Book Review: The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping Of Modern American Defense Strategy – Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts

Let me make a confession, this review will be biased, as I am greatly fascinated by this man, Andrew Marshall. The more I read his writings and the Net Assessment reports he and his colleagues produced (sadly most of them are still classified), the bigger fanboy I became. So the fanboy had to buy and read the book, didn’t he?

Net assessment as he propounded/theorized is not that easy to undertake, requiring a breath of interdisciplinary knowledge and intellectual rigour. Sadly much of the literature floating around today as Net assessment is not the kind of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall would have approved, if it had come to him as Director of ONA. Net Assessment was difficult even for his colleagues at Pentagon to understand and many defined it as “What Andrew Marshall does.”

While you may call the book a biography, it touches upon the personal life of Andrew Marshall very fleetingly. This book instead would qualify as an ‘intellectual biography’ of this intellectual giant, the father of ‘Net Assessment’. The main takeaways from the book are:

1. Net Assessment as Andrew saw it was a ‘diagnostic’ and not a ‘prescriptive’ tool. It sought to ask the right questions rather than providing answers. The answers were left to the experts (in this case the politico military leadership). It can broadly be classified as a tool to understand the long term trends in international relations and sought to answer the question as to how a country could maintain its competitive advantage vis a vis its adversaries. So during his term at the RAND Corp while estimating the military power of USA vis as vis USSR, he did not estimate the military strength narrowly say by comparing the no. of military equipment (like planes, missiles etc) that each side possessed but instead highlighted critical competencies of the USA and how it could build on them to meet the Soviet challenge. There is an interesting anecdote in the book when a presentation is being made by the navy before Rumsfeld (in which Marshall is present) in which he was being shown the number, categories of warship etc. etc., when he suddenly snaps and says, lets get over this business of looking at our shoe laces and look at the larger picture. The discussion then shifts to the areas that USA needs to dominate and in which it possesses competitive advantage. It is then decided that USA would focus on areas like undersea warfare, antisubmarine warfare and sensors.

2. Net Assessment also involves understanding the enemy’s historical experiences, psychology, their doctrines and organizational behaviour. Understanding these would help one to understand the character of competition better and could also be used to modify opponents behaviour to ones advantage. It was with this supposition that Andrew supported the plans to develop B2 bombers even though it was very expensive to begin with. His argument was that considering the Soviet historical experience of having lost close to 4000 aircraft in raids during the second world war, USA could play on their pychological vulnerabilities which the B2 prog would induce, making them spend more on their air defense capability. They would thus be forced not only to divert their scarce military resources (preventing them from developing competencies in other areas) but this kind of gave USA a leverage on the way USSR spent its defence budget. It was again for the same reason that he supported the ‘Star Wars’ programme. Considering that USSR had attained near strategic parity in nuclear weapons and strike capability, this programme not only reinforced deterrence but also imposed costs on the USSR. And very importantly it forced the Soviets to compete in an area (IT and informatics) where the USA had so much competitive advantage and lead, that just to keep pace would create severe dislocations in the Soviet economy. This is such a fascinating way of looking at defense spending when you not only look at the cost that the purchase or development of a system does to you, but also the impact (psychological and financial) that it has on your adversaries.

3. The debate between the CIA estimates and Andrew Marshall on the burden of military programme on the Soviet Union is well known. While the CIA for years calculated the Soviet economy as half of the US economy and the Soviet expenditure on defense as 6-7 per cent of GNP, Andrew consistently stated that it was gross underestimation. He believed that the size of the Soviet economy was much smaller and that the defense burden was close to 25 to 30 per cent. History proved him right and CIA wrong. Finally it turned out that USSR was spending close to 40-50 percent of GNP on defense. He had argued that ‘time is on our side not their’s’ and he was proved correct.

4. The visionary in him was the first to predict (in a note in 1987) the rise of China and that it was bound to challenge the USA. This was when most in the USA enamored by the Chinese market, discounted any future hostile Chinese intent. He also stressed on the coming RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) and how it would change the nature of warfare thereby challenging American military dominance and power projection. He called for the relook at military strategies, organisation and doctrines in the light of RMA. History has again proved him right. Not only are the Chinese intent on challenging the USA with their A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) strategies but also their RMA capabilities pose major challenges to American power projection ad domination. US military now seems to have understood the changing military environment and are consequently revising its military doctrines with new ones like Air Sea Warfare.

5. Reading his writings as well as this book makes one wonder about India’s military thinking and doctrines and how far have they kept pace with times. Have we done all we can to build on our competitive/relative strengths in comparison to our adversaries (say a China) and done enough to exploit their vulnerabilities? The answer can be gauged from the way the (so called) theater command at A&N is being treated or when we keep on harping about 44 squadrons (have we assessed the requirements critically with the development of our missiles and with a navy desirous of 3 CBGs). Are we augmenting and exploiting our naval capabilities to the fullest to meet future challenges? Who should get more attention amongst the three arms to meet our future security challenges? These are difficult questions but have we even begun to ask them?

Two excellent comments of Marshall always stay with me (even as an auditor), “It is better to have good answers to relevant questions than having great answers to irrelevant questions” and “There is so much good that can be done, if one does not bother who gets the credit.” His was a life lived on these dictums.

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