Review: Andrew Marshall’s Reflections on Net Assessment

January 16, 2023

Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC)

“Known throughout parts of the American national security establishment as “Yoda,” referred to by The Atlantic as the “Brain of the Pentagon,” and respected worldwide for his decades of strategic work at RAND, the National Security Council, and finally in founding and running the Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall was a critical figure in the Cold War and post-Cold War history of American security and strategy. He was also an intellectual figure who left a limited imprint on the literature of American national security, having written the vast majority of his work for classified audiences and publishing very little in the open.”

The AI “Revolution in Military Affairs”: What Would it Really Look Like?

December 21, 2022


“To some defense professionals and officials, the phrase “revolutions in military affairs” may seemingly belong in the 1990s, along with talk about how reconnaissance-strike and other high-tech capabilities would “lift the fog of war.” This understanding, however, reflects a misinterpretation of a concept that still holds significant analytical power for assessing defense applications of emerging technologies. The revolutions in military affairs (RMA) framework—a mental model evaluating technology’s effect on warfare—can be extremely helpful in addressing this distorted understanding, particularly for thinking through the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on national security. For example, and as I have described in a longer paper, the RMA framework can help policymakers consider AI’s influence on defense amid the U.S.-China technological and strategic competition by illustrating the current limitations of AI’s military impact and highlighting areas where technological and intellectual progress could one day spark revolutionary changes. It also highlights that AI’s military impact could be limited in the near term without critical and careful thinking about how the technology is applied.”

Cyber Power is a Key Element of Sea Power

December 2022

Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 148/12/1,438

“China has embarked on a program to replace the liberal world order with a techno-authoritarian model dominated from Beijing. Central to this program is a desire to control the maritime commons. China is now a (in some measures perhaps the) leading sea power. It boasts the world’s largest navy, coast guard, and maritime paramilitary forces; a top-five merchant fleet; significant shipbuilding capacity; and growing control over a global network of maritime ports.”


Assessing “Reflections on Net Assessment”

December 19, 2022

Book Review

“U.S. national security is recovering from over twenty years of Instant Gratification Warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The threat posed by the People’s Republic of China requires the U.S. to think in decades instead of in deployment cycles, and develop strategies and plans in an integrated manner.  “Reflection on Net Assessment” is the perfect book for someone who needs to shake off organizationally-incentivized impatience and focus on long-term threats.”

Reward Research for Being Useful — Not Just Flashy

October 4, 2022


“Too many countries have built a research pipeline that venerates prizes and papers above all else. People and their problems get left out as scientists chase novelty and the prestige it brings. For many years, I was complicit. I oversaw basic research programmes across the US Department of Defense, determined to make sure that the United States led in science. Eventually, I realized it was equally important that research programmes lead towards tangible benefits: better national security, regional floodplain management, or a product or practice that results in better, safer lives.

Too often, in my experience, the more applied a proposal is, the less likely it is to be funded. Once a researcher finishes a project and publishes the paper, they simply go on to the next proposal — the next big, new idea, constantly chasing novelty, the bleeding edge of science. What a waste.”

Immaterial Competition: Rethinking the Roles of Economics and Technology in the US-China Rivalry

May 19, 2022

The Hudson Institute

Executive Summary

The US-China rivalry is likely to be the fulcrum around which international affairs are structured in the twenty-first century, akin to the Cold War from 1947 to 1991. This rivalry, like its predecessor, emerges from divergent geopolitical interests and imperatives. While the Chinese Communist Party’s aims are many, various, and subject to change, they include its continued control of the Chinese State; economic and technological modernization and leadership; internal order; complete union with Taiwan on Beijing’s terms; certain territorial concessions from its neighbors; and the disestablishment of security arrangements across the Indo-Pacific that it views as threatening and trammeling. The latter three are in direct conflict with US interests and imperatives in the Indo-Pacific: prohibiting China’s unilateral modification of the status quo vis-à-vis Taiwan; preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its allies and partners; and maintaining its military partnerships and presence in the region. These antithetical interests animate a larger struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and serve as the terms on which this contest will be decided.

Explanations of the rivalry as an ideological contest or a competition born from competing economic interests are less compelling by comparison. The United States and China are motivated to an extent by ideological imperatives, but these do not appear to propel or serve as the central stakes for the rivalry as much as they affect each’s disposition toward the other. Long-standing trade, investment, and commercial disputes and competition, meanwhile, are not so substantial that they motivate the rivalry. While these issues are impactful to niche communities and conspicuous to national policymakers, they are not particularly consequential for national prosperity. The logic of competition, trade, and globalization, in fact, suggests that the US-China commercial relationship is mutually beneficial, notwithstanding each’s concerns with the other’s economic statecraft and market-leading firms.

