December 1, 2011  

Yoda in the Pentagon

Andrew Marshall’s lessons for strategic forecasting

There are numbers that count, and numbers that don’t. Andrew Marshall has spent a lifetime trying to assess which ones are which. In October 1973, Arab states attacked Israel with overwhelming numerical dominance. The Egyptians deployed some 650,000 soldiers — a massive military force in its own right. Syria, Iraq and other Arab states added another quarter of a million troops. Against these 900,000 enemies Israel could muster no more than 375,000 soldiers, and 240,000 of those were from the reserves. But the war was really a battle of tanks, and on this score, the numbers looked even more daunting. Israel’s 2,100 tanks confronted a combined Arab fleet of 4,500. On the northern front when the war began, Syria massed 1,400 tanks against 177 Israeli vehicles — a crushing ratio of 8 to 1. Given the extraordinary disparity of force, after Israel recovered from initial losses and decisively won the war, most Western observers interpreted the conflict as proof of Israel’s unbreakable will to survive. Yet when Marshall analyzed the numbers, he saw something else entirely.

Tucked into a nondescript section deep within the Pentagon’s labyrinthine rings, the Office of Net Assessment had been created just months before. As ONA’s director, Marshall, a mathematical whiz kid from Rand, quickly set about his mission: to assess the military balance between competing militaries. Studying the war’s less-glamorous details and drawing on the substantial research of others, Marshall and his team discovered an Egyptian army with a Soviet-style flaw. The entire military was astonishingly short on maintenance capabilities. When one of its tanks became damaged in battle, Egypt had no effective means for repairing it. Israel, in contrast, had well-trained technicians able to make rapid repairs. It turned out that on average Israeli tanks returned to battle three times, but Egyptian tanks were used only until damaged. In other words, the initial number of tanks was not the number that mattered.

Superior force, by standard measures, did not win. The number that truly counted was the one that revealed a tank’s likely longevity. Counting tanks before the war was a necessary but insufficient exercise. It didn’t tell you what you needed to know for assessing the net strength of each side in the conflict.

“What impressed me about the ’73 war,” Marshall explains, “was how asymmetric it was. Israel was not only much better prepared to recover and repair its tanks, it also dominated the battlefield, making recovery possible.”

When Marshall and his analysts next looked at the Soviet Union’s capacity for repairs, they found that the U.S. had a distinct and meaningful advantage. The bulk of the Soviet forces were composed of conscripts, young men compelled to serve for two years in the army or three in the navy. Most were poorly trained and lacking technical know-how. American soldiers conversely were given better, longer and more specialized training. Each U.S. unit working on ships or aircraft contained men able to perform some repairs when necessary. The Soviet military didn’t work that way. Most of the time, when an engine or other critical part of an aircraft, tank or ship malfunctioned, the Soviets had to send that part back to a depot or factory for repair. The Soviet Air Force, for example, purchased six engines for each engine position on its aircraft. The U.S. bought only 1¼ — a dramatic cost-saving measure when multiplied by thousands of planes. Those costs, of course, counted not just in rubles, but in time. The Soviet delays in servicing aircraft parts meant that American planes would be available more of the time when needed most.

The simple and seemingly insignificant difference in repair capabilities meant that Soviet forces would come under extreme pressure during a protracted fight. Ensuring that America could continue to strike and engage the Soviets in a prolonged military conflict meant that the U.S. would ultimately have the advantage. It was this type of thinking that contributed to America’s Cold War strategy. In Marshall’s case, the insight derived not from sophisticated technology but from a probing of the enemy’s underlying strategic constraints.

Most of today’s so-called “futurists” are handsomely compensated consultants paid to pontificate on unknowable events. Marshall, in sharp contrast, has spent decades focused largely on the factors that shape the comparative performances of military forces. His success in the Cold War came in large part from careful attention to the numbers and patterns that mattered most — the ones that constrained enemy behavior. Many credit him with contributing to the policy of spending the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. He allegedly encouraged shifting U.S. defense expenditures to long-range bombers, which forced the Soviets to invest in costly air-defense systems, though Marshall would not confirm this. Perhaps it was this seeming inscrutability, maybe his political longevity, or simply his age that earned him the affectionate nickname “Yoda.”

