Rumors are swirling in Washington that the Pentagon is thinking of closing its Office of Net Assessment (ONA). Alarmed by this idea, four congressmen led by Rep. Randy Forbes wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (.pdf) demanding "a commitment to the Office of Net Assessment." The Lexington Institute's Daniel Goure joined the fray, opining that ONA "must be preserved and supported." National security discussion boards and email loops quickly lit up with concern for ONA's future.
Outside Washington such passion must seem strange. ONA is a tiny organization that mostly commissions analysis and studies. Abolishing or changing a government office like this normally would pass unnoticed except by the people directly affected. But the Office of Net Assessment is not a normal organization. While most of the Pentagon's massive bureaucracy is focused on short-term issues and immediate problems, ONA was designed to think big and long-term. Since there is nothing else exactly like it, closing it would have deep symbolic importance and raise major questions. As the Department of Defense cuts spending, what capabilities should stay and what can go? If the Office of Net Assessment is closed, does this mean that the United States no longer considers it important to think big thoughts about national security? And if its function is important, is there a better way to do it?
Since 1973, the Office of Net Assessment has been led by the creative and enigmatic Andrew Marshall. In the 1980s, Marshall's organization produced a series of reports on the U.S.-Soviet military balance that the Reagan administration used to make a case for a major increase in military spending. ONA then helped develop the idea of "competitive strategies" to counter Soviet numerical strength with American qualitative and technological advantages. Many security experts feel this exacerbated Moscow's overspending on its military and sped the demise of communism. In the 1990s, the Office of Net Assessment introduced and popularized the idea of military revolutions, which provided a framework to transform of the American military into a technology- and precision-focused "network-centric" force. More recently, ONA has concentrated on the growing Chinese military challenge, helping develop a concept known as Air-Sea Battle intended to overcome anti-access technologies and systems that future U.S. opponents, including the Chinese, might deploy.