Bad Idea for the Pentagon’s Idea Shop


Imagine that you were a general in some country that “must not be named,” thinking about your enemies and, in turn, what you might want as a gift for some random holiday, like for example Halloween or 春节. In your hope of hopes, what would you wish for?

You might wish for a potential rival to be wracked by internal political disputes, unable to make the simplest decisions even to the point of fiscal suicide. You might wish for them not merely to cut their military deeply, but to do so in the most un-strategic manner possible, sequestering the good and the bad by the same amount. You might hope their senior leaders decide to cling to force numbers designed for past scenarios, choosing a hollow force at the costs of investments in current or future readiness, research and development, and capabilities. You would want them to stand by their commitments to trillion dollar weapons programs conceived decades back, that shrink their striking distance at a time when you are developing long range weapons. And finally, you might dream that they would close up the office in the Pentagon that has housed some of the nation’s brightest strategic minds and out of the box thinkers. Imagine if any one of these wishes came true, what a wonderful holiday it would be for this imaginary general and his force. Unfortunately, the United States government seems bent on making each one of these wishes come true.

The Office of Net Assessment is a Pentagon cell formed in 1973 to focus on developing and coordinating the comparative analysis of the standing, trends, and future prospects of U.S. military capabilities relative to other nations and threats. It is the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s in-house think tank.  Its very purpose “is to identify problems and opportunities that deserve the attention of senior defense officials,” with an eye towards the long range, rather than the issues that typically fill leaders’ inboxes.

Every decade or so, however, this office is targeted for closure. The latest attempt was recently signaled by leaked reports of further potential cost-cutting measures in the Pentagon’s back office for the FY15 budget. This would be a grievous mistake (unless you are the one making the shopping list for that foreign general).

To begin, the savings that would come from closing Net Assessment are negligible. While it has an outsized reputation and impact, the office itself is tiny—a few rows of office cubicles and a conference room in the bowels of the Pentagon. Its budget is roughly $10 million, not the scale needed for any true savings in the Pentagon bottom line. To put it another way, if the sequestration remains in place, the Pentagon needs to cut an additional $20 billion during this fiscal year. Cutting Net Assessment would leave it with…roughly $20 billion to go.

These cuts, though, would eliminate no hardware or expensive overhead, but rather the intellectual shop that has fostered decades of innovative thinking—the exact kind of ideas needed in this time of strategic and budgetary chaos. Everything from recognizing the value of precision weapons as a game-changer in Cold War arsenals to the present-day AirSea Battle concept came from Net Assessment.

Perhaps even more important than the ideas has been the cadre of security thinkers that the office has spawned: several generations of civilian analysts and military officers who have worked inside it, as well as a network of outside professors and researchers whose research has been sponsored by it. From Andrew Marshall, its legendary founder and still director, to the current crop, the Net Assessment alumni roster literally reads like a security studies all-star list. Shutting down Net Assessment wouldn’t just close a pipeline of present and future ideas, but also a seedbed for the next generation of idea creators who we will need even more in the uncertain strategic environment that lies ahead.

Finally, there is the symbolism. The very act of cost-cutting away Net Assessment wouldn’t just speak poorly of how the U.S. security establishment values new ideas and the people behind them, but would also resonate with both allies and potential adversaries. Indeed, in a 2012 interview, General Chen Zhou, the author of several key Chinese defense white papers, noted the immense respect Chinese defense thinking has for the office.

This viewpoint (which I was asked to write after tweeting that closing Net Assessment was so silly, it should be part of one of those old Saturday Night Live “Bad Ideas Jeans” sketches) is not intended to be a paean to the office or a claim that its future need be exactly like its past. The office and its role can and must evolve in its relationships both inside and outside the building, in order to ensure that role retains its value through the next generation.

Rather, my argument is about the broader notion of cost savings through a focus on ideas, rather than true budgetary sunk costs. Cutting Net Assessment in a time of strategic uncertainty would be like setting out on a hike into a dark forest that you’ve never been in before, and then throwing away your maps and GPS (another game-changing technology the office helped recognize the potential of) to save weight. You’ll lighten the load marginally, but be far less likely to make it anywhere you want.

Indeed, for the reasons above and the very fact that the proposal to close Net Assessment would never make its way past key Congressmen, the idea floated is a policy and political non-starter. But, like so much in DC, there are layers to everything. In the end, proposing to close Net Assessment had a positive net effect. It served to remind us once more of how important big ideas and big thinkers are to national security.


P.W. Singer is director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is not an alumni of, nor has ever received funding from Net Assessment. Follow him on Twitter: @peterwsinger.


Photo credit: Michael Baird