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Project suffered an excess of ambition, irresponsible contractors, and a broken management structure

The plan was to consolidate a slew of expensive and largely redundant data service platforms at the U.S. Air Force (USAF) down to a more cohesive collection.  The move was supposed to yield billions in savings by locating and selling redundant parts (roughly half of the USAF's $31B USD in parts is thought to be redundant or unneeded).  The new platform of services would come online, just in the nick of time to complete a massive looming 2017 audit.

I. Too Much Ambition, Too Little Execution

Grover Dunn, the Air Force director of transformation at the time remarked, "We’ve never tried to change all the processes, tools and languages of all 250,000 people in our business at once, and that’s essentially what we’re about to do."

However, the transition never finished.  And last month the USAF was forced to make the embarrassing admission that after investing $1.03B USD since 2005, the transformation was being scrapped after it was deemed that the program had failed to yield "any significant military capability".

Air Force computer center
The USAF is being forced to stick with dated hardware stretching back to the 1970s, after fumbling a major infrastructure upgrade bid. [Image Source: A1C-Meyer]

The decision was also made when contractor Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) -- the lead system integrator -- gave a dire prediction that the project would not be ready until 2020, would only implement a quarter of the original promised scope, and would cost $8B USD.

The military plan, which was based off of commercial off-the-shelf software (“COTS”), would be rather ambitious for a more homogenous large corporation.  Amidst a defense division with a myriad of special needs it was incredibly over ambitious, as Director Dunn's comment suggests.  

II. Experts Predicted Program Was in Trouble

So the question people are asking is why it took the USAF $1B USD -- mostly handed to CSC -- to recognize the futility of the effort.

Jamie M. Morin, assistant secretary of the Air Force, testified before a subcommittee of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and did not mince words about the astonishing nature of the software services SNAFU.  He comments, "I am personally appalled at the limited capabilities that program has produced relative to that amount of investment."

Paul K. Ketrick and Graeme R. Douglas of the Institute for Defense Analyses warned of the upcoming failure last year, and suggested the sinking USAF effort was not alone.  In their 2011 report they estimated that since 2009 $5.9B USD was spent on such software across the U.S. Department of Defense, with only some smaller programs showing success.

The pair believe that a key determinant of success or failure is the size of the program and whether the DoD makes the mistake of appointing a single director over an overly broad effort, as with the USAF program.  Comments Mr. Douglas to The New York Times, "[The successes] got there because they had strong leadership who committed to the program and had the authority to make the changes necessary for success.  It’s rare that a single leader in the Department of Defense has the authority over the span of activities [as with the USAF]."

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

Now left with software and hardware that dates as far back as the 1970s, the USAF is expected to have to try to scrape by on the 2017 audit with the old platforms.  Most expect the audit to go poorly.  So is the USAF to blame for poor planning?  Experts certainly think so.  

But so far there haven't been reports of cohesive repercussions for the DoD officials and contractors involved.  The USAF is carrying on as if the situation is normal when in fact it is all [fouled] up.

Source: The New York Times



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By RufusM on 12/10/2012 2:41:21 PM , Rating: 3
The DoD must have recourse against CSC for this. I've been involved in any manner of county government bids and they all had performance metrics the vendor needed to adhere to along with milestones and timelines. There is usually some flexibility to account for minor changes to deliverables along the way but it's typically laid out clearly.

I would be shocked if the DoD didn't go after the contractor, CSC, for a large part of the money unless they themselves were ultimately to blame. Maybe the DoD couldn't make up its mind or kept changing requirements?


By NellyFromMA on 12/10/2012 4:26:45 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah that doesn't deviate too far from what typically happens in the private sector in my experience, depending on the particulars, of course.

I agree, either the contract wasn't met due to insufficient needs assesment resultant on DoD supplied information and agreed upon by DoD or they will surely go after CSC.


By Manch on 12/11/2012 10:00:47 AM , Rating: 2
"the ever moving goal post" is a common term here in the DoD. See: F-22, F35, B1B, ABL, AFTR, TBA, etc.


By Jaybus on 12/11/2012 12:36:25 PM , Rating: 2
MACs (Multiple Award Contracts) are where multiple companies are awarded contracts and then they compete against each other continuously by bidding on individual tasks. It is supposed to reduce costs, but of course in order to get a piece of the pie, it now means that contractors have to bid low. It pretty much guarantees that every single task will be over budget and makes it impossible to accurately estimate a total project cost. And naturally, with so much red tape the contractor ends up with too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Then there is the problem of dividing the job into tasks. If there are closely interdependent tasks and different contractors are involved with them, then the situation becomes the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. The end result is completed tasks that when combined don't work together as a whole.


By SwampEagle on 12/11/2012 1:15:47 PM , Rating: 2
Another important point is that when they started doing this, they did not increase the number of gubment folks doing the reviews/oversight. So now you have 3 contractors competing that need oversight...and the same number of gubment folks that used to oversee one. How do you think that's going to work? Fail. Gubment folks simply cannot devote enough time to properly oversee the multiple contractors in the competition. It's failed before it got started.


By JonnyDough on 12/12/2012 5:54:54 AM , Rating: 2
Use English. Gubment? Erm...

Anyway, the government doles out cash to mega corps to design and estimate costs for production. They have to oversee even this research process, because if they do decide to go with any of the proposed options then it must be secure from the start.

Just PLANNING something like a superior fighting aircraft or naval ship costs in the multi-millions. Actually building it will cost so much more if proper research isn't done ahead of time, because if they have to do research to figure issues out as they're building it then they have wasted waste time/material/payroll, The original estimated building costs will have to be raised and spiral out of control. This makes the DOD quite unhappy but these mega corps have to remain profitable and canceling a project midway is not good for anyone's business. Switching plans would simply cost the government double. Once they choose a design plan they must stick with it, even if it seems to be a poor choice (ie the JSF).

This is why the DOD forces companies to compete within set limitations, and why it scruitinizes plans so heavily. You have to realize though, that making a choice on proposed plans from multiple defense contractors also costs the government a lot of money. So at some point they have to curb THOSE costs and just make an educated decision to the best of their ability. We should all know that with state-of the-art technologies sometimes things don't work quite as they should. As an aircraft mechanice, I know that it often takes years to iron out issues with aircraft. What seems like a minor change can affect flight quite a lot. Maintenance practices change, maintenance schedules change, parts change, pilot pre-flight checks change, etc. It's a lot more complicated and livid than people realize.

Modern day aircraft have little in common with an automobile, but many people still think they do. Most people don't even understand how a jet engine works even though it is perhaps the simplest of any engine, or how an airfoil and differentiating pressures above and below a wing cause lift.


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