Few other Washington insiders have such a swirl of legend surrounding them. At age 90, Marshall is deeply engaged in running ONA’s affairs. The office churns out countless reports analyzing military and strategic issues ranging across the globe, examining everything from advances in neuropharmacology to Swedish innovations in submarine design to the future of micro-robot warriors, always with an eye to their impact on American national security. ONA’s reports, most of them highly classified, would be written for the highest level decision-makers: the secretary of defense and his deputies. The fact that Marshall has remained ONA’s sole director since its inception, serving eight presidents and 11 defense secretaries over the past 38 years, suggests that he either is exceedingly astute at political survival, or provides a product of substantial value, or both.

In 1972, Marshall was serving on the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger when President Nixon ordered the creation of a new group within the NSC, one that Marshall would later lead. This group would be charged with an entirely different mission; it would look ahead to the strategic environment that the military would likely face in a decade’s time. It would assess the trends affecting America’s position vis-à-vis its peer competitor, scrutinizing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each military competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as those of their allies. Understanding the net balance in these competitions enabled strategists to ask what opportunities were being missed, which strengths needed to be bolstered and which weaknesses could be exploited. It also helped strategic planners envision how adversaries might assess and attack America’s vulnerabilities. In November 1973, the group moved into the Pentagon to become the Office of Net Assessment. Marshall has remained its director ever since.

From 1976 to 1978, ONA’s attention focused on Soviet strategy in northern Europe. In contemplating the Soviets’ likely moves in a European war, U.S. experts assumed that part of Soviet strategy would involve an attack down through Norway. The Barents Sea port at Murmansk represented Russia’s westernmost border of northern Europe. If Soviet forces did move aggressively at any point along the borders between NATO and Warsaw Pact states, the U.S. was committed to a rapid deployment of 10 American divisions to reinforce the central front of NATO — a massive and costly undertaking. Most analysts assumed that the Soviets would send their attack submarines into the Atlantic to disrupt American deployments, but some military observers had noticed a surprising anomaly in Soviet naval operations. Although U.S. attack submarines were positioned to intercept Soviet subs if they moved out from the Barents Sea, the Soviets were holding their subs back. They were not conducting operations as expected. Something didn’t add up.

“One of the things that happens from time to time,” Marshall says, “is that you have to revise your entire notion of how your opponent sees things.” After reviewing fresh analysis of Soviet doctrine and intentions, Marshall concluded that the Soviets actually saw this whole region in largely defensive terms. “I remembered something that Norwegian military officials had said to me a decade earlier in 1964. They realized that the Soviets must have viewed that sea region as essential to their air-defense perimeter and they would want to push their air defenses out.” The Soviets, Marshall concluded, wanted to create and protect a bastion for their strategic missile submarines as well.

“Your view of what the enemy is up to and what he is thinking can shift very rapidly,” Marshall says. “New data can surprise you and cause you to revise both your assessment of the enemy and the appropriateness of your strategy.”

No high-tech surveillance or cloak-and-dagger spies were needed to change the U.S. perceptions of Soviet behavior. Years of studying Soviet strategy was necessary but not sufficient. This shift in understanding required a careful study of the key drivers motivating enemy behavior.

In 1988, America’s foremost strategic thinkers met at Harvard to cast their eyes just 20 years ahead. Marshall presided over the gathering, and many of his protégés contributed their expertise. In a studious final report summarizing their discussions, the experts soberly concluded that by 2008 the Soviet economy would have probably declined. They were right.

If in-depth analysis of a society’s underlying trends truly aids prediction, many people have asked why those who were most invested in predicting international affairs — experts in government like Marshall or scholars of international relations theory — failed so stunningly to foresee the Soviet Union’s demise. Marshall maintains that his office came closer than others in seeing the decline of the Soviet Union, though it did not predict the collapse.

