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Air Force under fire for canceled $1 billion computer project

A key Senate subcommittee report chastised the Air Force for spending $1 billion to develop a computer logistics management system that was never fielded.

The Expeditionary Combat Support System, once managed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was canceled in December 2012 after eight years of development, a price tag of more than $1 billion, and the loss of more than 600 jobs in the Miami Valley tied to the project.

Wright-Patterson announced 115 people would lose their jobs at the base and 55 others would be reassigned in 2012 because of the program’s cancellation. The Air Force decision to end contractor Computer Science Corp.'s involvement with the program led to the elimination of about 500 company or contractor jobs in Beavercreek, Ohio, by that same year.

The Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations released a July 7 report highly critical of how the Air Force handled the initative to take commercial, off-the-shelf software, with some modifications, and use it to replace more than 200 computer logistics systems.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, called the Air Force’s management of ECSS a “debacle” and urged the Pentagon to follow lessons learned to allow its budgets to be audited and to avoid “the same disastrous fate as ECSS.”

“The Air Force’s billion dollar ECSS failure is the most egregious example of mismanagement at the Department of Defense in recent memory,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement. “The Air Force did not have a clear idea of what it wanted ECSS to accomplish, the lack of strong leadership, coupled with the Air Force’s cultural resistance to change, only exacerbated the program’s problems.”

The report echoed similar concerns: “The result of the ECSS’s failure was a waste of $1.1 billion in taxpayer money, a loss of eight years of effort, the same old inadequate logistics system far inferior to the promise of ECSS, and a major setback to the Air Force’s attempt to transform how it does business,” the report said.

Among the report’s key conclusion on why the project faltered: A strong cultural resistance to change in the Defense Department hindered using “widely endorsed” management principles; a lack of leadership and a disregard of acquisition best practices.

Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, said in an email Tuesday the Air Force “has learned many lessons from the cancellation of the program and is implementing corrective actions” from an Air Force review “to reduce risk of similar issues occurring” in the future. The Air Force has moved away from plans for a large-scale computer logistics management system to smaller, more manageable systems, he said.

The Defense Enterprise Accounting and Management System, a new financial management system, has put into practice the lessons learned from ECSS, according to Gulick. That system is on track to meet a congressional directive to meet financial audit requirements by fiscal year 2017, he said in an email. “It will take time to institutionalize all the changes needed, but we believe we are on a solid course forward,” Gulick added.

Heather L. Williams, a Computer Sciences Corp. spokeswoman, said in an email the Senate report’s key findings were consistent with the company’s review of the program. “We remain confident that the progress we made, jointly with the Air Force, could be the foundation for a future system,” she said in an email.

“We provided the foundational capabilities and (information technology) assets for implementing the software system of the future and delivered the design blueprints for modernizing the Air Force’s logistics,” she added. “CSC is a stronger partner to the federal government and advocate for the use of best practices early in the acquisition process as a result of our experience.”

Senator investigators noted: The Air Force transitioned six program managers, and five program executive officers, which left no one accountable for the project’s failure.

Among other recommendations, the report urged the Pentagon to improve results of acquiring enterprise resource planning programs, such as ECSS, by following business guidelines early in the acquisition process; bringing investment review boards into the beginning of budgeting and creating a single governance structure to acquire enterprise resource planning systems.

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