Exclusive: Inside The Pentagon’s Idea Factory

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Index of Office of Net Assessment studies

A tiny office in the Pentagon employs a handful of military officers, teamed up with outside contractors, to study the future.

An index of reports produced by the Office of Net Assessment over the past 20 years, obtained by TPMmuckraker through the Freedom of Information Act, provides a window into the thinking and concerns at the highest levels of the Defense Department.

The jargony official description of the office — often called the Pentagon’s internal think tank — refers to comparing U.S. “military capabilities” to those of other countries and identifying “emerging or future threats or opportunities for the United States.” And, indeed, many of the ONA studies’ titles reflect the abstruse interests of military academics (one effort is called Non-Standard Models Of The Diffusion Of Military Technologies: An Alternative View). Others, though, are downright Strangelovian: Fighting A Nuclear-Armed Regional Opponent: Is Victory Possible? [December 2007]; After Next Nuclear Use [July 2002].

The range of subjects includes energy: Future Asian-Pacific Hydrocarbon Demand (1996-2015) [December 1997]; weapons: Role Of High Power Microwave Weapons In Future Intercontinental Conventional War [July 2007]; and Islam: Occultation In Perpertuum: Shi’ite Eschatology And The Iranian Nuclear Crisis [May 2007].

There’s the geopolitical: Preventing Large Scale State Failure [April 2008]; the historical: Normandy Retrospective [November 1996], The End of Religiously Motivated Warfare: Lessons From The Puritans And Beyond [June 2007]; and the postmodern: Information As Advertisement And Advertisement As Information [July 2008].

Some of the studies are more inscrutable: The Changing Images Of Human Nature [April 1995], Biometaphor For The Body Politic [March 2006].

The office specializes in looking at issues “20 to 30 years in the future,” according to Jan van Tol, who served at ONA before becoming a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Van Tol says ONA has no more than 15 staffers. Most of the work is done by outside contractors. Despite its size, the influence of the office has been vast since its creation in 1973 by Andrew Marshall, the guru-like figure who still leads ONA. Fred Kaplan, in his book Daydream Believers, profiles Marshall, the so-called “Yoda” of the Pentagon. Kaplan explains the key to Marshall’s longevity (he has kept his job longer than anyone at a policy level in Washington) — and his influence:

“he built a far-flung network of acolytes and loyalists: officers whose unconventional projects he had encouraged and helped to fund; analysts whose work he had sponsored and whose ideas he had helped form; and high-ranking officials, as well as committee chairmen on Capitol Hill, who simply valued having a man of ideas so high up in the Pentagon.”

The office reports to the Secretary of Defense, but “its informal channels are probably more important than what you’d find on an organizational chart” says Paul Bracken, professor of management and political science at Yale, who has written at length on net assessment.

“I think it is a powerful influence not just on the building, but on the country. Because there are so few organizations taking fresh looks at problems and not just looking at the fad of the moment,” Bracken says.

ONA is perhaps best known for its Cold War work evaluating the strength of the Soviet Union relative to the United States. (The lingering Soviet focus is evident in the index of studies, for example a July 1991 report titled Could The Soviet Threat Go Away?). More recently Marshall was intimately involved in Donald Rumsfeld’s project of “military transformation.”

One of the preoccupations of the office is American dominance. As I’ve previously reported, the office earlier this decade ordered a monograph, the length of a short book, that examined ancient empires to glean lessons for the U.S. Two studies in the index are titled simply Preserving American Primacy [January 2006] and Preserving U.S. Military Superiority [August 2001].

In the past decade-plus, ONA has turned its sights to Asia, focusing obsessively on China as the next Soviet-style rival power to the United States. In some of the China work, the apprehension of American military planners is palpable. One March 2006 study is called Rising China Redux: Imperial Memories In A Modern Milieu; a 2005 report addresses The Chinese Penchant For Surprise. Another from 1997 is on Chinese Defense Equipment Modernization to the Year 2020.

The index, while extensive, is not comprehensive. Several studies with classified titles were withheld. The studies’ authors are generally listed as individual academics or outside contractors like the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, government consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, or lesser-known firms like Scitor Corporation and IHS International.

Some more highlights from the index, which you can read in full here, after the jump:November 2008

Multipolar Nuclear Dynamics In The Middle East: Case Studies From The Past And US Responses

Contradictions And Continuities: The Changing Moral Education Landscape [Long Term Strategy Group, LLC]

September 2008

Rearmed Japan

The Best Of Communities Produced For Man (Qur’an 3:110) [Hudson Institute]

Europe 2025: Mounting Security Challenges Amidst Declining Competitiveness

August 2008

The Anatomy Of The Chinese Internal Security Apparatus

July 2008

Information As Advertisement And Advertisement As Information [IHS International LC]

May 2008

Turkish-Iranian Relations: Fated Rivalry, Compelled Sympathy

March 2008

From Concept To Task: Institutionalizing Compatible Organizational Architectures For Network Centric Warfare

December 2007

China’s Looming ‘5th Generation’: A New ‘United Front’ Managing Change Leading Up To The 2012 ’18th Party Congress’

August 2007

The Future Of Europe And Its Muslims: Four Scenarios

July 2007

Role Of High Power Microwave Weapons In Future Intercontinental Conventional War

June 2007

Implications Of Historical Trends On Preemption [University Of Maryland]

The End of Religiously Motivated Warfare: Lessons From The Puritans And Beyond [Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments]

May 2007

Islamic Strategic Thought

March 2007

Fighting A War We Don’t Control: Iraq, Fall 2006 [GAMA CORP]

December 2006

Islam And The Challenges Of Modernity [Oxford Analytica]

German Liberals and the Integration of Muslim Minorities in Germany [Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments]

March 2006

Why They Won’t Know What Hit Them: Are Arabs Thinking About The Consequences Of Another 9/11

Religion And War Dataset, 600-1700 C.E.

November 2005

The Potential of Small Force Actions Primarily in the Context Of Major Jihad Actions Against the US [Hudson Institute]

November 2000

Water As A Strategic Commodity In Asia

March 2000

Themes In Chinese Writings On Information Warfare 1995-1999

November 1999

Transformations In Global Defense Markets And Industries: Implications For The Future Of Warfare

March 1997

Different Cultures And The Information Revolution

June 1996

China Contingencies And Scenarios: 2020

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