According to Marshall, in 1988 the CIA estimated that the Soviet economy stood at about 60 percent of the U.S. economy. ONA, in contrast, recognized it as not more than one-third or one-quarter the size of the U.S. economy. Experts at the time underestimated the percentage of the Soviet gross domestic product devoted to military spending. Most thought it was only around 12 percent. ONA believed correctly, Marshall says, that it was actually 30 percent to 35 percent. Nonetheless, he admits that he was surprised by the events just one year after the Harvard conference. He told Wired magazine: “I thought they were in trouble, but the rapidity and completeness of the withdrawal were really striking.”

On the epic event of the Cold War’s end, ONA and everyone else was caught off guard. Of course, the aim of ONA’s futurism is not to predict precise occurrences on specific dates. Instead, it is to gain insights into how long-term trends will likely affect the relative position of U.S. military forces. This raises the question of why the U.S. has seemed so ill-equipped to confront the type of asymmetric warfare it has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the past decade the U.S. military has found itself engaged against AK47-wielding, improvised-explosive-device-planting insurgents in developing countries, rather than confronting a genuine peer competitor. Marshall does not speak about those conflicts. ONA remains wedded to its mission: to prepare for the farther future.

The China conflict

Today Marshall’s office thinks about new types of warfare, such as with robotics, and changing warfare areas such as in the deep seas or outer space. Now that many more nations have access to space, ONA asks if America’s advantage there is eroding. ONA also contemplates where countries such as China will be by midcentury. Some worry that a fixation on China as a peer competitor will act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. By anticipating future conflict, they argue, the U.S. military builds the weapons systems specifically appropriate for combating the Chinese state. China, aware of these U.S. plans, the argument continues, prepares to counter an American threat, and before long a conflict becomes unavoidable, or at least more likely. It’s a classic security dilemma, where as one side perceives a threat and prepares to defend against it, the other side perceives the first side’s defensive preparations as offensive and in turn it prepares for war. An arms race ensues that could, some believe, destabilize relations, making war more likely.

Marshall is optimistic about U.S.-China relations. “In the end,” he predicts, “I don’t think we will revert to the kind of relations with China that we had with the Soviets.” Although he does not foresee another Cold War coming, Marshall points out that the Chinese are facing serious long-term challenges, from water shortages to demographic troubles, which will likely constrict its economic growth rate. Nonetheless, the Chinese military is focused on the U.S. as a potential future competitor. And China’s ambition is clearly to rise in military, not just economic power. So Marshall perceives the Chinese military as focused on America as a future competitor, and in turn he and no doubt many others in the defense establishment think it best to see China the same way.


A study of the work performed by Marshall and his colleagues at ONA offers two important lessons for strategic planners.

• Focus on small-scale predictions.

Everyone knows that governments have little choice but to plan for the future, and that requires estimates of long-term trends. Yet Marshall’s experience suggests that predicting individual or small-group behavior is not simply more manageable, it is also more fruitful, than forecasting large-scale societal transformations. Just as ONA’s experts on Soviet behavior missed the Soviet Union’s collapse, no one in today’s intelligence community appears to have foreseen the transformations occurring across the Arab world. These kinds of predictions are rarely possible. The more useful predictions restrict themselves to the actions that an enemy can control.

• We can learn to think like the enemy.

The stories above also indicate that knowing one’s enemy is a skill, but it is an ability we can learn to improve. It takes a keen focus on the other side’s less obvious, underlying drivers and constraints — which are significantly different from intentions and capabilities. Marshall achieved this during the Cold War by combining expertise with a willingness to engage alternative sources and ideas. Using the Yom Kippur War analysis to view Soviet constraints in the Cold War was a thoughtful way of applying insights across contexts. Naturally, one can easily go awry by applying lessons to nonanalogous cases. The aim is not to take a lesson from one experience and graft it capriciously onto another. It is instead to use new ways of thinking about conflicts based on a range of approaches. In the Barents Sea incident, for example, Marshall drew on insights from the Norwegian military to reconceptualize American perspectives on Soviet behavior. The Norwegians could just as easily have been wrong about Soviet intentions. The point is that adopting a foreign perspective enabled ONA to reconsider its assumptions. Once it did, the picture of Soviet behavior looked completely different: transforming from offensive to defensive in nature. And with that perspective, the puzzle pieces fit more sensibly in place.

ZACHARY SHORE is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and is currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.