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Software Nightmare

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Air Force

Never Mind: The Air Force's ECSS is history.

All-too-depressingly common military-procurement tale from Sunday’s New York Times on the failure of the Air Force to modernize the software system designed to keep its airmen outfitted with sufficient supplies to wage war:

Last month, it canceled a six-year-old modernization effort that had eaten up more than $1 billion. When the Air Force realized that it would cost another $1 billion just to achieve one-quarter of the capabilities originally planned — and that even then the system would not be fully ready before 2020 — it decided to decamp.

…Silicon Valley business professor and author Randall Stross writes of the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System. Amazon would have turned belly up years ago if it performed so poorly.

Which leads to some stomach-turning thoughts:

– Thank God the Pentagon – and the nation supporting it — have enough spare money sloshing around in its coffers to waste like this. (“Don’t worry grandkids — it was only a billion you’ll have to repay, with zilch to show for it!”)

– The root cause of this Air Force problem was, according to outside analysts, a lack of leadership. Incredible, as in: unbelievable.

– Wonder how much of this program’s woes are shared with the Pentagon’s F-35 tri-service fighter – the biggest weapons program in history?

After all, the F-35 needs 24 million lines of software to operate. That includes 10 million on the plane itself – three times more than the F-22, the Air Force’s hottest warplane, and six times more than the latest version of the F-18, the Navy’s best fighter.

As the Government Accountability Office notes:

Software providing essential [F-35] capability has grown in size and complexity, and is taking longer to complete than expected. Late releases of software have delayed testing and training, and added costs. Software defects, low productivity, and concurrent development of successive blocks have created inefficiencies, taking longer to fix defects and delaying the demonstration of critical capabilities. The program has modified the software development and integration schedule several times, in each instance lengthening the time needed to complete work. In attempting to maintain schedule, the program has deferred some capabilities to later blocks. Deferring tasks to later phases of development adds more pressure and costs to future efforts and likely increases the probability of defects being realized later in the program, when the more complex capabilities in these later blocks are already expected to be a substantial technical challenge.

Well, can’t say we weren’t warned.

Doctors call multiple ailments in the same patient “co-morbidity.”

At the Pentagon, it’s called business as usual.

4 comments
zeustiak
zeustiak

Having server 10 years in the Air Force, I can tell you that the supply system is an absolute beast.  It saddens me that the old relic being used to manage supply is now even more years away from being replaced.

Honestly they should just take Amazon's or Wal-Mart's system and pay some money to have it upgraded to be as secure and flexible as it needs to be.  

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@zeustiak Yeah! Do you think a company like Visa would let this happen? I'm sorry, but sometimes the lowest bidder isn't the best option for the job. Pay IBM a billion dollars, and this system likely would have worked. If IBM can make a system for VISA, they sure as heck can make a system for the Air Force!

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

It's business as usual because the way to get along in the military is to go along. Calling out a misdirection means not being a can-do team player, and how the game is played is much more important to one's career than a measly billion dollar mistake.

The military acquisition process operates according to the Iron Law of Institutions. The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution. -- Jonathan Schwarz

Speaking of problems, there's Frank Kendall.

zeustiak
zeustiak

@Don_Bacon I think you may misunderstand how this happened.  It is exactly that can-do attitude that makes these things cost so much.  The next guy gets the project and instead of calling it for what it is(crap), he tries to fix it.  Honestly there are rarely any other options, from the perspective of those in the position to execute.

Combine that with the fact that the people in charge of these projects rarely have a clue about what they are managing in the first place.  You think a 3-4 star general knows anything about writing code for a supply system?    

And then the meddling politicians always have their hands in the pot, serving their own interests.  

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