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Senators seek answers on botched Air Force computer project

DAYTON, Ohio — A $1 billion botched Air Force computer logistics modernization project has grabbed the attention of two high-ranking U.S. senators who say it appears to be “one of the most egregious examples of mismanagement in recent history.”

“We believe the public and the taxpayers deserve a clear explanation of how the Air Force came to spend more than a billion dollars without receiving any significant military capability, who will be held accountable, and what steps the department is taking to ensure this will not happen again,” U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in a Dec. 5 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The letter comes as Air Force leaders examine how to upgrade the archaic computer systems.

The Air Force spent more than $1 billion on the canceled Expeditionary Combat Support System before it pulled the plug. The service ended the program after it determined ECSS would need another $1 billion infusion to achieve only a fraction of its intended capability by the end of the decade. The ECSS was meant to use commercial-off-the-shelf software to replace more than 200 legacy computer systems.

The cancellation led to the layoff of about 500 high-paid contractor and subcontractor workers at Computer Sciences Corp. in Beavercreek, Ohio, earlier this year and the loss of 115 jobs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with 55 other military and civilian workers reassigned at the Miami Valley air base, just outside of Dayton.

The Air Force still needs a logistics system upgrade to meet 2017 auditability compliance, officials said.

“We really did not want this program to fail,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Kathryn J. Johnson, special assistant to the deputy chief of staff, logistics and mission support. “We really wanted it to succeed,” but when the situation became “untenable” as too costly, too long delayed and fell short of performance parameters, the Air Force was forced to act.

Levin, the chairman, and McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a flurry of questions to the Pentagon, asking for the “root causes” of the program failure to how the military will peg past contractor performance to future decisions on contract awards.

Defense analyst Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said such computer projects gone awry are not unusual in the federal government.

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“The government has a very uneven record in making major information technology purchases,” he said. “It often overreaches and asks for too much and then programs either collapse or get scaled back against recriminations. This is a story I have heard many times before, not just in the Pentagon.”

Johnson said the Air Force was preparing a response to Levin and McCain.

She and Robert Shofner, program executive director for business and enterprise systems, said in a telephone interview the Air Force will take the lessons learned and use a different approach to field a new system.

The Air Force will rely on legacy computer systems the ECSS was intended to replace and focus on a smaller system broken into parts to field it faster at lower cost, Johnson said.

“Today, there are new technologies that exist that allow us to break this into much smaller pieces,” she said.

A cost estimate wasn’t released.

“We’re still refining those costs … they’d be purely speculative right now,” she said.

It’s not yet known how much work, if any, might happen at Wright-Patterson, said Shofner, assigned to the program office at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

“We’re too early in the cycle to stand up a program office,” he said.

Thompson said it’s not easy to predict if the strategy will work.

“The government goes back and forth between whether it wants contractors to provide end service or whether it wants to break big jobs into smaller tasks,” he said. “Frankly, you can get good results with either approach, or you can get catastrophes with either approach. You just have to be a smart customer.”

The ECSS project fell under the authority of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson, said base spokesman Daryl Mayer.

Shofner said part of the problem was the Air Force passed responsibility and accountability of the logistics management system to the contractor, Computer Sciences Corp.

“We lost the ability to control some of what was going on,” he said.

In a published interview, the two defense leaders also have indicated CSC didn’t meet the goal of adapting Oracle commercial software to the program’s specialized needs. Johnson has additionally pointed to the Air Force’s lack of a master schedule, acquisition strategy changes and snafus that slowed the speed the system could share data within the Air Force, according to the Federal Times.

CSC has said only it “values the Air Force and its mission, and worked closely and cooperatively with senior leadership to close out the ECSS contract.” An Oracle spokeswoman has declined comment on the project.
 

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