Via the Department of Defense
Of all the weapons the Pentagon relies on to defend the United States, one of the strangest and most secretive is Andrew Marshall, a 92-year-old man who's spent the last 40 years staring into the future trying to predict the next big threat to America.
Known fondly as "Yoda" to his many fans in Washington, Marshall heads up the Office of Net Assessment—the Defense Department’s think tank tasked with taking a long view, out-of-the-box approach to defense strategy. In his role as the Pentagon’s visionary sage, Marshall is credited with predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of China's global prominence, the role of autonomous weapons and robots in warfare, and even helping end the Cold War.
Now, facing budget cuts, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is considering reorganizing or possibly even shuttering the futurist think tank, Defense News recently reported. The reorg rumors are calling into question how much longer the nonagenarian will hold his post, which he was appointed to under Nixon and has been re-appointed to by every president since.
Despite being infamously enigmatic and publicity-shy, the Pentagon's Yoda has amassed a loyal following of supporters and protégés—sometimes called Jedi Knights. Not least is former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who tweeted earlier this month that cutting Marshall or the ONA would be a "serious mistake." Later, six former Defense Secretaries teamed up to send a letter to Hagel asking him to preserve the think tank.
President Obama has said he has no plan to eliminate the program, but might move some of its functions under a different department. As the administration tries to gauge how valuable the ONA is to national security, it'll be listening to Marshall's critics too. Skeptics claim that the 92-year-old’s successes over the years are inflated, and his perceived threats trending toward paranoia. To wit, Marshall spent 20 years preparing for a fantasy war between the US and China that never materialized.
What’s more, as the Washington Post pointed out, it's real hard to audit a program who's work is strictly classified and sometimes never seen by anyone at all. Marshall has published scant few reports over the years, and given as few interviews with the press. There's no telling what his vision is for the future of defense strategy given today’s climate of cybersecurity and surveillance.
The only way to judge the Office of Net Assessment is to look backwards at its track record over the years. In a rare interview with Wired in 2003, Marshall predicted that the next radical change on the battlefield would be "robotic devices: unmanned vehicles, of which the UAVs are the furthest along, but also similar kinds of devices undersea, and smaller devices that might change urban warfare by being able to crawl through buildings."
Marshall’s been a leading proponent of the Revolution in Military Affairs theory, a strategic theory based on the idea that warfare will be shaped and changed in dramatic bursts by major changes in technology. The atomic bomb. The development of the microprocessor. Killing machines. RMA supporters predicted the next big US threat would be waged from behind a remote computer screen, or with chemical and biological weapons. Traditional military targets would give way to strategic targets like water and energy infrastructure.
Today, we have a drone war, weaponized robots, and machines fighting alongside soldiers. Modern militaries are pouring millions into predicting and preparing for the next technological leap that will shape the future of war. Lethal autonomous weapons? Hacker-planted viruses that shut down the power grid? It seems like as a good a time as ever to have someone at the Pentagon imagining every possible scenario for what’s on the horizon.