Pentagon's 'Jedi master' versus the sequester

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WASHINGTON — From his office deep inside the Pentagon, Yoda has outlasted the Cold War, countless military conflicts and 10 presidential elections. But can he survive the sequester?

Yoda is the reverential nickname for Andrew Marshall, a legendary if mysterious figure in national security circles. A bald, enigmatic 92-year-old strategic guru, he resembles the Jedi master of “Star Wars” fame in more ways than one.

Since the Nixon administration, Marshall has directed the Pentagon’s secretive and obliquely named internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessment, which contemplates military strategy decades into the future. Over his long career, he has foretold the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and the spread of robotic warfare.

Today, confronting a budget crunch, Pentagon leaders are contemplating whether Marshall and his think tank have outlived their usefulness, or need to be reined in. The Office of Net Assessment costs taxpayers only about $10 million a year — pocket change in the $525 billion annual defense budget, but enough to face fresh scrutiny at a time of cutbacks.

Few places, however, are tougher to scrutinize. Many of Marshall’s studies and reports are classified. And he has to share them with only one man: the secretary of defense. Which reports actually get read, and which ones end up in history’s top-secret dustbin, is everybody else’s guess.

“There’s no real way to weigh it or figure out how much he pays” consultants for the reports, said a former senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the Office of Net Assessment. “You can’t quite tell what the nation is getting out of it.”

Even so, the mere suggestion that the Pentagon might force its nonagenarian futurist to retire has sparked a backlash among Marshall’s heavyweight corps of supporters.

Several members of Congress, from both parties, have dashed off letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in protest. Former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld tweeted that it would be a “serious mistake” to close the Office of Net Assessment and praised Marshall for being at the “forefront of strategy & transformation” for 40 years.

Others described Marshall’s intellect in Einsteinian terms. “Mr. Marshall’s brain is highly networked,” said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who has known him for decades. He praised Marshall’s “mental suppleness” and said advanced age had not slowed him down.

“His mind is as sharp as ever,” Arquilla said. “He’s gotten not just a second wind but a third wind in recent years.”

Marshall has also demonstrated exceptional political acumen, hanging on to his job under 13 defense secretaries. He has nurtured generations of national security thinkers and helped find them jobs on Capitol Hill, in academia, at private think tanks and in other parts of the government. The last time the Pentagon tried to close his office, almost two decades ago, his acolytes saved it with a furious lobbying effort.

Sensitive to Marshall’s iconic status, Pentagon officials are treading carefully this time around; they declined to elaborate publicly on the futurist’s future.

“The Department of Defense is currently assessing our missions, structure and programs in light of an evolving set of strategic challenges, as well as a constrained fiscal environment,” Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “It would be premature to comment on pre-decisional issues.”

Another defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Hagel thinks that the Office of Net Assessment should be reorganized and that it “can be strengthened potentially by realigning it so that it remains close to him and his senior team.”

Marshall declined an interview request placed through a Pentagon spokesman. He shuns public appearances, doesn’t testify before Congress and permits himself to be quoted only on rare occasions.

Colleagues say he has always projected an inscrutable mystique. He generally keeps his thoughts to himself at conferences and meetings but can command attention just by twitching an eyebrow.

Although he is little known among Americans, Marshall enjoys an outsize reputation in Moscow and Beijing, where Russian and Chinese strategists have long admired his ideas, even if their countries were in the strategic crosshairs.

“Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon,” Gen. Chen Zhou of the People’s Liberation Army said in an interview last year with the Economist. “We translated every word he wrote.”

Marshall’s national security career began in 1949, the same year that Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

As a 28-year-old economist with a master’s degree, Marshall joined the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank that had just been created to perform research for the government. He burrowed into analyses of Soviet military programs, nuclear targeting and organizational behavior theory.

After a stint at the White House, Marshall was brought to the Pentagon in 1973 by then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to found the Office of Net Assessment. He concentrated on nuclear strategy and specialized in forecasting apocalyptic scenarios, some seemingly lifted from the satirical film “Dr. Strangelove.”

“We tend to look at not very happy futures,” he once told The Washington Post in an interview.

He also became a leading proponent of a theory known as the “revolution in military affairs,” which posits that the history of warfare has been marked by several brief but transformative bursts in technology and organizational strategy, from the chariot to the German blitzkrieg to the atomic bomb.

Such thinking has led Marshall to argue that some foundational weapons of the armed services — the tank, the aircraft carrier and short-range fighter jets — are doomed to obsolescence because of advances in missile technology. That has made him an unbeloved figure among some U.S. generals and admirals, who view him as an unrealistic radical and a threat to conventional military strategy.

For the past two decades, Marshall’s office has gamed out scenarios for war with China.

Critics say he has exaggerated that and other threats as justification for fatter defense budgets. But fans say the Pentagon needs more long-range, out-of-the-box thinking, not less.

“We think that office provides incredible value to the country at a time when we need strategy more than ever,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who helped sponsor a $10 million earmark last year for the Office of Net Assessment, nearly doubling its annual budget.

Forbes said that the office needs to be kept insulated from bureaucratic and political pressures and that it would fill an important niche long after Marshall steps down, whenever that might be.

“Obviously, I have enormous respect for Mr. Marshall,” Forbes said. “But this office is not just Andy Marshall. This office has spawned a number of great thinkers and ideas.”

The Office of Net Assessment contracts out much of its research to private think tanks. It recently commissioned a study titled “The Future of Africa” from Booz Allen Hamilton for $105,633, federal contracting records show.

A primary recipient of Marshall’s grant money is the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. The defense think tank, headed by retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich, a longtime Marshall disciple, generally receives about $2.75 million to $3 million a year.

The former senior defense official said the Office of Net Assessment pursues some worthwhile lines of study but suggested that more oversight and accountability are needed. “How much money should we be dishing out to outside parties to restate [these findings] again and again?” he said.

At the same time, the former official said Marshall is so well entrenched politically that it doesn’t make sense for the Pentagon to try to change his ways or force him out before he is ready to go.

“Everybody is worried about the perception that they would go against this legendary icon who brought down the Soviet Union single-handedly,” the former official said. “It’s not even worth it to challenge that narrative at this point.”

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