Net Assessment and Military Strategy: Retrospective and Prospective Essays

  • Published

Net Assessment and Military Strategy: Retrospective and Prospective Essays edited by Thomas G. Mahnken. Cambria Press, 2020, 256 pp.

Reflecting on some of his early analysis while at RAND, Andrew Marshall explains how he and a colleague “speculated that a lack of trust in Soviet pilots . . . [,] the absence of a tradition of valorous pilots from World War II, or some combination of these factors accounted for the asymmetry” in the competition between Americans and Soviets. In many ways, this evaluation captures the essence of net assessments in Thomas G. Mahnken’s compilation of essays, Net Assessment and Military Strategy: Retrospective and Prospective Essays. The contributors dissect key characteristics of net assessments and also cover the history and impact of a little-known, secretive organization within the Pentagon: the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). Though small, the ONA has had significant strategic impact since its inception in the 1970s. As Mahnken states in the acknowledgment, this compilation seeks to inspire future strategists to better understand net assessments. Furthermore, it is a timely tribute to the first director of the ONA.

A strength of this book is that it serves newcomers to net assessment and old hats. An introductory chapter by Marshall provides insight into the ONA’s contributions to national security over the years. The closing chapter by Andrew May, the current associate director of the ONA, discusses the future of net assessments. These bookends and the chapters in between present a strong case for the utility of net assessments. For those new to this topic, the book brings to light little-known ways for looking at difficult problems and how to identify advantages. For the seasoned strategist, it serves as a reference manual when desiring to dive deeper into specific elements of net assessment.

As can be imagined, there are many challenges in discussing the capabilities of a highly classified office, but the authors still manage to pass on many of the key characteristics that compose net assessments. For example, the book covers the origin of many modern strategic terms, such as offset strategy, revolution in military affairs, and competitive advantage. This information provides the reader with not only a heightened understanding of the source of terms but also clarification of their actual meaning—a lost art these days. Another gem is found in John Battilega’s chapter, “Assessing Soviet Military Capabilities.” It explains why a net assessment is more than a simple comparison of asymmetries among military forces. A net assessment provides senior decision makers an opportunity to pursue competitive advantages or offset strategies. Using the assessment of the Soviet Union as an example, the addendum to this chapter has useful sample questions for strategists to ask when striving to better understand their adversaries.

In his discussion of the future of net assessments, May recommends that strategists focus on long-range strike and similar areas in which America and its allies should strive to maintain a global lead. He also cautions strategists to think of a multipolar world, or at least competitive scenarios, where the United States does not always dominate. These themes are becoming more prevalent in military strategic discussions and recent books like Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare. After reading the historical chapters detailing the ONA’s accuracy in predicting the character of the next war, the strategist is compelled to take the recommendations in the final chapter to heart.

Critically speaking, the book suffers from a lack of editorial oversight as well as repetitiveness. It appears the essays are written independently because they often cover similar introductory ground. Many of the authors either worked for or benefited from the ONA’s work, leading to a bias that looks positively on the ONA’s contribution to the Defense Department with little discussion of its limitations. Additionally, the lack of detail about classified assessments leaves the reader wanting more. However, these limitations do not detract from the overall message and value of the book.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in developing better competitive strategies. This compilation will greatly benefit businessmen, strategists, or senior decision makers looking to ensure their decisions are based on thoughtful, well-rounded assessments.

 Lt Col Paul T. Davidson, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."