When the memorial service for the former defense official Andrew W. Marshall, who recently passed away at the age of 97, was held, an eclectic throng attended. Former senior Cabinet officials, generals (the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave one of the eulogies), professors, think tankers, and bureaucrats from several continents showed up. There were historians, anthropologists, economists, journalists, and political scientists. But it was not a gathering of the establishment, for these were the cranky insiders rather than the complacent wielders of authority. And all of us thought of ourselves as members of what is affectionately known as St. Andrew’s Prep.
Andy came to Washington in 1969 from the Rand Corporation to work for Henry Kissinger. His friend James Schlesinger recruited him from there to create and run the Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon in 1973, and he retired out of that job an astounding 42 years later. In that time, he influenced not only the senior civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon (emphatically, some more than others), but generations of students of national-security affairs.
Put at its most simple, net assessment is about comparing opposing sides in actual or potential conflict. That might sound straightforward, but it is not. Intelligence agencies focus on the other—they are by culture and sometimes by bureaucratic practice allergic to studying their own side. The military engages in planning, of course, but that is not the same thing as assessment, because action is very different from analysis. Think tanks usually conduct their studies with an eye on clearly defined deliverables in well-measured times for particular clients. Universities do all kinds of analytic work, but very rarely with the kind of highly classified information that is needed.