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Towards a Counterterrorism Net Assessment

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Towards a Counterterrorism Net Assessment

Drones and special forces get the headlines, but pundits have missed a more fundamental shift in the nature and direction of American national security policy. Driven by a perception that we have expended resources excessively in confronting the terrorist threat, counterterrorism is now shifting to a management paradigm. Future policies will not seek to “put an end to evil,” and al-Qaeda is now regarded as just one of many possible irregular, conventional, or compound threats the United States will confront over the next decade. [i]

But management also requires long-term planning for the expenditure of resources. Good planning is enabled by a sound diagnostic assessment of the nature of the armed competition. The Cold War-era methodology of net assessment could help us better understand how to shape our use of present and future resources and push our adversaries into areas of competitive disadvantage.

The Long-Term Strategic Competition and Net Assessment

In 1972, Andrew Marshall wrote the RAND Corporation monograph “Long Term Strategic Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Analysis.” Marshall, bucking the strategic orthodoxy of the time, made several important points about the United States and the Soviet Union’s competition in strategic forces. Marshall argued that the US focused on maintaining dominance in all areas of technology that it cared about. As a result, it might price itself out of competitions that really mattered. [ii]

On the whole, Marshall argued that there was a lack of thinking about how long-term usage of peacetime resources would accomplish political and military goals. Additionally, many thought that simply maintaining stability—keeping pace with Soviet forces and preventing catastrophic nuclear war—was a strategic goal in and of itself. [iii] The United States, Marshall argued, needed to accept that it was in a peacetime military competition with the Soviet Union that would continue for the foreseeable future. Thus, the United States needed to assess the nature of the competition, develop achievable goals, and design a strategy for competing effectively. [iv]

In his monograph, Marshall articulated for a better expenditure of resources:

“What are the areas of technology, of military operations, and so on that the United States has an advantage? What problems do the Soviets have? How can the United States move the competition into areas where it has an advantage, or the Soviets have a disadvantage?” [v]

To help answer these sorts of questions, Marshall and others helped create a methodology known as net assessment. There is much disagreement as to what a net assessment ultimately constitutes. Net assessment is best understood as a core set of practices rather than a single type of activity. As Paul Bracken notes, net assessments involve long-term time-spans, holistic assessments of Blue (our forces) and Red (the enemy) data, assessments of bureaucratic dynamics, and identification of strategic asymmetries. [vi]  But at its most basic, a net assessment is an overall assessment of a long-term strategic competition between two competitors. Net assessment identifies what areas of competition are important and the nature of each side’s comparative advantage.[vii] Net assessment, however, is fundamentally diagnostic. There is no policy recommendation; it merely seeks to frame the problem in a manner that will help the policymaker make the best decision.

Net Assessment and al-Qaeda

The struggle between the United States, its allies, and al-Qaeda is obviously not comparable to the long-term competition with the Eastern bloc. As analysts are wont to point out, al-Qaeda has no tank divisions, long-range bombers, or ballistic missile submarines. The Soviet Union and its client states were a formidable array of industrial powers with massive military potential and powerful intelligence and propaganda machines, and al-Qaeda and its associates is a loose non-state movement.

Additionally, the Soviet Union was never in a state of armed conflict with the United States. While the threat of war was omnipresent, the framework of long-term strategic competition was devised with the explicit framework of the peacetime usage of resources. Al-Qaeda and the United States are currently engaged in a multi-dimensional armed conflict. Elements of competition come into play in the tactical and operational attack-defender dynamic. The United States uses technology, tactics, and innovations to pursue a simultaneous mixture of defense and overseas denial and disruption. Domestically, we attempt to defeat attempts to harm our homeland through a set of processes ranging from everything from domestic intelligence to passive defenses of airports and major cities. Overseas disruption of enemy activities consists of tactical and operational raids, proxy warfare and intelligence-led disruption of adversary plans. Al-Qaeda uses technology, tactics, and innovation to survive and expand itself while trying to overcome civil defenses to carry out mass-casualty attacks.

While al-Qaeda is often said to be teetering on the brink of collapse, some analysts believe that the organization as a whole is far from finished. [viii] Active proxy warfare against al-Qaeda-associated movements continues in a multitude of theaters of engagement. Even if al-Qaeda is on its way out, some terrorist groups slowly dissolve rather than suddenly collapse. Even if we cannot reliably predict how and when the conflict will end, we still have a fundamental choice in how we allocate and spend resources in the management of the threat. In a fiscally constrained time, an overwhelming US focus on al-Qaeda may have negative effects on for other, more important military competitions with state adversaries or other non-state groups.

Is the United States making the best use of its resources in the long-term strategic competition with al-Qaeda? As Bruce Schneier has noted, much security is in fact “security theater” designed to create the appearance (but not necessarily the reality) of safety. [ix] Similarly, others have observed a “point defense” mentality of attempting to defend against a variety of different contingencies without an explicit (although implicit choices are certainly made by default) attempt to sort out what resources should be best spent. Some out-of-area operations have achieved significant results, such as the destruction of the al-Qaeda base structure in Afghanistan. Others have been mixed results at best and utter failures at worst.

