HASC’s Forbes Objects to Closing Pentagon’s Respected Internal Think Tank

The first-and-only head of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall (left), receives the 2008 Presidential Citizens Medal from then-President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. (White House photo)

Barring a so-far impossible “grand” or “mini” or “miniscule” deal between congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the Obama White House, before Jan. 15, the “Sequestration Era” will enter a second year.

So it would behoove Pentagon leaders to keep what friends they have on Capitol Hill amid a frenzy for federal spending cuts among House Republicans. But this correspondent gets the sense Pentagon officials are on a run of annoying what has been its staunchest group of congressional allies: House Armed Services Committee Republicans.

Last week, clearly agitated and sometimes-angry HASC Republicans hammered Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale over the Obama administration’s interpretation of a House GOP-crafted military pay law that government lawyers interpreted in a way that allowed DoD to call back most of its workforce. Now, a solidly pro-Pentagon lawmaker is pushing back on a Pentagon plan to shutter its renowned and widely respected internal think tank.

In a Friday letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, HASC Seapower subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., noted panel members have been “made aware that the Department is considering the elimination of the Office of Net Assessment (ONA).”

The office has been around since 1972, and is the ultimate rarity in Washington, where senior officials come and go like the seasons. Andrew Marshall, who is over 90 years old, was its boss on Day 1 and continues to be its boss.

Net Assessment is credited with, among other feats, analyses that helped the United States win the Cold War.

Forbes told Hagel that the Marshall-led office “has been at the forefront of the most innovative defense strategies of the last two generations.”

In short, Forbes told the SecDef that Net Assessment is simply too important to close:

“Given the critical contributions to U.S. national security made by the office during its forty-year history and its role as a central repository for long-range strategic thinking, we believe it would be a serious error to further consider its abolition.

“ONA has been at the forefront of the most innovative defense strategies of the last two generations. From developing the concept of ‘competitive strategies’ during the Cold War, to examining the implications of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, to helping to drive the development of the Air-Sea Battle concept, ONA has been the principal intellectual driver of the long-range strategies required to protect and promote U.S. national interests.

“Furthermore, and perhaps less-noticed, throughout ONA’s history the office has trained and mentored numerous strategic practitioners who have made considerable contributions to our nation’s long-range thinking. In short, the Office’s unique culture has allowed it to remain an important proving ground for the next generation of strategists who will help guide U.S. strategy well into the 21st century.”

Your correspondent will resist any commentary on whether the so-confusing and murky Air-Sea Battle concept is a reason to keep Net Assessment (NA) open. But your correspondent will note Forbes wants Hagel to give his “commitment to the Office of Net Assessment and ensure that it remains appropriately funded in light of its singular and continuing contributions to American national security and interests.”

The proposed move also has caught the attention of some in the think tank and consulting worlds. And one member of those fraternities, Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, is as unimpressed with the idea as Forbes:

“These days, defense officials and outside experts are fond of referencing a remark allegedly by Winston Churchill to the effect that ‘we have run out of money; now we must think.’ So it is surprising that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would approve the closing of one of the few entities within the Office of the Secretary of Defense devoted to thinking.”

“The decision to eliminate NA might make sense were it an expensive endeavor, employing a large staff that might be better deployed elsewhere. However, NA is a tiny organization, less than a dozen staff. Its budget is a few million dollars annually, much of that devoted to outside studies and analyses. You wouldn’t save enough from this action buy even one tactical fighter. Furthermore, the loss of the intellectual energy NA provides at a critical time for the Pentagon’s future could have negative effects far outweighing the utility of the few dollars that would be saved.”

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
[starbox]