Net Assessment is a tremendous opportunity for a strategic renaissance – we must get it right from the beginning
Speaking last week at the annual lecture by the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), the professional head of the Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Carter, spoke of the need to restore ‘net assessment…to our strategic force development’. His comments were part of a speech which saw him call for the UK to shift away from a peacetime mentality as rising states like Russia, China and Iran increasingly challenge the Western liberal order.
This recognition of the need to improve British strategic thinking comes a month after Policy Exchange published A Question of Power: Towards Better UK Strategy Through Net Assessment. The report contained a Foreword by one of General Carter’s predecessors, General Lord Richards of Herstmonceux and was endorsed by the Defence Secretary, Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP (who earlier announced the creation of a “Strategic Net Assessment capability” within the Ministry of Defence).
But what is net assessment and what can it do to help the UK confront its enemies? Developed in the United States (and credited with helping to win the Cold War), net assessment is a distinct framework and process for long-range strategic analysis. The work is concentrated within a small, specialist team which operates independently from the main defence establishment, reporting directly to the top political authority – in the US case, the Secretary of Defense.
This type of sponsorship frees net assessors from bias towards a particular branch of the services. They are also liberated from departmental hierarchies, and detached from the immediate, short-term pressures that ordinarily swamp proper strategic thinking. This means that a net assessment team is able to develop frank, impartial assessments of our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses – together with those of our allies and ourselves, and to supply hard-nosed, impartial analysis directly to the final decision-makers.
The analysis itself is complex and requires careful implementation. Net assessment involves the multi-disciplinary close examination of myriad qualitative and quantitative aspects of military power in all its dimensions. These range from morale, training patterns and subtleties of doctrine to the field performance of weapons systems and the minutiae of logistic capabilities. Not only are these sets of analyses and calculations considered in dynamic relation to each other – i.e. combined into an integrated picture – but the entire exercise is projected into the future.
The idea is to determine what the balance of military power in the international system will look like over the long term, on current trends; and exactly where are the pressure and inflection points on those trend lines, on which one can operate strategically, with minimum effort and maximum strategic benefit. This type of analysis thus offers a way to navigate successfully a long-term military competition based on informed calculations, particularly at a time of resource constraints. But this is incredibly hard, sensitive, time-consuming and complicated work – which is why net assessment requires particular conditions in order to deliver and thrive.
The re-emergence of similar strategic conditions last seen in the Cold War demands a robust response. As Lord Richards has said in connection to the launch of our Policy Exchange report, “Britain needs to rediscover the mentality that helped to win the Cold War if we are to deal effectively with emerging threats like Russia and Iran.”
To his credit, General Carter appears to have recognised the complexity and the importance of fidelity of implementation required to ensure net assessment reaches its potential. On 4 December, giving evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, Sir Nick spoke of “introducing the idea of net assessment” in the MOD, “not only to challenge some of your well known and enduring assumptions, but to provide proper empirical evidence, both in the match to your opponents and to your allies”.
On that occasion the CDS also envisaged net assessment as part of a “process of constant adaptation”, and pinpointed one of its functions as making military-capability comparisons “over time, particularly in terms of the NATO alliance in relation to a potential opponent like Russia.” As far as top-level descriptions of key outlines of net assessment go, this is, in our opinion, quite accurate.
The devil, of course, will be in the details of practical implementation – we must be wary of bureaucratic empire building. One set of concerns lies with the institutional aspects of the project. Our report recommended following closely the Pentagon’s time-tested, successful model, establishing a UK Office of Net Assessment that would report directly to the Secretary of State. This is to ensure the Office will remain free of competing departmental and Service agendas, focused on the genuinely long-term questions (rather than being caught up in the SDSR work of the day, for example) and able to “speak truth to power” on a range of issues.
The other challenge is protecting net assessment from being pressed into “ordinary service” as just another analytical tool among others in support of the departmental priorities of the day. The establishment of a net assessment capability will inevitably draw interest from many quarters of the MOD and, indeed, beyond.
It is important that the demands placed upon net assessment are grounded in a full appreciation of what it is supposed to do. In some cases this can be a question of nuance, for example when net assessment and wargaming are sometimes mentioned – as they were by the CDS – in the same context as instruments for testing new concepts. The meaning of such phrasing is open to interpretation but it may indicate a sense that net assessment is still seen in Defence as something to be integrated with or added to other existing frameworks and methodologies, rather than as a standalone analytical instrument specifically designed for a particular type of analysis. Net assessment uses wargaming as part of its own process and indeed the very quality and authenticity of a nation’s wargaming is something to be ‘net assessed’.
As net assessment is being introduced in the UK today, such distinctions are worth reflecting upon with redoubled attention. Quite apart from its immediate uses, an MOD net assessment capability – ideally, established as a dedicated Office – is a tremendous opportunity for infusing new thinking and initiating a wider “strategic renaissance” within the UK national security community. We must get it right from the beginning.