Measures of Power

On the Lasting Value of Net Assessment

Andrew Marshall at the Pentagon, January 2015 Adrian Cadiz / U.S. AIR FORCE

Andrew Walter Marshall, a former strategist at the RAND Corporation who served as head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment from its founding in 1973 until his retirement in 2015, died last month at the age of 97. Despite his aversion to publicity and the innocuous title of the office he led, Marshall stands among the most consistent and perceptive contributors to U.S. national security and defense strategy since the United States emerged as a global power nearly 80 years ago. Marshall’s innovative work on how to plan for long, open-ended conflicts was, like its creator, a product of the Cold War, but its value persists. Today’s Pentagon no longer has to keep pace with Soviet Russia, but Marshall’s insights into the fundamental drivers and measures of military power will continue to serve Washington well as it enters a new age of high-tech warfare and confronts rising revisionist powers such as China.

During his decades-long tenure at the Pentagon, Marshall became known in defense circles as Yoda, after the Star Wars character famous for his short, cryptic comments and his special understanding of the Force, a kind of metaphysical power. Although Marshall was no fan of the comparison, it had some merit. He was indeed a man of very few words. And he was best known for developing a strategic planning methodology—net assessment—that was so difficult to grasp that many simply defined it as “what Andy Marshall does.”

Marshall’s career began at the RAND Corporation in the late 1940s, a time when intellectual titans such as the Cold War theorists Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter were walking the think tank’s halls and wrestling with the conundrums of the infant nuclear age. Even in this august group, one colleague described Marshall as “first among equals.” At RAND, Marshall questioned the assumption, common at the time, that states made decisions just like a rational, value-maximizing individual would. Working with his colleague Joseph Loftus, he argued that governments

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