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4. TITLE AND SUBTITLE 5a. CONTRACT NUMBER Modularity: An Application of General Systems Theory to Military Force 5b. GRANT NUMBER Development 5c. PROGRAM ELEMENT NUMBER




Defense Acquisition University 2550 Huntington Ave Suite 202 Alexandria, VA 22303


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Approved for public release, distribution unlimited




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Dr. Melissa A. Schilling and COL Christopher Paparone, USA Although researchers in the fields of mathematics, psychology, biology, and social systems theory have long used the concept of modularity, none of these fields offered an explicit causal model of how and why increasingly modular forms are adopted. The authors apply constructs and models developed in the study of organizational modularity to explain the adoption of increasingly modular organizational designs in the U.S. military and offer some implications of this work for force development, future concept development and experimentation, and acquisition.

T here is a move underway to increase modularity in the design of our forces, as evidenced in our National Military Strategy and in the family of Joint Operations Concepts (see Figure 1). Many recent force-structuring efforts, especially by Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), appear to increase the disaggregation of forces into separable modular systems so they can be rapidly reconfigured to respond to a wide variety of mission needs. However, at the same time that many forces are being made more modular, other efforts appear to increase unit consolidation and joint integration (e.g., Pentagon efforts to create born joint systems).

So what drives some force developments toward increasing modularity and others toward increasing joint integration? When will forces benefit more from the flexibility of modular systems versus the tight coordination of less flexible configurations? Although researchers in the fields of mathematics,1 psychology,2 biology,3 and social systems4 have long used the concept of modularity, none of these fields offered an explicit causal model of how and why increasingly modular forms are adopted. Recent work on product and organizational modularity, however, has begun to tackle this question in an effort to

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understand when modular products or organizations will outperform their more tightly integrated counterparts.5 This article applies constructs and models developed in the study of organizational modularity to explain the adoption of increasingly modular organizational designs in the U.S. military, and offer some implications of this work for force development, future concept development and experimentation, and acquisition.

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Modularity can increase exponentially the number of possible task organization configurations achievable from a given set of requirements and capabilities, greatly 280


increasing the flexibility of a military force. Modularity is a general systems concept:

it is a continuum describing the degree to which a system can be separated and recombined, and it refers to both the tightness of coupling between elements and the degree to which the rules of the system enable (or prohibit) the mixing and matching of components’ capabilities.6 It is possible to view almost all entities—social, biological, technological, or otherwise—as hierarchically nested systems, meaning that at any unit of analysis, the entity is a system of capabilities and each of those capabilities is, in turn, a system of finer capabilities until we reach some point at which the capabilities are elementary particles, or science constrains our decomposition.7 The continuum from large joint and multinational organizational systems (e.g., combatant or coalition commands) to the single individual (e.g., soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine) as a stand-alone module is indeed a wide one.

Furthermore, we can distinguish between a system capability and the context within which it exists; if the system capability is a solution to a problem, the context is what defines the problem. It might include the physical environment, inputs that eventually become a part of the system, or even a point in time—anything that places demands upon the system.8 The identity of any element as system capability or context is not fixed; the level of analysis we choose determines this identity. For example, what the Department of Defense (DoD) refers to as a standing joint force headquarters “core element” (SJFHQ-CE) can be perceived as a system within a context of a wider multinational and/or interagency task organization.9 If we move in the other direction, we can deconstruct the SJFHQ-CE to discover it actually comprises predominantly single-Service-department acquired and trained people, single-Service-procured equipment, and so forth.

Many complex systems adapt or evolve, shifting in the pursuit of better fitness in response to changes in their context or underlying capabilities.10 Often, however, a system will not achieve an optimal fit with its context. First, inertia prevents a system from being perfectly responsive to shifts in its context. Biological organisms may be incapable of purposeful change, and evolution through variation, selection, and retention requires many generations to achieve; organizations and other social systems tend to resist change even when the environment provides strong pressure; and before we can change socio-technological systems, we must often first fumble around in search of better solutions. Although systems respond to fit their context, they may do so slowly and clumsily.

Finally, it is also important to recognize that as a system shifts in response to its context, it may also change its context in significant ways. For example, a new nonstate actor (such as the terror network Al-Qaeda) might create new potential inputs as a by-product of its adaptation, or it might alter the nature of demands upon the system by creating new competitive dynamics among systems—the system and its context coevolve.11 Such change in context may be the unintentional result of the system’s response to its context or the deliberate result of purposeful behavior.

