The Last Warrior Passes

Andrew W. Marshall (1921-2019)

Andrew Marshall
Andrew Marshall

"I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord."

– Book of Tehillim (Psalms), 122:1

KIEV, UkraineOn March 26, America lost Andrew W. Marshall, one of its great foreign policy and military strategists, who succumbed to various complications associated with congestive heart failure. He was a man who was more than just a leading intellect in the art of strategic military planning. For all intents and purposes, he invented the concept of assessing the defense capacity of the United States versus its adversaries in a scientific and analytical manner. In so doing, he transformed how the Pentagon goes about addressing the relative strengths and weaknesses of its adversaries.

This process is far more complicated that it might sound. Marshall developed an organisation within the Department of Defense that had a deep understanding of how trends—and a thousand other bits of empirical data—in demographics, economics, technological development, and political stability are combined in a broad assessment of what constitutes the real military balance between nations. It is a far more complex equation than just counting who has more tanks, aeroplanes, and missiles.

The institution Marshall created that re-defined the way the world thinks about the variables of military power was the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment. One of the more well-known disciplines he developed was the study of what became known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). This was a technique to gauge how technological and organisational innovations converge to create irreversible changes in how warfare is conducted.

His ideas sprouted generations of acolytes that were sometimes called the graduates of "St. Andrew's Prep" or the "Jedi Knights"—the latter drawing parallels between Marshall and the all-knowing figure of Yoda, the Jedi Master from the George Lucas Star Wars films. These former members of his staff went on to become defense and foreign affairs figures throughout the U.S. Government—advocating his methodologies for developing Washington's strategy.

It is therefore no small wonder that a 1999 profile in Washingtonian magazine described him as "the most influential policy maker you have never heard of." What's more, his fame and reputation extended far beyond the shores of the United States. Foreign military strategists both friend and foe alike made of point of reading almost everything they could about this analytical paradigm and his conclusions. Like Yoda, it was not only his highly developed perceptive skills, but the ability to see into the future that made him one of the most respected experts in his field.

Even the Chinese, who are always happy to remind the world they invented the philosophy behind the "art of war," examined Marshall's work at a granular level. In 2012, PLA General Chen Zhou, the author of several of Beijing's strategic defense doctrine white papers, told an interviewer that "we studied RMA exhaustively. Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon. We translated every word he wrote."

Like many great men throughout history, Marshall began this journey by being given a job at perhaps the most difficult time imaginable and under less than optimal circumstances. When he came into the Pentagon in 1973, the disposition of the U.S. armed forces were in a state of relative disarray. America was extricating itself from the Vietnam War and dealing with the trauma of all of the societal upheavals and divisions within the armed forces that it created.

Here was Marshall looking at how to buttress America's military strength abroad at a time when the country was more predisposed to retreating into isolation. Not exactly the best way to win a popularity contest—or guarantee job security.

Overall, Vietnam had been a massive expenditure of blood and treasure. The long conflict was over, but some enormous headaches remained. Most prevalent among them was the situation within NATO, as he said to me years ago in his Pentagon office. "The U.S. military had been afflicted so many years with tunnel-vision on trying to prevail in Vietnam that when it was all over we looked over our shoulders at the situation in Europe we were in for a shock," he recalled. "The Russians had developed and deployed an entire new generation of weaponry and we had not been paying attention."

The United States was now faced with the task of playing "catch up" with Moscow. Soviet defense expenditures had been increasing to the point where they were surpassing U.S. outlays. Moreover, the Soviets were showing that they were more efficient at converting their resources into combat power than Washington was.

Post-Vietnam, the U.S. political establishment was not exactly in the mood to throw piles of money at the defense budget. It would take years and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 for a re-building of the armed forces to begin. Looking into the future in the way that he would become famous for, Marshall realized that regardless of the inclination of Congress to vote for more defense spending, the United States could no longer buy its way out of its current or any future position of weakness.

Marshall's approach to making sure the United States continued to be the dominant force in the world was more than just a new type of analysis. It also functioned to provide the nation's leadership with assessments of emerging or potential dilemmas that needed to be addressed before they became unmanageable. He also was able to produce insights into those areas where the United States had advantages to be emphasized or weaknesses of adversaries that could be exploited.

It was his clear-headed and almost prophetic advice to one administration after another that paved the road to the United States ultimately prevailing in the Cold War. Despite the fact that Marshall's position in the Pentagon was a political appointee billet and not a permanent civil service job each successive administration—both Republican and Democratic—consistently re-appointed him.

All this time, Marshall was the most quiet, humble and understated figure in the Washington policy-making community. The same man who would be ferried to the White House in a limo to brief the president would walk every morning to the local station and ride the Metro to the Pentagon. He was never a figure on the speaking tour or high-power dinner circuit. He almost never gave interviews. He was one of the last of his kind and he leaves us at a time when America is more in need of an insightful mind on military strategy than perhaps at any other time in history. I—along with so many others who care about keeping America safe from its enemies—will miss him every day.