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A Brief History of CNA

Antisubmarine Operations in World War II, 1942-45

In March of 1942, Captain Wilder Baker, commander of the newly formed Antisubmarine Warfare Unit of the Atlantic Fleet, asked physicist Philip Morse to bring together a team of scientists to analyze tactics to find and sink U-boats. German submarines were torpedoing hundreds of American ships just off the Eastern Seaboard.

Morse left his post as a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and persuaded many others to leave their careers behind to join the new Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group, or ASWORG. They developed a mathematical theory of search and then set about finding the data to refine their theory into workable tactics. Sending civilian experts to military commands was a delicate matter, but Morse insisted. In June 1942, ASWORG assigned an analyst to the headquarters of the Gulf Sea Frontier in Miami, establishing what would become the CNA Field Program. By the end of the war, 43 of Morse’s analysts had been embedded in 15 commands in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

Discover how one analyst made an impossible blockade of Nazi ships possible.

The analytical lessons of war, 1945-1949

After Japan surrendered in 1945, many groups established for the war effort were shut down, but Adm. Ernest King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, argued for continuing to fund the Navy’s independent analysis organization, renamed the Operations Evaluation Group, or OEG. “The complexity of modern warfare in both methods and means demands exacting analysis,” he explained.

Digesting the lessons of the war was the first order of business. OEG published numerous reports on key naval operations and the research methodology OEG analysts had developed. These included Methods of Operations Research by Morse and Bernard Koopman’s Search and Screening, which was not declassified until more than a decade after the war.

Antisubmarine warfare was just one of many problems OEG addressed. Analysts led the research on the operational requirements for a long-range interceptor aircraft and produced calculations on the maximum effective range of new air-to-air missiles. They were organized into a three-part structure still visible today at CNA: Field representatives rotated in and out of commands at sea and ashore. A home staff of analysts worked on studies from OEG’s headquarters. And Scientific Analysts were embedded within Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, or OpNav, at the Pentagon.

Analyzing the Korean War, 1950-1953

In June 1950, when the Korean People’s Army of Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea, OEG canceled all vacation and academic leave. Analysts were sent to the Pacific bases, combat ships and ashore in Korea with the First Marine Air Wing. Over the course of the three-year war, OEG would grow by 50 percent.

The Navy was called upon to support land forces in ways that led to unfamiliar analytical territory. Battleships rained nearly a half million artillery shells onto the land, and analysts gathered data to improve the effectiveness of the batteries. Navy and Marine aircraft flew deep inland in close air support. The analytical scrutiny of those flights led to the first and only death of a CNA analyst in combat.

The Cold War and a broader mission for CNA, 1954-1989

The Navy depended even more acutely upon OEG analysis as the Cold War intensified. As many as 40 CNA analysts were working on antisubmarine warfare after the Soviets began arming subs with nuclear weapons. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, OEG drew on its experience with blockade planning to help the Navy cut off all access to the island. And dozens of OEG analysts went to Southeast Asia to analyze results of operations in Vietnam.

The range of analyses in this period expanded well beyond pure operations research, resulting in a more expansive name: the Center for Naval Analyses. Political scientists specializing in nuclear strategy and Soviet military planning were rubbing shoulders with the quantitative analysts of OEG for the first time. Some of them uncovered a radical shift in Soviet war plans. The legacy of this strategic and regional expertise carries on in CNA’s Strategy, Policy, Plans, and Programs division and the China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs division.

Economists were hired to support the Navy in military personnel, budgets and logistics. That work has grown into today’s Resources and Force Readiness division. CNA economists were crucial to the Gates Commission (photo below), which helped end the draft, and then helped mold the new all-volunteer force. One analyst solved the mystery of a faulty test for recruits that threatened to bring down the all-volunteer force.

A New CNA orients toward the homeland and Greater Middle East, 1990–2016

The year 1990 marked a sudden shift for the Navy, the Marine Corps and CNA. The dust from the fallen Berlin Wall had hardly settled when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a shift from a focus on global threats to regional challenges, especially in the Middle East.

Over the five months of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 22 CNA field representatives deployed with their commands to Gulf region, serving on Navy ships, Marine Corps forward bases, and Joint command centers. They advised the Navy on avoiding mines in the Persian Gulf and the Marine Corps on offloading prepositioned equipment and managing thousands of POWs. And after Kuwait had been liberated, these analysts returned to CNA headquarters to assemble the definitive, 18-volume reconstruction and account of lessons learned by the Navy and Marine Corps in the Gulf War.

With that mission completed and the Cold War over, defense budgets were slimmed. CNA economists advised the Navy and Marine Corps on the most analytically sound approaches to closing bases and scaling back personnel without sacrificing readiness.

Internally, CNA broadened its scope yet again by applying operations analysis to civilian agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Analysts who had been modeling the airspace above carriers were now modeling the airspace over the entire country for the FAA. And when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, CNA command and control specialists moved into FEMA’s operations center 24/7 for six weeks. CNA’s work for civilian federal, state and local agencies was formally brought under the newly created Institute for Public Research, or IPR, in 1983. Ever since, IPR and the Center for Naval Analyses have formed the two, interrelated sides of CNA.

When history next intervened, on September 11, 2001, both sides of CNA were prepared to respond. Terrorism preparedness was already a growing field of expertise within IPR. CNA evaluated the crisis-response command and control by FEMA and local agencies in New York and Washington. And analysts had just completed a bioterrorism response plan for Washington that month, when an anthrax attack killed five at offices near the Capitol. The CNA plan was immediately put into action.

By December, the nation was at war in Afghanistan, and the Center for Naval Analyses adapted to new challenges. Analysts built up expertise in counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflict, for example. In all, some 85 analysts deployed to combat zones in the first years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, when improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were killing coalition forces on nearly a daily basis, CNA analysis proved the value of a tactic that was saving lives.

Global Rivals, Global Virus, 2017–

By 2017, the growing military power and aggression of China and Russia demanded new strategies, new tactics and new analysis. Fortunately CNA had maintained great power competition expertise in areas like antisubmarine warfare and Russian military strategy through the decades when those subjects lacked urgency. CNA had also established a China Studies program back in 1998, when few anticipated China’s rise as a military rival. The largest non-governmental research group studying Chinese military and security affairs in Washington even before “great power competition” became a watchword, CNA’s China Studies analytical staff has doubled in the past several years.

One could say that the COVID-19 also “caught CNA prepared.” A generation of work supporting emergency preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services complemented deep expertise on medical care for sailors. New CNA mathematical models helped the Navy limit the pandemic’s spread aboard ships. IPR adapted those models to advise states on containing outbreaks in prisons. For CNA, there is nothing “new” about helping government leaders adapt to new threats.

Read a more complete history in The Story of CNA

Watch our video series 8 Decades, 8 Stories