US strategic thought and the passing of Andrew W. Marshall

The death of American strategic thinker Andrew Marshall on March 26, provides the opportunity to reflect on his contributions to the development of strategic thought in the United States and after. For more than six decades, Andrew Marshall was at the forefront of U.S. strategic thought — at the RAND Corporation, the White House, and as director of the Pentagon’s internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessment. He led the office from 1973 to 2015, working well into his 90s.  

Marshall’s contributions to United States national security and strategic thought were multifaceted. He influenced multiple generations of strategists in government, academe, and business. He pioneered and advanced important analytical and defense concepts such as scenario planning, doctrinal innovation, and the analytical pitfall of mirror-imaging or assuming that a competitor would react to a situation in the same manner as the U.S. Each of these was a major contribution, but we would like to focus on an additional two which are at the heart of his contribution.

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First, the right strategic choices for a state — those that lead to its victory in competition — should be informed by net assessment. Net assessment is a framework for strategic analysis that compares both U.S. and competitor capabilities in a single snapshot in order to diagnose problems and identify areas of comparative advantage. Net assessors use techniques such as wargaming to contemplate the future in plausible scenarios. In essence, good net assessment is the holistic analysis of competition to understand the balance of power, and future trends in that balance. It requires a detailed comparison of competitors’ political, military, social, cultural, economic and technological dimensions and capabilities. This nuanced approach enables the identification of “strategic asymmetries” — dynamics in the balance where a competitor possesses an actionable advantage over its peer. For example, the fundamental asymmetry in the U.S.-Soviet balance was the fragility of Moscow’s economy. While their command economy could nimbly deploy resources to serve its military aims in the early decades of the Cold War, the underlying frailty of its economy led to it buckling under the stress of a long-term arms race. The same approach may be applied to the present competition between China and the United States.

Second, Marshall understood the importance of developing and cultivating a network of strategic thinkers who have been educated in net assessment and tasked with ensuring victory in a competitive struggle. Mr. Marshall knew that there was no substitute for deep, dedicated thought by committed strategists. To conserve and advance this aim, he advocated richer training in diplomatic, military, and social history is necessary for a new generation of strategists who will assist U.S. decision-makers in its confrontation with China. 

Mr. Marshall continually emphasized that the United States must better educate its strategic thinkers using the principles of net assessment to inform its decisions in what is likely to be a long struggle with China.

On a personal note, we had the privilege of working with Mr. Marshall at different stages of our careers. Skypek wrote his graduate thesis on the impact of the Office, and had the opportunity to support the Office of Net Assessment as a national security consultant. Thayer came to know Mr. Marshall when he was the Director of the Office and in his retirement.  In our professional and personal interactions with him, we were humbled by Mr. Marshall’s unique intellect and curiosity, his understanding and appreciation of the necessity and hazards of great power competition, his profound judgments on strengths and weaknesses of U.S. strategic thought, and his generosity and kindness.

In his decades of service, he was famed for asking the right questions, listening to and comprehending the answers, to advance strategic policy necessary for the defense of the United States. Perhaps Mr. Marshall’s most lasting contribution will be his ability to inspire a new generation of strategic thinkers who will use his ideas and tools to defeat the great power threats we face.  

Thomas M. Skypek is a business executive and former national security consultant; the views expressed are his own. Bradley A. Thayer is Professor at the University of Texas San Antonio and the author of a forthcoming book on Mr. Marshall’s contribution to United States national security and strategic thought.