Andrew MarshallAndrew Marshall

He is not a 4-star general, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Secretary of Defense.

The Daily Caller calls him “likely the most influential person in American national security affairs whom you have never heard about.”

The most powerful — but largely unknown — man in the U.S. military is a 92-year-old man named Andrew Marshall, who was first appointed as director of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Office of Net Assessment (ONA) when the ONA first came into being in 1973 during the Nixon Administration.

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More than 40 years later, Marshall, now 92 years old, is still and has never stopped being the ONA director, having been reappointed by successive U.S. presidents, Republican and Democrat.


Wikipedia calls the ONA “an internal think tank” for the Department of Defense. The original main task of the office was to provide strategic evaluations on nuclear war issues. Today, according to the DOD’s Defense Directive 5111.11of Dec. 23, 2009:

“the term ‘net assessment’ is defined as the comparative analysis of military, technological, political, economic, and other factors governing the relative military capability of nations. Its purpose is to identify problems and opportunities that deserve the attention of senior defense officials. […] This shall include, as required, net assessments of:

(1) Current and projected U.S. and foreign military capabilities by theater, region, function, or mission.

(2) Specific current and projected U.S. and foreign capabilities, operational tactics, doctrine, and weapons systems.”

The ONA has a small staff of just 13 military officials and outside contractors. Most of its reports are classified (and released from the office one copy at a time), but the office has a big influence. The Director of the ONA reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, as well as communicates “directly with the Heads of the DoD Components, as necessary, to carry out assigned responsibilities and functions.”


Born on Sept. 13, 1921, Andrew Marshall was raised in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago, after which he joined the RAND Corporation  – the original think tank — in 1949.

During the 1950s and ’60s Marshall was a member of “a cadre of strategic thinkers” that coalesced at the RAND Corporation, a group that included Daniel Ellsberg, Herman Kahn, and James Schlesinger, who later became the U.S. Secretary of Defense and oversaw the creation of the Office of Net Assessment.

Marshall established a talent for original thinking early – a report he wrote at RAND laid the groundwork for the U.S. Navy’s plan to bottle the Soviet navy in the Arctic Sea. At RAND, he also helped develop the discipline of “net assessment,” the analysis of possible future threats.

In 1973, then President Richard Nixon appointed Marshall to be the Director of the new Office of Net Assessment. As such, Marshall’s job isn’t to analyze what has happened, but to predict threats to the United States over the next two to three decades.

In 1992, Marshall was consulted for the draft of Defense Planning Guidance, created by then-Defense Department staffers I. Lewis LibbyPaul Wolfowitz, and Zalmay Khalilzad.

Marshall is noted for fostering talent in younger associates, who then proceed to influential positions in and out of the federal government. A slew of his Marshall’s former staffers have gone on to industry, academia and military think tanks. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Defense Secretary and former President of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz, and former Secretary of the Air Force James Roche, have been cited as Marshall “star protégés.” Among Marshall’s closest friends are former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Owens.

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In an interview in 2012, the People’s Liberation Army’s General Chen Zhou, the main author of four of China’s defense white papers, named Marshall as one of the most important and influential figures in changing Chinese defense thinking in the 1990s and 2000s: “Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon. We translated every word he wrote.”

Foreign Policy named Marshall one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers, “for thinking way, way outside the Pentagon box.” The Washington Post calls Marshall the DOD’s Yoda.

Marshall and his office have been credited with significant insights that have been both prescient and important to America’s national security posture:

  • Henry Rowen, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council under President Reagan, said Marshall “early on figured out that the Soviet Union economy was in really bad shape, before anybody did, before the intelligence community. I’m speaking now of the 1970s, and at that time it was thought that it was doing quite well.”
  • Paul Bracken, professor at Yale University’s School of Management, credits Marshall for providing the larger strategic framework for precision-strike weapons.
  • Bracken also credits Marshall for seeing, before anyone else, that Asia was a rising region of influence and potential concern. 
  • James Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation, identifies another area of Marshall’s considerable influence — what military historians call the Revolution in Military Affairs. “There were some areas where [the Office of Net Assessment] was intensely influential,” Carafano said. “One is the whole military transformation movement of the post Cold War era … You can’t really talk about the thinking about, or emphasis of, transformation post-Cold War without really thinking about Marshall’s office.”
  • In a rare interview in February 2003 given to Wired magazine, Marshall seemed to foreshadow the future use of predator drones, which the American military now commonly and successfully employs to strike terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond.

Sources: WikpediaWashington PostThe Daily Caller.

H/t CODA’s John Molloy


Contributed by Consortium of Defense Analysts.