By Sandra I. Erwin
A Senate panel concluded that the Air Force wasted more than a billion dollars on a logistics information system largely because it failed to follow existing laws and regulations designed to prevent such flops.
The program, called the expeditionary combat support system, or ECSS, was terminated in 2012 after eight years in development.
The Air Force conducted its own probe of ECSS last year, and conceded that management failures and cultural inertia led to the program’s failure. The Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, at the request of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, launched its own inquiry in April 2013 and unveiled its findings this month.
The release of the committee’s report coincides with a new bipartisan review of the Pentagon’s procurement system led by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Lawmakers and Defense Department officials are studying potential fixes to current regulations and laws to avert debacles like ECSS. At least $50 billion worth of military procurement programs were terminated over the past decade before they produced any usable equipment.
One takeaway from the Senate’s ECSS investigation is that programs fail not necessarily because the regulatory structure is flawed but because military buyers simply fail to comply with existing rules. In the case of ECSS, committee staffers concluded, there were guidelines in place to help avert such misfires, but the Air Force ignored them.
“The Air Force failed to adhere to congressionally-directed ‘business process reengineering’ principles throughout the ECSS program,” the report said.
Business process reengineering is a management strategy used by large organizations to improve efficiency. BPR is mandated by several legislative and internal Defense Department policies to help transition organizations from old methods to more efficient ways of doing business. ECSS was intended to replace more than 200 antiquated information networks with a single, modern system.
“Despite repeated congressional directives to utilize BPR principles when procuring large information technology business systems, the Air Force failed to do so throughout the ECSS program, resulting in cost overruns, scheduling delays and, ultimately, program termination,” said the report.
Investigators found that the Air Force did not change its internal business processes, which was a “vital” piece of how it would integrate ECSS into the organization. “In so doing, the Air Force violated many crucial guidelines and best practices for information technology acquisition.”
The Air Force selected Computer Sciences Corporation to manage the integration of new Oracle logistics software into the Air Force’s operations, but Air Force managers were unwilling to alter their existing business processes in order for ECSS to succeed, said the report.
The committee warned that other IT procurement programs — such as the defense enterprise accounting and management system — could suffer a similar fate as they are “encountering many of the same problems as ECSS,” the report said. DEAMS is behind schedule and over budget by $1.7 billion.
“Given the importance of programs such as these to the Department of Defense and its overall efforts to transform how it does business, the Air Force and other military departments and defense agencies must not repeat the costly mistakes made in the attempted ECSS procurement,” the report said.
In recent appearances on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon’s top procurement official, Frank Kendall, has recognized that IT acquisition faces a steep climb to recovery. “I’ve spent a lot of time with our program executive officers and our program managers trying to understand the problems that they’re seeing,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
While the problems are well known, the Pentagon has yet to outline a plan to address them. The Defense Department is under growing pressure to deliver successful information systems — which it relies on for military operations and also for payroll, personnel, logistics management and accounting functions.