War on the Rocks

Bad Idea for the Pentagon's Idea Shop

Editor's Note: In an October 29, 2013 op-ed for War on the Rocks, Peter Singer explains that closing the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment would jeopardize the Department of Defense’s ability to innovate and plan. Even in the midst of sequester, writes Singer, cutting the Department’s idea shop, a 40-year-old office with a much-revered reputation among American allies and rivals, is simply not worth the limited savings.

Imagine that you were a general in some country that “must not be named,” thinking about your enemies and, in turn, what you might want as a gift for some random holiday, like for example Halloween or 春节. In your hope of hopes, what would you wish for?

You might wish for a potential rival to be wracked by internal political disputes, unable to make the simplest decisions even to the point of fiscal suicide. You might wish for them not merely to cut their military deeply, but to do so in the most un-strategic manner possible, sequestering the good and the bad by the same amount. You might hope their senior leaders decide to cling to force numbers designed for past scenarios, choosing a hollow force at the costs of investments in current or future readiness, research and development, and capabilities. You would want them to stand by their commitments to trillion dollar weapons programs conceived decades back, that shrink their striking distance at a time when you are developing long range weapons. And finally, you might dream that they would close up the office in the Pentagon that has housed some of the nation’s brightest strategic minds and out of the box thinkers. Imagine if any one of these wishes came true, what a wonderful holiday it would be for this imaginary general and his force. Unfortunately, the United States government seems bent on making each one of these wishes come true.

The Office of Net Assessment is a Pentagon cell formed in 1973 to focus on developing and coordinating the comparative analysis of the standing, trends, and future prospects of U.S. military capabilities relative to other nations and threats. It is the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s in-house think tank. Its very purpose “is to identify problems and opportunities that deserve the attention of senior defense officials,” with an eye towards the long range, rather than the issues that typically fill leaders’ inboxes.

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