"[ERP] has not yielded any significant military capability" -- USAF spokesperson

Hot on the heels of an election where the two presidential candidates were deeply divided on the issue of military budget cuts comes word that one of the Armed Forces' most costly and ambitious data projects has been scrapped.

I. Money Down the Drain

Dubbed the "Expeditionary Combat Support System" (ECSS), the project involved enterprise resource planning" (ERP). ERP refers to efforts to merge external and internal data flows, such as expenses, manufacturing metrics, logistics, contractor relationships, and unified messaging into a single flow of data.

ERP is an ambitious challenge being tackled by International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM), Google Inc. (GOOG), and a handful of other top players in the data-mining sector.

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) looked to join that select crowd with ECSS and poured a lot of money into the effort -- $1.03B USD since 2005.  But five years later an cool billion out of the pocket, and a USAF spokesperson's diagnosis of the project's health is:

[ECSS] has not yielded any significant military capability.  We estimate it would require an additional $1.1B for about a quarter of the original scope to continue and fielding would not be until 2020. The Air Force has concluded the ECSS program is no longer a viable option for meeting the FY17 Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness (FIAR) statutory requirement. Therefore, we are cancelling the program and moving forward with other options in order to meet both requirements.

Money down the drain
USAF has terminated a $1B+ USD data project, and now may lose up to $15.5B USD in savings that the project would have realized by eliminating redundant parts. [Image Source: Unknown]

In other words, a project that was supposed to cost a relatively hefty $1B USD, ballooned in costs to a problem which USAF think would require at least $8B USD to solve and nearly two decades from the start of the project to deploy.

II. Contractors Offer Little Explanation, Reap New Contracts

In light of that dose of reality USAF has decided to scrap the entire project altogether and start over, writing to ComputerWorld in a statement, "[The funding] will be better served by developing an entirely new strategy versus revamping the ECSS system of record again."

The aforementioned 2017 audit will now have to be run with a slightly tweaked version of the USAF's legacy software set, which dates back to pre-2005 and pre-ECSS.  Comments USAF, "[We will use] existing and modified logistics systems for 2017 audit compliance."

Top contractors like the Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) offered no explanation as to why the project failed. [Image Source: Interbrand]

The failed project may have been a big loss for USAF and U.S. taxpayers, but it was a big win for certain well-paid contractors.  Oracle Corp. (ORCL) scored $88.5M USD for the preliminary work on the project, which it promised would merge 200 partially redundant USAF systems.

Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) then took over scoring, most of the remaining billion in funding to serve as lead systems integrator.  In a response after being fired last year a CSC spokeswoman was unapologetic, writing to Defense News, "CSC demonstrated success in meeting all the major milestones and commitments for the first four years."

In other words, things were going great (or so the contractor says) the first four years, but then on the fifth year something inexplicably went wrong which the contractor was not at liberty to discuss or did not feel was important to discuss.  

Perhaps it's understandable why CSC wouldn't feel overly obligated to give a big explanation of why it failed, given that USAF has shown little signs of punishing it for the failure.  In fact CSC's baffling 2011 report on ECSS didn't stop it from scoring at least one other major cybersecurity service contract from USAF that year.  That contract was worth another $30M USD.

III. 2017 Will Bring a Fresh Look at the Mess

The big issue is that the USAF now has to try to find ways to improve legacy software that have led to major waste.  The problem is somewhat exponential.  USAF has an inventory of $31B USD in parts, of which about half are thought to be redundant and unneeded.  In other words the $1B USD failure could in turn lead USAF to be unable to cut an additional $15.5B USD in waste, which it was expected to do during the 2017 audit.

Michael Krigsman, CEO of consulting firm Asuret and expert on big IT failures was stinging in his analysis.  He comments, "This situation raises more questions than answers.  Why did it take the [Air Force] $1 billion and almost 10 years to realize this project is a disaster? What kind of planning process accepts a billion dollars of waste?  How can they achieve such [an audit] goal when this program is cancelled?"

He expects "many excuses" come 2017 of why the audit failed, and the $15.5B USD in wasted parts linger around, continuing to accumulate.

Source: ComputerWorld

"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet.  A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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