Systems Analysis at the RAND Corp

Systems Analysis (SA) originated in the late 1940s as a kind of outgrowth of the RAND Corporation's interest in developing strategy for the United States Air Force. It was Ed Paxson who actually coined the phrase.1 Systems analysis was an outgrowth of Operational Research (OR) - a tool used by the U.S. military to try to quantify factors in combat, then applying science and technology to improve strategy and tactics.

The leap from Operational Research to Systems Analysis involved the manner of thinking about a subject. In essence OR was thinking "inside the box" - trying to improve existing methods. While SA involved thinking up new systems altogether in an effort to solve overall problems. For example OR would look at how to improve bomb sites in order to lay more bombs on a target. While SA would look at a broad operational goal and then decide the best application to accomplish that goal. If the goal was to cease a factory's operations, for example. It might be more effective to smuggle a crate of whisky into the workers with subversive literature on the side of every bottle. Or perhaps destroying the rail net around a concentration of factories might inhibit the factory's production, or destroying the fuel supply of the opponent might ultimately accomplish the goal and several others more effectively at far less cost by completely inhibiting the flow of supplies.

Thus the ultimate object is "getting the question right". When the right questions are asked, often the questions answer themselves.2 Systems Analysis generally requires quantification of factors, and scientific fact, and works to come to a conclusion that does not rely on unquantifiable factors. It's critics complain that this often means that such important factors as ethics, morale, and feelings, are left out of the equation.

One of the first applications of Systems Analysis by RAND proved a failure as its review of "Airplane Systems for Strategic Bombing" actually failed to think big enough. Ignoring modern weapons, it posited the Air Force would use propeller driven planes from forward bases, and would accept tremendous pilot losses in order to deliver a payload to Soviet targets. Although this report proved a failure in the eyes of the Air Force, it did illustrate that this technique, properly applied could be useful in developing future strategies.

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  1. Soldiers of Reason, by Alex Abella, Harcourt, 2008, p23 Available at Amazon
  2. Dr. Robert Oakes in a conversation with the author, Jan 2008

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