As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tries to make do with less, he is weighing the possibility of taking away the independence of a small internal Pentagon think tank beloved by many in Washington’s national security elite.
U.S. defense officials confirmed this week to the Daily Beast that Hagel is considering moving the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), which now reports directly to him, to the purview of the policy shop at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. While the budget for the internal think tank is a tiny fraction of the budget for most major weapons systems, the plan to close it has met stiff opposition from Capital Hill and others in the defense policy community.
Already, leading members of Congress—including the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee—have implored Hagel to save the small think tank. In a letter earlier this month to Hagel, Rep. Howard McKeon, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, the committee’s ranking member wrote, “We believe that any marginal savings the Department hopes to achieve by shuttering the office do not outweigh the benefits it provides.”
The Obama administration says that its plan is not to eliminate the ONA, but rather it may decide to absorb its functions under a different department. “There’s no plan to eliminate the Office of Net Assessment,” one defense official said. “The function of ONA will likely continue. We are looking at how to organize all of the leaders within OSD.”
“Its important that there’s a team of people thinking about our long term strategy and that’s what ONA has been doing for years and continues to do,” said the official, adding that a final decision will be made in the coming weeks. “It’s not the size of the shop, it’s the power of the intellect.”
One former senior U.S. Pentagon official told The Daily Beast, “The things that ONA has supported are about China’s growing military power and the importance of maintaining a robust nuclear force and triad [the three delivery systems for nuclear weapons—submarines, missiles and bombers].” This official added that the think tank in this sense is “a thorn in the administration’s side. And that’s why they are trying to shut it down.”
Administration sources say Hagel’s move is part of his implementation of the mandatory reductions in Pentagon staffing required in new military budgets that have been significantly reduced after the 2011 budget deal between Congress and the White House. That process is being managed by former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
“If this is what they are planning, that would be a truly foolish decision,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Navy. “Moving ONA, or some form of a Net Assessment shop, under OSD Policy will compromise the independence of the work ONA does. OSD Policy will compromise the independence of the Office and render its analysis and subsequent products vulnerable to political pressure.”
Six former Secretaries of Defense, including Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, have also joined in a letter asking Hagel to preserve ONA, according to officials who have seen the letter.
One reason why so many in Congress are opposing Hagel’s plan to eliminate ONA is because of the office’s leader, 92-year old Andrew Marshall. Harold Rhode, who worked for Marshall from 1994 to 2010, said, “America is so fortunate to have someone like Andy Marshall. He has come up with some of the most important insights into how to address long term challenges to our country’s national security and survival.”
Some of Marshall’s work has included studies on the Soviet Union’s health system at the advent of AIDS in the early 1980s, where he found a key vulnerability in America’s cold war rival. Marshall also worked closely on developing war games with China and exploring new concepts for Air/Sea battles.
Marshall has also attracted his critics. In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration tried and failed to eliminate the ONA, but failed to do so because of fierce resistance from his many allies in Congress and the military. A handful of progressive analysts have accused Marshall of inflating his resume and supporting what they deemed as wasteful programs like Missile Defense.
One former staff member for ONA told The Daily Beast that Hagel’s potential decision to end ONA as it now exists was tantamount to “committing strategic suicide.”