The Pentagon’s storied Office of Net Assessment (ONA) is coming under fire from critics inside the military and in Congress for failing to produce more of its signature product, namely, top-secret net assessments.
Instead, the office, whose director reports directly to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, has focused its $20 million annual budget mainly on producing outside research projects, some of them of questionable value, according to critics.
Net assessments are very secret, in-depth analyses that compare U.S. weapons, forces and policies with those of other countries. The assessments, usually running 100 pages or more, also seek to forecast military and strategic trends.
Unlike intelligence assessments, net assessments include the most secret details of American vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and thus very few net assessments have been made public. Doing so might provide U.S. enemies with a road map to defeating the military in a future conflict.
Proponents argue that net assessments are essential because they help the Pentagon define strategies, guide roles and missions, and outline remedies for war fighting gaps. Without net assessments, foreign threats like those posed by revanchist Russia and increasingly aggressive China are often played down as not posing strategic challenges for the United States.
According to the recent book, “The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy,” the last formal Pentagon net assessment appears to have been done in the 1980s.
Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. James Brindle did not respond directly when asked whether ONA has produced net assessments in decades, but told Inside the Ring: “The Office of Net Assessment has sponsored considerable outside research. It provides net assessments when needed or requested by the secretary” and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Brindle said any discussion of the contents or timing of net assessments “would defeat the purpose of meeting the secretary’s guidance.” He did not elaborate.
Last year, Congress mandated in the fiscal 2016 national defense authorization bill that ONA conduct a net assessment of nuclear weapons threats and report to Congress by November. The assessment is underway but represents one of the few net assessments being done by ONA.
To fill the gap, the military’s Joint Staff, under Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, has begun conducting its own net assessments, without involving the ONA. Gen. Dunford’s J-8, or directorate of force structure, resources and assessment, has conducted net assessments of the threat from China and Russia that Pentagon officials say presents stark estimates of the growing dangers and the need to take military steps to counter the threats.
Political appointees within the Obama administration and the Pentagon have adopted what officials criticized as “see-no-evil” policies that seek to play down foreign threats. Obama officials believe that highlighting threats could lead to military action or highlight the need to build up U.S. military forces — something President Obama has sought to avoid for most of his presidency.
In June, the Joint Staff J-8, Army Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, sought advice from ONA’s new director, James H. Baker, on setting up a net assessment office within the Joint Staff, setting off a classic Pentagon bureaucratic turf battle. Mr. Baker opposed the idea and urged Gen. Ierardi to instead form a small group of three or four people, rather than setting up a major Joint Staff office of net assessment, according to defense officials familiar with the dispute.
Mr. Baker, who in May succeeded Andrew Marshall as director, has argued against creating a Joint Staff counterpart to ONA, claiming net assessments are very difficult projects and can take years to produce. Other problems include a lack of solid information on which to base the assessments, and the small number of qualified experts who can write the assessments. He also said the military lacks the expertise needed for doing net assessments.
ONA Associate Director Andrew May also is said to oppose creation of a Joint Staff net assessment unit over concerns that the military’s assessments will be more hawkish than their civilian counterparts.
Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Gen. Dunford, said the Joint Staff is not setting up a separate office but will use existing staff with additional advisers for net assessments.
Recent contractor studies at the Office of Net Assessment have included topics that fit the White House’s politically correct agenda that has argued climate change is the most serious American national security challenge.
One example was the ONA funding the work Rockefeller University global warming advocate Jesse Ausubel, who has argued that increasing global prosperity and resources will lead to a decline in global conflicts — views that are at variance with civilian and military intelligence assessments of an increasing complex and dangerous global threat environment.
N. Korean sub missile program
The Omaha-based Strategic Command confirmed Tuesday night that North Korea’s military conducted another test of its new submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The launch of what Stratcom said was a KN-11 submarine-launched missile took place a 5:29 p.m. Eastern time off the coast of the North Korean port of Sinpo.
“The missile was tracked over and into the Sea of Japan, approximately 300 miles off the coast of North Korea,” the command said in a statement, adding the missile did not pose a threat to North America.
The flight test was the longest to date of the KN-11. The missile has been tested several times in the past at shorter ranges.
A Pentagon official said North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile program is a high-priority for the Kim Jong-un regime.
The official said the North Koreans are engaged in a serious submarine-launched missile testing program designed to lead to deployment.
In the past, North Korean missile tests were viewed by Washington as mainly meant to send political messages. “They’re doing less of that and [doing] more real developmental testing,” the official said.
The new missile is part of Pyongyang’s effort to diversify the systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons. North Korea also has several types of land-based ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and has some bombers that could deliver nuclear bombs.
The missile launch coincided with fresh North Korean rhetoric threatening to turn South Korea and the United States into a “sea of ashes.”
The North Koreans were protesting the start of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, that Pyongyang contends are a prelude to a northward invasion.
Three-way war in northern Syria
An unusual military battle is playing out in northeastern Syria as Kurdish forces are driving insurgents from the Islamic State terror group closer to the border with Turkey.
Pentagon officials say the Kurds are inflicting heavy losses on Islamic State militants in the region north of Aleppo.
But the Kurdish military drive is producing a secondary consequence: Turkish military forces, which regard the Kurds as enemy separatists, appear to be readying for military attacks on the U.S.-backed Kurds.
One military officer described the scene to Inside the Ring as a military “sh-t show” of conflicting regional interests.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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