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Editorial: Hold Air Force accountable for $1 billion waste

Nov. 26, 2012 - 01:27PM   |  
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It isn’t just the sheer scale of waste that is appalling in the case of the Air Force’s failed logistics modernization program. Though, at $1 billion, that is certainly breathtaking.

What is shocking about the cautionary tale of the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) is that it took the Air Force seven years to cancel the program, despite multiple warning signs that, as one senior Air Force official described it, it was producing “negligible” capability.

Equally appalling is that no one has been held accountable for the fiasco. “We didn’t feel it was necessary to do that,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson, the service’s director of system integration.

Yet it was the responsibility of Air Force project managers to ensure the government was getting promised capability in return for the taxpayers’ money it was spending. Incredibly, the Air Force even paid CSC to write many of the system’s requirements for them.

The idea of handing almost complete management control of a complex project to a “lead systems integrator” — as happened in this case — has proved disastrous before. Other costly flameouts include the Army’s Future Combat System and the Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program. Both projects similarly wasted billions of dollars and either were canceled or had to be completely redefined.

As far back as 2007, the Pentagon’s then-director of procurement, Shay Assad, said the department was turning away from the use of so-called lead systems integrators to handle large-scale, highly complex projects. Assad said in an interview with Washington Technology at the time that the use of lead systems integrators raises conflict-of-interest concerns for the contractor and the government and confuses the issue of what is inherently governmental. He was exactly right.

Apparently, the Air Force did not listen. Unbowed by these legitimate concerns and past project failures, the Air Force continued to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into ECSS, even as it continued downscaling its expectations and pushing back its schedules. It was not until this year that the Air Force fired CSC as the lead contractor.

Unfortunately, such mismanagement and waste are not unique to the Air Force. A July inspector general’s report found that a half-dozen other large business systems underway at DoD are years behind schedule and a combined $8 billion over their original cost estimates.

In its oversight role, Congress must dig into exactly what went wrong with ECSS and who was responsible and then hold people accountable for this massive waste of time, money and effort. And it must look closely at other projects at DoD that are hemorrhaging money to see where else heads may need to roll.

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