Defining Example: Nuclear Stockpile Management
System: When we consider everything affecting the maintenance of the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile (design, manufacturing, surveillance, policy, funding, organization of the laboratory system, etc.), the NWC is a system. There are not only many components, they are also highly interconnected: design affects the efficiency of manufacturing and surveillance; policy constrains funding and design; the organization of the laboratory system determines needed funding and surveillance processes.
Environment: The environment consists of everything outside of the NWC: non-US organizations, non-nuclear-weapon-related US groups (e.g. civilians), non-nuclear US governmental organizations (e.g. DOC, CIA), non-nuclear activities in NWC contractor agencies (e.g. DHS activities)
System of Systems: Each of the major components is itself a system. For example, the design process includes not only technical constraints, but also the organization of technical specialties, supporting infrastructure, stakeholder interactions and requirements, etc. In addition, stockpile management shows other characteristics of a system of systems, including very different time scales: technology changes rapidly, on a time scale of weeks or months; budgets are managed on a yearly cycle; organizational structures change every few years, and major changes to treaties and policy can take decades to complete. Theoretical descriptions of the different components require different ontologies, which must be reconciled in any effort to model the whole system.
Complex: The behavior that results from systems interactions is greater than the sum of its parts. Direct controls on stockpile management, such as budget, requirements, policy, organization, and so forth, constrain the practice of management which is also shaped by unanticipated component failures arising in surveillance, technological progress, and the shifting patterns of skill caused by normal staffing changes.
Adaptive: The system is adaptive and highly goal oriented. The goal of keeping the stockpile safe and reliable is shared by all agents in the system, but its complexity leads to imperfect planning and communication. Consequently, the particular states of the system and their progress toward the goal are determined by loosely coupled efforts of different agents. The system adapts to political and technological change: the end of the cold war and the invention of microelectronics have each caused the NWC to fundamentally change.
Aspirations: Aspirations for the NWC might include protecting it, eliminating it, guaranteeing its viability in the face of fundamental world changes, making it more efficient and robust in achieving its mission, or possibly redeploying it to deal with an expanded notion of world threats.
Approaches: The long term survival of the NWC can be controlled, to a degree, by controlling costs, making the system sufficiently inexpensive to operate. New uses and security needs for weapons might increase funding, but are unlikely. Alternatively, the NWC can be retargeted to additional world problems, which, if sufficiently important, might garner more funding than is currently present.
Attainability: Past activities undertaken within the NWC have created a certain number of enemies, who might choose to hamper efforts to change. People within the system have ingrained behavior patterns that might result in resistance to change. The need to simultaneously maintain current capabilities while reaching for new opportunities exacerbates the problem – it’s hard to know whether and when to hold back and when to reach forward.