Defense industry “systems integrators” may be under political fire, but the military needs them more than ever

By Sandra I. Erwin
In the defense industry, “systems integrators” are both villains and saviors. As weapons systems became increasingly information-based and technically more complex in recent decades, companies that traditionally had focused on stand-alone products became systems integrators.
The Defense Department needs them to bring together components and subsystems and ensure that the pieces function together. But systems integrators also were blamed for the cost overruns and delays in major military programs such as the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Coast Guard’s Deepwater. Congress went as far as to include language in the 2009 defense bill thatrestricts the use of “lead systems integrators” in the oversight of major programs.
Political theater aside, the demand for systems integrators is expected to rise. The Defense Department cannot function without them. The “network” is the coin of the realm in today’s weapons, and the military is hugely dependent on integrators to connect disparate systems and to enable the information-centric approach to warfare.
Officials have said that the military will no longer spend money on networks, radios, or other means of communicationsthat can’t talk to each other. It is no surprise that, despite thebacklash against integrators that following the cancellation of the Future Combat Systems, companies are seeking to expand or break into this sector.
“Everything points to more networked solutions,” says David Melcher, president of ITT Defense and Information Solutions. The company this week announced amajor realignment of its $6.3 billion defense and aerospace businesses in order to position itself to compete more successfully in the information-technology and systems integration worlds. More interoperability, more integration, more intelligence fusion is “what our customers tell us they need,” Melcher says. “We’re trying to become a higher-level systems integrator.”
An often-heard complaint by military officials is that defense contractors build customized systems using proprietary technology. “I agree, that’s an issue,” says Melcher. But he adds that companies such as ITT are no longer interested in producing proprietary systems as the Defense Department now demands “open systems.”
There is also the larger problem of the Defense Department’s insular approach to building weapon systems. Many military programs tend to be conceived in “stovepipe” fashion, without taking into account how they will inter-operate with other systems. That, too, has to change if the military is to become a network-centric force. TheGovernment Accountability Office criticized the Pentagon for its failure at developing “joint” requirements for weapons systems. GAO said almost 70 percent of programs are sponsored by individual services without input from others outside their organization.
For systems integrators, this only guarantees more business into the future.

Topics: Business Trends, Systems Engineering

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