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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 WinstonSmith on 12/11/2012 10:09:54 AM , Rating: 4
"Defense procurement is just not something that ever goes smoothly which means this situation is extremely recognizable."

Precisely. And why? Because of a military culture perhaps not unique to the USAF.

Officers with no real expertise in a technical subject are assigned to program manager positions, spending just a few years in that position before being sent somewhere else, all in the name of rounding out their experience for promotion purposes. When they inherit some program that's totally screwed up, assuming they have the expertise to even recognize that it's screwed up, the easiest thing to do during their short time in control is to proceed as if there are no core problems, listening to glowing reports from contractors and hiding the problems from superiors who are often equally ignorant in the technologies involved.

How do I know this? Because in my 21 years in the USAF, I dealt with exactly this issue, not as a program manager, but one who had to interact with them. And this is not attacking their character. Many are handed programs so messed up that it would take a gargantuan effort to fix them, seriously pissing off everyone along the way by revealing the truth, getting the program delayed or canceled, all the while hoping that somewhere in their chain of command there'd be someone who'd realize they were doing the right thing and not kill their career.

Want a PERFECT example of this? Watch the excellent film based on a true story, "The Pentagon Wars" based on a book of the same name by Colonel James G. Burton, USAF (retired) It's both funny and true.

By SwampEagle on 12/11/2012 1:22:12 PM , Rating: 2
Most of that is true. Let's be clear though, that it's not the officers' choice to be hung out to dry like that. It's "the air force way" of developing leaders. That may work for pilots who grow to lead squadrons, wings, etc, but acquisition is different. You need people that can stick around to learn the system, and become familiar with what's going on. True, we have some experts (Aerospace is a big one) that we can consult, but if we're just going to turn to the Aerospace guy and ask him what should be done, why in the world do we have military acquisition people in charge of the program??? How about just using them as advisors for the "military perspective" and let the civilians that stay around be the PM??

By mitchebk on 12/11/2012 2:03:19 PM , Rating: 2
so, you're example is about 20 years old--times have changed a bit. I also disagree with your main point regarding lacking expertise. that's not the case with the working-level PMs and engineers that work these programs. its the leadership that doesn't always understand the ins and outs of complicated software products or simple to use COTS products that are made for a market segment and not the DoD, specifically.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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