The additive cost—financial, material, and human—have been substantial, to say nothing of the opportunity costs to other areas of importance inherent in the last decade’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policy regime. Moreover, how much longer can current security policies be sustained? Future public support for intrusive and expensive point defense security measures is not guaranteed, and future out of area operations will be severely circumscribed by a lack of political and financial means.  [x]

Imagining a Counterterrorism Net Assessment

A counterterrorism net assessment would look substantially different from Cold War strategic balances. Additionally, there are a host of quantitative and qualitative issues that would come to bear that have bedeviled analysis of counterterrorism issues in the past that would carry over, as well as more prosaic issues with the utility of the net assessment format in an era of irregular warfare.

The mapping of Blue and Red capabilities on a single line that makes an assessment “net” would be more difficult to achieve due to the general challenges of understanding the intricate connections that make up al-Qaeda and its associated networks. This is part of a more general debate on the nature of the threat is still ongoing, represented in part by the argument between Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman over whether al-Qaeda is a more traditional terrorist group with a “central” base or a distributed and loose “leaderless jihad” composed of self-radicalizing terrorists.  Thus, building, collecting, and analyzing this information into anything approaching a diagnostic net assessment would be difficult, but not impossible. [xi]

In the Cold War, one of Marshall’s greatest criticisms was that analyses did not take into account cleavages between differing Soviet military and security organizations. What was thought of as unified strategic decisions were in fact bureaucratic compromises between various factions. Thus, a strong net assessment of al-Qaeda and associated movements would have to rest on qualified assumptions about internal disagreements and organizational decision-making within a covert organization.

Collecting relevant Blue data and counterposing it against Red in an analytically meaningful framework would also be difficult. During the Cold War, collecting relevant Blue data was an issue due to a lack of institutional continuity. Since net assessment is holistic, any analysis would have to take into account the doctrine and strategic thinking of the enemy, just as the 1980s net assessment methodologies focused heavily on Soviet thinking about the Military-Technical Revolution (MTR) and the unique ideological and philosophical framework from which it originated. Although much analytical resources have been expended in trying to understand the strategic framework of al-Qaeda and associated groups, there is little incorporation of adversary doctrine and ideology into policy and dialogue concerning future strategic options.

Analysts such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross have argued that al-Qaeda’s use of religion-as essential to understanding al-Qaeda doctrine and strategy as Soviet Marxism was to Red Army military science—is ignored in strategic analysis. [xii] As bewildering as the Soviet Marxist conception of military science and strategy was to many, the wellspring from which al-Qaeda draws its theory of victory from is fundamentally alien to the Western strategic tradition—although a jihadist tradition of military science (“jihadi operational art”) is beginning to emerge that incorporates many sources of Western strategic thinking. [xiii] This does not mean that one cannot use Clausewitzian tools to analyze it, as Clausewitz’s general theory of war is sufficient to analyze any kind of strategic interaction. But it does mean that mirror-imaging is a huge risk. A vibrant analytical community of al-Qaeda specialists with deep knowledge of the threat exists, and their insights are unfortunately overlooked.

Despite the substantial differences between the Soviet Union and al-Qaeda, net assessment of a strategic competition between the US and al-Qaeda would consider some of the same questions that Marshall pondered. What is the nature of the competition? What are American goals in the competition? What are Blue and Red strengths and weaknesses? What aspects of the competition are important?  How might we maximize our own competitive advantage and heighten the disadvantages of our non-state competitor? As per a diagnostic assessment, this exercise would attempt to provide a simple statement of the problem rather than concrete policy recommendations.

The tactical and operational duel between terrorist technologies and Western countermeasures could be one useful subject for diagnostic analysis. The growth of a jihadist body of military science and its influence on the long-term competition is also a fruitful topic for net assessment. Whether or not evolving American unmanned and hunter-killer counter-network targeting capabilities can sustain the United States over a long-term strategic competition is obviously a question of great importance.  Policy analysts should also consider the validity of the standard view that non-state groups are acquiring standoff capabilities and how this would influence the dynamics of the strategic competition. How does the homegrown threat function as a tool of enemy power projection? All of these issues would be grist for net assessment analysis.


If we are to manage the terrorist threat while maintaining competitive edge in other strategic competitions, we need to think very hard about how precisely we will make decisions about what resources we will expend as the threat evolves (or devolves) over the years. The answers are not as important as the process we use to determine them. Net assessment is only one tool in a larger process of national security assessment, and is not a silver bullet for our strategic problems. However, some kind of competitive assessment of the dynamics of the long-term struggle with al-Qaeda is needed as the United States struggles to resource other equally (if not more) important commitments.

[i] A reference to the 2004 book of the same name by Richard Perle and David Frum.

[ii] Andrew Marshall, Long-Term Strategic Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Analysis, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1972, vii.

[iii] Marshall, ix.

[iv] Marshall, v.

[v] Marshall, viii.

[vi] Paul Bracken, “Net Assessment: A Practical Guide,” Parameters, Spring 2006, 90-100, passim.

[vii] Bracken, 93.

[viii] Daveed Garteinstein-Ross, “Don’t Get Cocky, America,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2011.,1

[ix] See Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Things He Carried,” The Atlantic, November 2008.

[x] Garteinstein-Ross, ibd.

[xi] See Anthony Bubalo, “Sageman vs. Hoffman: The New War of Ideas,” Lowy Interpreter, June 10, 2011.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Dima Adamsky, “Jihadi Operational Art: The Coming Wave of Jihadi Strategic Studies,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol.33, no.1, 2010 1-19.


About the Author(s)

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.