes, its bureaucratic culture, its demographic health. “I’d rather have decent answers to the right questions,” he said, “than great answers to irrelevant questions.”

He brought this view to the Pentagon, along with his doubts about the validity of intelligence material – mostly from the CIA – that overestimated the Soviet Union’s economic strength. If the Soviets were spending a much higher proportion of their GNP on defense than Washington thought, Moscow’s ability to continue the arms race was compromised. Marshall thought that Kissinger’s belief that time was on the Soviets’ side was wrong.

Marshall turned out to be right on that crucial issue; the CIA eventually adjusted its findings. The authors say that getting a more accurate “estimate of burden” – what the Soviets were really paying and its impact on their society -- “might well represent his most important contribution to U.S. strategy during the Cold War’s final decade.” With it, the Reagan administration had some sound rationale for what was misleadingly termed “competitive strategies.”

That is, heavy outlays on new bombers and the threat of a comprehensive anti-missile system – the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars” – would force Moscow to spend itself into a ditch. Privately in the mid-1980’s, Marshall talked in jest about Chapter XI bankruptcy protection for the Soviet Union. Soon Mikhail Gorbachev was ready to make deals with Ronald Reagan.

With the Cold War ending, Marshall mulled new threats. In the 1990’s, he advocated what in Pentagon short-hand became known as the “military-technical revolution” (MTR) and then called “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). Behind the jargon lay the critical concept that warfare was going to change in fundamental ways, as it had, for instance, when Germany proved the blitzkrieg superior to static defense or when aircraft carriers made battleships obsolete.

The RMA envisioned further development of the kind of precision guided weapons that pixilated cable coverage during Desert Storm, giving them much greater range. Other gee-whiz technology would help American forces dominate reconnaissance and communication in the battle space. But before plunging into expensive new technology, the national security establishment, as Marshall saw it, would have to craft new operational doctrine and deployment patterns. And he shopped the idea that China was probably the next big adversary.

During the Clinton administration, Krepinevich and Watts say, Marshall got a sympathetic hearing from civilian officials. Uniformed leaders always like the prospect of new weapons but view proposals to change deployments as a threat to established turf. Anyway, distractions such as Somalia, conflict in the Balkans, early stirrings by al Qaeda and budget constraints inhibited significant change. But at least RMA had entered the planning mix.

When Donald Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon, Marshall was again working for a friendly admirer. During his first stint, under Gerald Ford, Rumsfeld had been highly impressed with the then-new ONA. Now Rumsfeld told Marshall to begin a broad strategic review focused on an obvious question: how does the U.S. maintain the military dominance and favorable strategic position it then enjoyed?

Marshall responded with a concepts paper with the theme of an “advantage-driven” strategy. That is, planners must identify the specific areas in which the U.S. excels over any potential rival and build on those strengths. He included what turned out to be a prescient warning: “Keep future American wars small, limited in means, and far away by maintaining strategic buffers and overseas allies.”

In March 2001, Rumsfeld took Marshall to the Oval Office to assist in a 90-minute briefing. George W. Bush encouraged them to continue refining the advantage-driven concept. But when Marshall then circulated in the Pentagon a preliminary draft listing just five areas of U.S. competitive advantage, flag officers whose domains were omitted cried foul. The uniformed service chiefs took up the howl. So Marshall’s large initiative hit a wall. In their only negative comment on their mentor, the authors note: “Inexplicably, Marshall, who should have known better, had been bushwhacked by the Pentagon bureaucracy.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the national security space for the rest of the Bush administration. Marshall remained at his post for one last Commander-in-Chief. Meanwhile Beijing’s relentless military buildup and aggressive tactics vis-à-vis its neighbors validated Marshall’s concerns – and justified ONA’s increasing research effort – about vulnerability in the Western Pacific.

The authors, oddly, tell readers almost nothing about Marshall’s standing in the Obama administration, it is clear that at least some of his ideas have had resonance beyond the President’s rhetorical “pivot” to Asia. The Air Force and Navy have taken formal steps to coordinate counter-measures to what in Pentagon-speak is called “A2/AD,” aka China’s “anti-access, area denial” strategy.

That danger had been on Marshall’s radar for years. So has the vulnerability of America’s large forward deployments, whether land bases or carrier groups, and not only in the far Pacific.

So the world remains dangerous. And the U.S. continues bereft of a coherent strategy, a condition that has applied since containment became moot. One finishes this book hoping that the incoming Defense Secretary can find a cold-eyed pragmatist like Marshall, an intellectual warrior able to keep the faith, and his perspective, while often losing to bureaucratic inertia. “There’s only so much stupidity one man can prevent,” Marshall once quipped.

Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.”

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