In their geopolitical rivalry, there are a few key forces or contests of interest: path dependence, regime continuity, prudent strategy, third-party alignments, and the balance of military forces in the Indo-Pacific. Each affects the United States’ and China’s ability to achieve their ends and shapes their rivalry. Economic and technological statecraft, by contrast, is largely peripheral to these ends as it does not effectively advance political objectives relevant to territory, borders, security architectures, and national defense. That is not to suggest that economic and technological factors are irrelevant, however; they shape, constrain, and advantage the United States and China across their rivalry’s key forces and contests of interests.

Particularly noteworthy are economic and technological factors’ impact on the military balance. Tradition and intuition hold that nations with bigger and more advanced economies are better postured to resource, procure, and manufacture military equipment and can therefore generate greater military power. In the case of the US-China military competition, however, total military power is less relevant than the specific military balance in the Indo-Pacific, in which the distribution and strength of forces in the theater, the capability and reliability of key materiel inputs of outsized importance, and the operational concepts and tactics with which each’s military fights are more important. Total military power—and in particular greater military equipment—matters on the margin, of course, if only because the party with the greater mass and quality of materiel will be able to retain more forces in the Indo-Pacific, maintain more of these key materiel inputs, and develop novel operational concepts and tactics tailored to their superior materiel.

Neither the United States’ nor China’s total economic production, public balance sheet, high-technology commercial firms, and scientific production are likely to provide a decisive or lasting advantage on this count. Each country’s economy can support substantially greater military spending, limiting the extent to which one can derive an advantage from the other’s more binding constraints. The capacity and maturity of each country’s defense industrial base is of greater relevance, but these are flexible quotients that investment can improve. This elasticity of defense production suggests that microeconomic endowments may be binding in the short run but variable in the longer run, meaning that policy choices—rather than existing economic endowments—constrain military production. Technological endowments, informing each country’s capacity for broad innovation, are of similarly bounded importance because military technology is somewhat narrow and other factors, such as military procurement processes and inflexibility in concepts of operation, limit the extent to which superior technology translates into military advantage.

The fundamental result of this argument is that the concerns that propel the emerging US-China economic and technological competition are ultimately not all that relevant to the matters at the core to their rivalry and to the instruments of national power most relevant to these issues. The United States should therefore be wary of policies ostensibly demanded by economic and technological competition and may find its interests better served by limiting its rivalry with China to military competition driven by its core geopolitical interests.”

Science Policy from the Ground Up

Fall 2021

Issues in Science and Technology

“It’s time to modernize the federal role in the nation’s increasingly decentralized R&D ecosystem and unleash innovation at the local level.”

Plant and Animal Diversity Is Declining, But What About Microbial Diversity?

May 11, 2021

RealClear Science

“With alarms sounding about the declining diversity and populations of plants and animals, we post a related concern with equally profound implications: is the variety of microbial life, including viruses, changing too, and if so, in which direction and how fast? As plant and animal numbers shrink, some specialized microbes associated with them might vanish, too. But is there a net overall reduction occurring? If so, is it good or bad news or irrelevant for our species?”

Time to Measure the Abundance of Ocean Life

March 2021

RealClear Science

“As humanity enters what the United Nations has designated the Ocean Decade, we do not know the total amount of marine life, the biomass, in the oceans.  Many experts firmly believe the abundance of marine life is diminishing. However, we have time series for only a few taxa, and these make up a small fraction of the total amount of life. We have only crude, uncertain estimates of biomass by trophic level.”

How to Lead Innovation in a Changed World

September 2020

Issues in Science and Technology

“For a holistic twenty-first century science and technology policy, the United States must go beyond the Endless Frontier.

In borrowing its title from the 1945 policy framework created by Vannevar Bush, the Endless Frontier Act currently before Congress seeks to increase federal government investment in science and technology to “combat China” and boost American innovation. Bush’s vision was successful in the post-World War II years, but the S&T system has undergone fundamental change —both domestically and internationally—in the intervening 75 years. What is needed now is an entirely new framework fit for the unique social, technological, and security concerns of the twenty-first century. Bush’s original Endless Frontier may be best known for increasing federal funding and creating the science agencies we know today, but its true legacy is the way it analyzed the existing S&T system, created a new institutional landscape, and offered a global model for others.

For the United States to remain a leader in global science and technology, focusing on only one kind of input (federal investment) or on one other country (China) won’t be sufficient. In fact, a fundamentally new approach to S&T policy is required, one that can leverage and optimize the diverse and dynamic system that has evolved, manage new risks, and better deliver benefits to society.”