The primary goal of deliberately increasing modularity is to enable heterogeneous inputs to the system to be translated into a variety of heterogeneous capability


configurations. Therefore, whether a system responds to a shift in its context (by becoming more modular) is a function of both the degree to which the elements of the system are separable and the pressure to be able to produce multiple configurations from diverse potential inputs. What will be lost by separating the capabilities? Will the ability to produce multiple configurations increase the system’s fitness? We address both questions in turn to develop a model of modularity at the general systems level.


The components of almost all systems are ultimately separable, though much may be lost through their separation. We may disassemble products, split apart social institutions, and even cut apart biological organisms. Some of these systems (e.g., computer systems) readily permit recombination of the separated modules and will continue to function in desirable ways, while others (e.g., most biological organisms) do not so readily permit recombination. Systems are said to have a high degree of modularity when their capabilities can be disaggregated and recombined into new configurations, possibly substituting new capabilities into the configuration, with little loss of functionality.12 The capabilities of such systems are relatively independent of one another; if they are compatible with the overall system architecture, they may be recombined easily with one another.

However, even in systems in which recombination is possible, there may be some combinations of components that work better together than others. The degree to which a system achieves greater functionality through the specificity of its components to one another is referred to as synergistic specificity—the combination of components achieves synergy through specificity (i.e., a uniquely interdependent functionality) to a

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particular configuration. Systems with a high degree of synergistic specificity may be able to accomplish things that more modular systems cannot; they do so, however, by forfeiting a degree of recombinability. The system capabilities may be so interdependent that any change in one may require extensive compensating changes in others in order that integrated functionality not be lost.13 High levels of synergistic specificity act as a strong force against the system’s shifting to a more modular design. For example, a commander of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) that habitually trains and fights together, objects to a joint-force air component commander taking away his air element for other missions outside the MAGTF.

The degree to which a system is separable is a continuum. Some systems are relatively inseparable (though very few are perfectly inseparable); whereas other systems may be decomposed easily with no loss of performance. Separability, influenced primarily by the degree of synergistic specificity characterizing the system, will be one of the strongest factors influencing whether a system will respond to pressures to become more modular.


When will the ability to produce multiple configurations increase the system’s fitness? The answer is already revealed in the action of modularity, when there are heterogeneous inputs and heterogeneous demands placed upon the system. The more heterogeneous the inputs used to compose a system, the more possible configurations are attainable through the recombinability enabled by modularity. Furthermore, the more heterogeneous the demands made of the system, the more valued such recombinability becomes.


There is one more element we must consider, even at this very general level of abstraction. As mentioned earlier, systems often exhibit inertia. They do not respond immediately and vigorously to every external influence. Therefore, it is possible that a system will be more or less modular than the balance of its separability, heterogeneity of inputs and demands would otherwise indicate. The degree to which a system responds to its context is influenced by pressures that create urgency to adapt.


Forces, like other kinds of socio-technical systems, are typically packages of Service and coalition capabilities. For example, a multinational army division (MND) might consist of a combined headquarters; a variety of national brigade headquarters;

and different sorts of functional battalions, companies, and platoons. Many of these capabilities are designed separately by Service/national functional force developers and then, once fielded, are task-organized by the designated MND commander. The functional battalions, in turn, are packages of many other diversified entities based on


equipment technologies, sub-professions of knowledge, and socio-cultural attributes that combine to accomplish the MND missions.

Since all forces are characterized by some degree of coupling (whether loose or tight) within and between Service capabilities, and very few Services have units that are completely inseparable and cannot be recombined, almost all existing force elements are to some degree modular. Some military organizational systems are highly modular in that they can be decomposed into a number of elements that can be mixed and matched in a variety of task organizations with little loss of functionality. The elements can connect, interact, or exchange resources (such as material or data) in some way, by adhering to standing operating procedures or other common coordination technologies.

Unlike a tightly integrated force (such as an M1A1 tank and its crew), where each element is designed to work specifically—and often exclusively—with other particular elements in a tightly coupled system, modular-designed units are systems of elements that are more loosely coupled (such as an Air Force composite wing that has a diversity of capabilities that can be mixed and matched).

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