April 23, 2007 | Backgrounder on Department of Homeland Security
For decades, top Pentagon management has not had the time to think deeply about long-term trends or threats that have not even begun to emerge. Instead, it has relied on a small office to do the job-the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). The ONA offers senior leaders insights and new perspectives on an uncertain future by conducting studies and engaging top intellectuals and cutting-edge thinkers in many fields.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can benefit from the Pentagon's experience. The DHS should establish a similar capability for pondering the long-term challenges and opportunities to keep the nation safe from transnational and domestic threats.
Net Assessment 101
In Washington, D.C., the urgent crowds out the important. Leaders face the constant distraction of daily meetings, briefings, and decisions. The free-thinking, speculative nature of net assessment offers senior leaders a disciplined process to expand their thinking horizon beyond the immediate environment and timeframe. It begins with a premise-all national security challenges are a series of actions and counteractions between competitors-and asks how these competitions might progress in the future. The ONA then offers a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to analysis, looking at the full range of factors that shape and alter the security environment of the future, including social, political, technological, and economic trends.
The net assessment method employs diverse tools to enrich understanding of the nature of competition. Analytical fields as diverse as economics, real estate, and marketing use some of the tools of net assessment, including systems analysis and game theory, to interpret competitive environments. For example, game theory uses basic responses of opponents to analyze strategic interactions between parties. This algorithmic analysis is commonly demonstrated in the prisoner's dilemma game, in which outcomes of isolated individuals are predicted. Similarly, systems analysis interprets the complex interactions of discrete entities, such as parts of a supply chain (e.g., manufacturing, transportation, marketing, and wholesale and retail operations), and how they work toward a predictable action.
Net assessment adds to analytical methods like gaming and systems analysis, which produce predictable outcomes such as computer modeling that posits the impact of changing oil prices on consumer goods. Net assessment encourages senior leaders to consider unexpected outcomes that emerge from unforeseen and unappreciated factors. While game theory and systems analysis generate likely outcomes on the basis of participant rationality, net assessment does not assume that players "follow the rules" and react in predictably uniform ways.
Many public and private organizations use net assessment techniques. For example, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society conducts an annual net assessment of climate conditions over several continents. Likewise, the government of Ontario, Canada, conducts net assessments of property value between two neighboring counties. These analyses reflect, literally, the net situation, meaning the environment that remains after costs and benefits are incorporated.
In the realm of national security, net assessment takes on multiple complexities and forecasts futures that conventional analyses or formal models may overlook. The tools of net assessment for defense analyses combine "scenarios, war games, trend analysis, and considered judgment." The consistent thread among these methods is that they deal in speculation about the unknown.
Thinking Outside the Pentagon Box
In 1971, President Richard Nixon created a net assessment team within the National Security Council. Dissatisfied with the level of integration of his intelligence contributors and defense analysts, Nixon formed the group from scholars at the RAND Corporation, a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC), and had them report directly to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. The unit was lead by Andrew Marshall, a RAND analyst. In 1973, Marshall's unit moved to the Pentagon, and he was named director of the Office of Net Assessment, a post he has held during every subsequent Administration.
Much of the ONA's work through the 1980s focused on competitive environments between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The office utilized case studies, statistical analysis, gaming, and political, socioeconomic, and cultural analysis to provide net assessments of Soviet capabilities and U.S. countermeasures. The ONA became adept at creating novel what-if scenarios that no one else considered.
Marshallalso focused on competitive conditions of Soviet government. The idea of perceptions of power, for both internal and external actors, was considered a crucial metric in which to analyze military capacity. Marshall further sought to scrutinize environmental and demographic conditions within Soviet society that would influence overall Soviet strategy, foreseeing many of the consequences that led to the Soviet collapse in 1991.
The ONA made a major contribution to the work of Team B, a group of intelligence experts that crafted an analysis supplementary to that of the CIA team's National Intelligence Estimate of Russian military capabilities in 1975. Team B as well as the ONA felt that the CIA team (Team A) had vastly underestimated Soviet capabilities and that the danger was greater than the agency was willing to recognize. The office fine-tuned the tactics of alternative analysis throughout the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the office has pondered the security environment of the 21st century, investigating diverse topics that might change the nature of warfare from developments in neuropharmacology to the course of climate change.
