Select Page

WIRED: Issue 11.02 – February 2003

The Marshall Plan

For 40 years, the man Pentagon insiders call Yoda has foreseen the future of war – from battlefield bots rolling off radar-proof ships to GIs popping performance pills. And that was before the war on terror.

By Douglas McGray

Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon’s 81-year-old futurist-in-chief, fiddles with his security badge, squints, looks away, smiles, and finally speaks in a voice that sounds like Gene Hackman trying not to wake anybody. Known as Yoda in defense circles, Marshall doesn’t need to shout to be heard. Named director of the Office of Net Assessment by Richard Nixon and reappointed by every president since, the DOD’s most elusive official has become one of its most influential. Today, Marshall – along with his star protégés Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz – is drafting President Bush’s plan to upgrade the military. Supporters believe the force he envisions will be faster and more lethal; critics say it relies on unproven technology. As US troops gathered overseas, Marshall sat for a rare interview.

WIRED: Until recently, defense planners talked about a “revolution in military affairs.” Now the buzzword is “transformation.” Why the change? MARSHALL: Transformation is more of an imperative: We’ve got to transform the force. I personally don’t like the term. It tends to push people in the direction of changing the whole force. You need to be thinking about changing some small part of the force more radically, as a way of exploring what new technologies can really do for you.

What is the next radical change the US will reveal on the battlefield? “One future intelligence problem: knowing what drugs the other guys are on.” One that’s still under way is the emergence of a variety of precision weapons, and also coupling them with sensors. Another is the ability to coordinate the activities of separate elements of the forces to a level that has never been possible before. That’s promising, but less far along than precision weapons. A third is robotic devices: unmanned vehicles, of which the UAVs are the furthest along, but also similar kinds of devices undersea, and smaller devices that might change urban warfare by being able to crawl through buildings.

Are there revolutionary developments that don’t involve combat? There are ways of psychologically influencing the leadership of another state. I don’t mean information warfare, but some demonstration of awesome effects, like being able to set off impressive explosions in the sky. Like, let us show you what we could do to you. Just visually impressing the person.

Did 9/11 change your mind about anything? Not much. It was obvious that we were wide open to attack.

Has anything happened that surprised you? The rapidity of the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised me. I thought they were in trouble, but the rapidity and completeness of the withdrawal were really striking.

Is there a precedent for one country staying on top through a series of military revolutions? Or does one country always leapfrog another? Through most of the 19th century, the British Navy exhibited that kind of thing. But it was quite interesting the way they did it. They tended to let other countries, mainly France, do the early experiments and come out with new kinds of ships. If something looked like a good idea, they could come in and quickly overtake the innovator. They seemed to do that as a way of capitalizing on their advantage and saving resources.

Isn’t the United States in a similar position now? That’s probably the case. But some of the countries that would be candidates to make innovations aren’t doing it. The Japanese and West Europeans aren’t really making big changes. The Swedes are an interesting case. For 200 years their basic problem was the possibility of a large-scale land invasion by the Russians. They’ve decided that that has gone away. If anything could happen, it would happen across the Baltic. So they’re rethinking, given modern technology, how to create a defense largely on sea frontiers. It’s possible that they will make some innovations that we’ll pick up and capitalize on.

For instance? They’ve designed three new naval vessels. One is an air-independent submarine [running on fuel cells rather than nuclear power, which allows it to travel almost silently and remain submerged for extended periods]. They have a surface ship that’s a bit more conventional. And then a radically new naval vessel called the Visby, which has practically no metal in it other than the engine. It’s constructed to be very stealthy.

You’re known for following technology outside the traditional realm of national security. Pharmaceuticals, for instance. People who are connected with neural pharmacology tell me that new classes of drugs will be available relatively shortly, certainly within the decade. These drugs are just like natural chemicals inside people, only with behavior-modifying and performance-enhancing characteristics. One of the people I talk to jokes that a future intelligence problem is going to be knowing what drugs the other guys are on.

In an era of terrorism and peacekeeping, are Cold War ideas based on striking a big enemy from afar and defending against missile attack still relevant? Yes, if we want to stay in the business of long-range power projection. And if we play the role of intervening in messy disputes, some of this weaponry is still useful, as it was in Afghanistan. However, we need ground forces to go in and keep the peace.

Does new technology ultimately make us more or less vulnerable? A friend of mine, Yale economist Martin Shubik, says an important way to think about the world is to draw a curve of the number of people 10 determined men can kill before they are put down themselves, and how that has varied over time. His claim is that it wasn’t very many for a long time, and now it’s going up. In that sense, it’s not just the US. All the world is getting less safe.

Douglas McGray interviewed J. Craig Venter in Wired 10.12.