Systems Integration and the New American Way of War

By Bracken, Paul | Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Systems Integration and the New American Way of War


Bracken, Paul, Joint Force Quarterly


There is a new American way of war. As seen in Afghanistan and Iraq it involves winning with smaller, more agile forces, where jointness and networking combine to produce large-scale gains in warfighting. Using this experience to transform the defense and intelligence communities for networked operations is one of the biggest managerial challenges ever undertaken.

Many plans focus on building blocks like doctrine, organization, and technology. That is necessary, but it leaves out one critical element--how the blocks are put together. In a networked force it is more important than ever to ensure proper coordination and timely integration of assets. This is what gives the big payoffs.

Transformation involves various building blocks and different ways of combining them, here designated as systems integration. But organizational skills and capabilities for systems integration have not kept pace with the requirements of the new way of war. Current frameworks and tools reflect the industrial era when most of them were created. That world no longer exists; new approaches are needed.

Instead of focusing on systems integration, transformation is too often regarded as a choice between incremental and revolutionary approaches to change. Stated in these terms, the incremental approach often wins out because it appears to be less risky and radical.

But these choices--incremental versus revolutionary change--offer an inadequate concept of transformation. Overlooking the interdependence of the building blocks ignores one key aspect of networked operations. The sharply increased degree to which military tasks are carried out by different organizational units amplifies the importance of coordination. Without it, each unit will go it alone, thereby losing the tremendous benefit of networking. The incremental-revolutionary model all but guarantees a lopsided organization whose performance is limited by its least effective parts. Systems integration tools must be sharpened and a systems integration framework should replace the choice between incremental and revolutionary approaches to transformation.

Alternative Paths

The incremental-revolutionary model misses a key feature of networked operations: change in one part of the organization affects other parts. This is true in combat operations, acquisition, and intelligence. An incremental or evolutionary approach tackles problems serially through small-scale improvements in existing processes and technologies. The focus is on local expertise, and the changes are small enough that outside organizational units are not usually involved.

By contrast, the revolutionary or radical approach involves strategic leaps to overhaul an organization across the board, which may mean changing doctrine, organization, and technology simultaneously. This approach requires extensive financial and intellectual capital: sizable budgets because projects are expensive and intellectual capital because risks are high. Consultants, technical experts, strategic planners, and others are necessary to advise leaders about the risks.

AT&T in the 1990s offers an example of revolutionary transformation. It undertook radical change in its core technology, moving to digital fiber optics from copper analog circuits. A new CEO revolutionized the personnel system, terminated 60,000 employees, and made it obvious that loyalty to workers was a thing of the past. The corporation entered a new business area, cable television, taking on massive debt in the process.

The result was indeed a revolutionary transformation of AT&T. But despite hiring the best and the brightest investment bankers, strategic planners, and technical experts, the transformation nearly destroyed the firm. In five years it became a pale image of its former self and was forced to auction off key divisions at fire sale prices to avoid bankruptcy.

Organizations can only manage so much change at a time.

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