The office continues to have a significant impact on senior leader decision-making. The ONA was an early proponent of military transformation. The influence of the office's work on the revolution in military affairs was reflected in the Defense Department's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which institutionalized the concept of transforming the military to respond to the diverse potential requirements that might be posed by the national security challenges of the 21st century.
In addition to immediate influence on senior leaders, the ONA has trained a number of the nation's most respected defense analysts in net assessment methodology. They, in turn, today serve in government, research institutions, and academia, providing a cadre of scholars skilled in understanding the complex challenges of national security decision-making.
Net Assessment and Homeland Security
One of the critical findings in the 9/11 Commission's final report was that America's defense against terrorism suffered from a "lack of imagination," with gaps between intelligence agencies and the lack of coordination among the intelligence and law enforcement communities creating a space for terrorist cells to operate on U.S. soil. The events of 9/11 have presented those that protect the homeland with the challenge of predicting the unpredictable.
Net assessment capabilities are and will become even more critical given the very nature of America's current adversary, who has been characterized as one that is "proactive, innovative, well networked, flexible, patient, young, [and] technologically savvy, and learns and adapts continuously based upon both successful and failed operations around the globe." Net assessment provides the ability to beat America's "competitors" by staying ahead of the changing threat environment.
Yet no DHS office currently conducts net assessment in a department-wide, comprehensive, systematic manner, although some DHS directorates have developed internal assessment groups. In April 2004, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate established the Homeland Security Institute (HSI), the department's first FFRDC. The HSI includes directorate-wide systems evaluations as well as operational and technological assessments. DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology Jay Cohen stated in congressional testimony that he wanted periodic net assessments of the department's biodefense initiatives. The Transportation Security Administration, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Federal Emergency Management also have internal policy and review contingents. Although these DHS bodies may be conducting some net assessment activities within their domains, they do not have the scope or mission to look at all homeland security efforts and conduct effective net assessments.
The shortfall in DHS net assessment capabilities is not just a problem for the department and its domestic constituents. It is a dangerous deficit in national security. A DHS ONA that could integrate intelligence on external threats and target vulnerabilities would also require cooperation and integration with the current U.S. intelligence community. Effectively countering and destroying a highly dynamic, adaptive, unpredictable adversary such as international terrorist networks requires employing unconventional scenarios and competitive analysis to gain a better understanding of their means, motives, and opportunities.
In 2004, a joint report by The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies first recommended establishing an ONA office. On January 11, 2007, the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC), a group of policy advisers from various backgrounds including academia and the private and public sectors, recommended to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff that he form his own net assessment office, which would be responsible for preparing "for threats that have not materialized" and would produce "long-term assessments and strategy, acting as a brain trust of creativity and imagination." The HSAC's recommendation makes sense.
Options and Opportunities
The DHS should move immediately to establish a net assessment office. Key to creating a successful ONA is ensuring that the office remains nonpartisan, small, flexible, and responsive and is not perceived as being in competition with other parts of the department in terms of driving policy or the allocation of department resources. In addition, the ONA should be tasked not just with directly informing the thinking of senior leaders, but also with helping to build a national network of scholars and analysts skilled in applying net assessment to the challenges of homeland security.
Specifically, building on the Pentagon's pioneering work, the DHS ONA should:
Time for Action
It is long past time for the federal government to develop an ONA capability within the DHS to provide the DHS Secretary and ultimately the President with a comprehensive analysis of future threats and capabilities to meet those threats. The Administration's FY 2009 budget request should fully fund the office, providing the staff, financial resources, and authorities to establish national homeland security net assessment programs. Failure to do so would demonstrate how little the U.S. has learned from its past successes.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Frank J. Cilluffo is an Associate Vice President at The George Washington University and Director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute. Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of Program Management at the Hudson Institute. Jan Lane is Deputy Director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University.