Evaluating Military Balances Through the Lens of Net Assessment: History and Application

Thomas Skypek


For senior statesmen and their advisers, the task of evaluating external security threats and identifying strategic opportunities is a perennial challenge. This article examines one contemporary approach the United States Department of Defense has employed to understand the complex state-based military and security threats confronting the United States: net assessment. Net assessment is a multidisciplinary framework that is comparative, diagnostic, and forward-looking. This article fills an important gap in the scholarly literature by using declassified primary sources to trace the history and development of net assessment within the United States Department of Defense during the cold war. The author attempts four major tasks in this article: first, to provide a clear definition of net assessment, as practiced by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment; second, to present a blueprint for the conduct of net assessments; third, to detail its history in the Department of Defense during the cold war; and fourth, to explain its value as an analytical framework for analysts and policymakers. It provides a blueprint for thinking about strategic military competitions through the lens of net assessment.

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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.