Australian strategic planning would benefit from net assessments
1 Nov 2023|

At ASPI’s recent conference, ‘Disruption and Deterrence’, Australia’s Director-General of National Intelligence Andrew Shearer praised the use of net assessments ‘because of their ability to take a wider aperture … It goes to the different dimensions of power, not only military, but economic, diplomatic and soft power.’

To some observers, that may not seem so unusual. Australian officials have spent the past 20 years embracing holistic approaches, such as ‘whole-of-government initiatives’ and ‘grand strategies’ that include non-military inputs. Yet dissatisfaction with these approaches has grown. Adding endlessly more areas of concern greatly increases the burden on policymakers. The need for consensus can often lead to formless lists of contributions and complications. We might term such approaches ‘gross’ assessments, in both senses of the word.

Net assessments are different, and the word ‘net’ explains why. First, the tool was designed to capture the relative power balance between two adversaries in specific theatres. Second, they are used to diagnose specific problems (or opportunities) in those theatres. These two attributes—of framework and problem-orientation—give net assessments their intellectual power, though they also make it hard to incorporate them into Australia’s defence and intelligence practices.

The modern form of net assessments was created by Andrew Marshall, the inaugural head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, a post he held from 1973 until his retirement in 2015. A net assessment for Marshall was ‘intended to be diagnostic. It will highlight efficiency and inefficiency in the way we and others do things, and areas of comparative advantage with respect to our rivals.’

For example, in the 1970s and 1980s Marshall highlighted Soviet weaknesses in technology and encouraged a focus on strategic policy choices as moves within a long-term competition. These ideas helped lead to the Reagan administration’s ‘Star Wars’ missile-defence program. The aim was to deliberate stoke a technological race between the great powers and create a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ dilemma for the Soviets. Compete and potentially go bankrupt, or refuse to compete and be humiliated.

Marshall was also insistent that net assessments not be viewed as prescriptive. He kept the Office of Net Assessment at arm’s length from force structure and budget choices, fearing that preferences for particular ‘solutions’ would impede analysis of what the problem really was. As one ONA analyst recalled Marshall telling him, ‘You keep giving me solutions. Stop giving me solutions. Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?’

How, then, can Australia gain the most benefit from net assessments?

First, Australia will need to create its own frameworks that signify what ‘net’ means in the context of its strategic circumstances. In the South Pacific there are plausible scenarios of direct competition where a true ‘net’ balance between Australia and China is meaningful. This seems to be how the 2023 defence strategic review envisages their use. In other scenarios, such as around Taiwan or in broader theatres in Southeast Asia, that framework is far less useful.

Other frameworks could be substituted. One idea that ONA explored in the 1990s was structuring assessments around ‘core competencies’. If we have specific advantages or strengths, how are they evolving over time? In a recent article in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal Survival, I proposed other potential barometers such as ‘relative position’, given that it’s not asymmetry against a great power but standing within the wider community that may be most important for Australia. We need a framework for assessing how the moves we make in this competitive environment—such as AUKUS or stabilising relations with Beijing—are shaping our status and influence in our key regions.

Managing the diagnostic element of net assessments will in some ways be the harder challenge. The 2023 review deliberately links diagnosis and prescription, since it wants to use net assessments on specific military scenarios to shape the military’s force structure. That seems worthwhile given the need to move quickly towards a focused force. Still, the risks are obvious.

It will be up to our defence and intelligence leaders to ensure that Australian net assessments are vehicles for grappling head on with the core strategic problems we faces. The clarity and utility of net assessments comes from their focus on problems. They incorporate many factors, but only so far as they’re relevant to the specific problem that’s under examination. A really good net assessment may be long on questions and short on answers, recognising that ‘even not-so-good answers to good questions are better than good answers to poor questions’.

In the late 20th century, net assessments helped America compete against the Soviet Union as well as identify the emerging revolution in military affairs long before everyone else. The potential contribution of net assessments to the development of Australian strategy is equally vast. Yet incorporating them will require real effort to think through how to tailor the framework and the diagnostic, problem-oriented philosophy to Australia’s strategic context here in the early 21st century.