Andrew Marshall, one of America’s most influential strategists, passed away on March 26, aged 97. He had directed the Pentagon’s internal think-tank, the Office of Net Assessment, from 1973 until his retirement in 2015.
His mind was acute, inquisitive and creative until the end. He had a key role in America’s victory in the Cold War during the 1980s.
His last great contribution was to persuade the Pentagon that China would become a superpower capable of challenging American predominance, and his great frustration during the last several years was the inadequacy of America’s response.
In 2013, he said privately that the Office of Net Assessment had no more customers in the Obama Administration after Leon Panetta stepped down as Defense Secretary. The Pentagon, he told me, should have met the Chinese challenge through aggressive funding of basic R&D in frontier technologies, as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) did throughout the Cold War.
His biographers Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts in The Last Warrior (2015) made the public aware of the enormous contribution of a publicity-shy Pentagon official whose most important work had a readership in the dozens. They summarized his career as follows:
“Andrew Marshall is a Pentagon legend. For more than four decades he has served as Director of the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank, under 12 defense secretaries and eight administrations. Yet Marshall has been on the cutting edge of strategic thinking even longer than that.
“At the RAND Corporation during its golden age in the 1950s and early 1960s, Marshall helped formulate bedrock concepts of US nuclear strategy that endure to this day; later, at the Pentagon, he pioneered the development of “net assessment” – a new analytic framework for understanding the long-term military competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Following the Cold War, Marshall successfully used net assessment to anticipate emerging disruptive shifts in military affairs, including the revolution in precision warfare and the rise of China as a major strategic rival of the United States.
“The Last Warrior is a good title, but I think “the last wise man” a better characterization. We no longer have anyone with Andy Marshall’s mastery of military strategy, deep knowledge of history, and intimate acquaintance with America’s defense issues of the past five decades.”
Much of Marshall’s legacy will be enshrined in the arcane language of military doctrines, for example, AirLand Battle, which emphasizes the use of high-technology weapons as a force equalizer.
The avionics revolution of the 1970s and the development of smart weapons in the 1980s supported an integrated approach to warfighting that the United States demonstrated during the First Gulf War. Marshall understood how to overcome inertia within the vast Pentagon bureaucracy, one of the most change-resistant entities in the world.
The breadth and originality of this thinking, though, reached far beyond the formulation of strategy within the Pentagon bureaucracy.
On February 29, 2012, I received the following email:
Dear Mr Goldman,
———– says that you would be willing to see me here in Washington. I read your recent book and much enjoyed it. I would like to see you when you are in Washington. Let us see if we can find a time to do this.
Andy had read my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), and was struck by my argument that seismic shifts in regional demographics would create long-term instability in most of the Muslim world.
He had sent copies of the book to several senior Pentagon officials as Christmas presents at the end of 2011. When I called on him at the Pentagon, he said: “I don’t know if what you say is right, but if it is right, it’s important and we have to plan for it.”
Marshall set in motion several studies in the Office of Net Assessment. These were executed by first-rate academic demographers, some of whom spent weeks in Muslim countries of strategic significance to the United States. I advised the Office of Net Assessment as my other obligations permitted. Net Assessment studies are classified and I cannot comment on the content.
When I joined Reorient Group (now Yunfeng Finance) at the end of 2013, my consulting relation with ONA ended, but I stayed in touch with Andy and his brilliant staffers, traveling to Washington regularly to report on what I observed of China.
His thinking on the prospective US-China military balance was respected in Beijing as much as Washington. As his Wikipedia entry notes: “In an interview in 2012 the main author of four of the Chinese defense white papers, General Chen Zhou, stated that Marshall was one of the most important and influential figures in changing Chinese defense thinking in the 1990s and 2000s.”
China had just announced the Belt and Road Initiative, and its shift from smokestacks to silicon was already evident. This was memorialized in 2015 by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as the “Made in China 2025” initiative, although most of the elements were long since in play.
Andy expressed deep concern about the shrinking role of basic R&D in the US defense budget. During the Reagan Administration – and in fact before under Jimmy Carter’s Defense Secretary Harold Brown – Pentagon funding had stood midwife to every key invention of the digital age: the semiconductor laser, CMOS chip manufacturing, sensors, displays and the internet itself.
R&D had shrunk as a proportion of the budget and to a great extent was dissipated on incremental improvements to such programs as the F-35 fighter.
When President Trump was elected in 2016, Marshall continued to mentor incoming officials. He had written an influential strategy paper in 2009 with Trump’s first Defense Secretary James Mattis, and hoped that Mattis would exert leadership in the defense technology field.
What would it take for the Trump Administration to revive the successful Reagan Administration approach to defense R&D, I asked him early in 2017.
“This sort of thing has to be run out of the office of the Secretary of Defense,” Andy replied. “I don’t mean the entities that make up the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the Pentagon’s organizational table – I mean out of his actual office. Unless the top man demands results, no-one will do anything.”
I had the privilege to call on Marshall several times during 2017 and 2018 at his home in Arlington. The service chiefs, Marshall said, are the last people to ask about cutting-edge technology.
“They always want more of the same things,” he said. Navy captains always want more aircraft carriers, because skippering a carrier is the route to promotion. Mattis, a celebrated light infantry commander, appointed the NASA scientist Michael Griffin to the newly-created post of Undersecretary for Research and Engineering.
Griffin warned eloquently that America was at risk of losing its technological edge:
“… It was America’s technological preeminence that brought an end to World War II, that won the Cold War and that got us to the place where we could fall asleep at the switch in terms of maintaining that preeminence.
“By the time we looked around in, call it 2015, 25 or so years later, it was and remains today observably true that while in many categories America still leads the world and in company with our allies and partners in the western nations it still leads the world in many areas of technology, with regard to certain areas in defense, science and technology, really we just don’t anymore. That’s a hard thing to say and a hard thing to hear.”
Griffin’s admonitions, though, had little impact on the Defense Department or White House.
I had planned to visit Marshall earlier this year, but his health deteriorated after an operation in January. I last heard from him on January 28, proposing a meeting after he convalesced. Then came the news that we had lost him. We won’t see the likes of him again.