WASHINGTON – From his office deep inside the Pentagon, Yoda has outlasted the Cold War, countless military conflicts and 10 presidential elections. But can he survive the sequester?
Yoda is the reverential nickname for Andrew Marshall, a legendary if mysterious figure in national security circles. A bald, enigmatic 92-year-old strategic guru, he resembles the Jedi master of Star Wars fame in more ways than one.
Since the Nixon administration, Marshall has directed the Pentagons secretive and obliquely named internal think tank, the Office of Net Assessment, which contemplates military strategy decades into the future. Over his long career, he has foretold the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and the spread of robotic warfare.
Today, confronting a budget crunch, Pentagon leaders are contemplating whether Marshall and his think tank have outlived their usefulness, or need to be reined in. The Office of Net Assessment costs taxpayers only about $10 million a year – pocket change in the $525 billion annual defense budget, but enough to face fresh scrutiny at a time of cutbacks.
Few places, however, are tougher to scrutinize. Many of Marshalls studies and reports are classified. And he has to share them with only one man: the secretary of defense. Which reports actually get read, and which ones end up in historys top-secret dustbin, is everybody elses guess.
Theres no real way to weigh it or figure out how much he pays consultants for the reports, said a former senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the Office of Net Assessment. You cant quite tell what the nation is getting out of it.
Even so, the mere suggestion that the Pentagon might force its nonagenarian futurist to retire has sparked a backlash among Marshalls heavyweight corps of supporters.
‘As sharp as ever’
Several members of Congress, from both parties, have dashed off letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in protest. Former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld tweeted that it would be a serious mistake to close the Office of Net Assessment and praised Marshall for being at the forefront of strategy & transformation for 40 years.
Others described Marshalls intellect in Einsteinian terms. Mr. Marshalls brain is highly networked, said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who has known him for decades. He praised Marshalls mental suppleness and said advanced age had not slowed him down.
His mind is as sharp as ever, Arquilla said. Hes gotten not just a second wind but a third wind in recent years.
Marshall has also demonstrated exceptional political acumen, hanging on to his job under 13 defense secretaries. He has nurtured generations of national security thinkers and helped find them jobs on Capitol Hill, in academia, at private think tanks and in other parts of the government. The last time the Pentagon tried to close his office, almost two decades ago, his acolytes saved it with a furious lobbying effort.
Sensitive to Marshalls iconic status, Pentagon officials are treading carefully this time around; they declined to elaborate publicly on the futurists future.
The Department of Defense is currently assessing our missions, structure and programs in light of an evolving set of strategic challenges, as well as a constrained fiscal environment, Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an emailed statement. It would be premature to comment on pre-decisional issues.
History and mystery
Marshall declined an interview request. He shuns public appearances, doesnt testify before Congress and permits himself to be quoted only on rare occasions.
Colleagues say he has always projected an inscrutable mystique. He generally keeps his thoughts to himself at conferences and meetings but can command attention just by twitching an eyebrow.
Marshall enjoys an outsize reputation in Moscow and Beijing, where Russian and Chinese strategists have long admired his ideas, even if their countries were in the strategic crosshairs.
Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon, Gen. Chen Zhou of the Peoples Liberation Army in China said in an interview last year with the Economist. We translated every word he wrote.
Marshalls national security career began in 1949, the same year that Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the Peoples Republic of China.
As a 28-year-old economist with a masters degree, Marshall joined the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank that had just been created to perform research for the government. He burrowed into analyses of Soviet military programs, nuclear targeting and organizational behavior theory.
Marshall was brought to the Pentagon in 1973 by then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to found the Office of Net Assessment. He concentrated on nuclear strategy and specialized in forecasting apocalyptic scenarios.
We tend to look at not very happy futures, he once told the Washington Post in an interview.