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Report details factors behind flameout on $1B Air Force logistics project

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Muddled governance, ineffective change management and revolving door leadership were among the forces leading to last year’s demise of a costly and high-stakes Air Force logistics modernization program, according to newly released findings from an internal inquiry.

The Air Force canceled the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) last November after spending $1 billion for what one top manager termed “negligible” capability. But the acquisition review team offers a more upbeat take, concluding that much of the work done on the system “can be reused.”

The ECSS “wasn’t the failure people think it was,” the team adds. “It was the first step to truly understanding the enormous task the Air Force has ahead of itself.”

The undated executive summary was released this month by the Senate Armed Services Committee to Federal Times. After the cancellation, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the top Republican at the time, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, demanded answers on what had gone wrong, what options the Air Force was considering to replace the ECSS and how the Defense Department would take into account the failure of the prime contractor, Virginia-based Computer Sciences Corp., to perform as required when awarding future contracts.

But while the Pentagon responded in March, neither Levin’s office nor DoD officials would release the answers (apart from a cover letter)  because the Pentagon opted to stamp them “For Official Use Only.”

At Federal Times’ request earlier this year, Levin specifically asked the Pentagon to drop the FOUO marking so the committee could make the full response public; the Defense Department instead said that it was not releasable ”’due to its contents,’” Tara Andringa, a  Levin spokeswoman, said in an email this month. Defense officials did permit release of the summary of the review team’s final report.

The report highlights four contributing causes and six root causes behind the program’s failure. One problem was getting “buy-in” from a user community fearful of how the ECSS would affect them personally. As time went on, the lack of effective change management got worse “because the lack of successful implementation signaled to the field that Expeditionary Combat Support System was not worth supporting,” the report says.

Management churn was routine:  The project went through five program executive officers in six years and six program managers in eight years. In addition, the ECSS logistics transformation office was staffed with term appointees, not permanent employees, leading to additional turnover. And the overall governance structure was flawed as well: The absence of “coherent leadership guidance” on meshing intermingled methodologies drove “needless delay, frustration, uncertainty and labor burden on the program office.”

That problem, the report says, “is not yet resolved.”

A year later, it’s also unclear where the Air Force stands in finding a way forward.

The ECSS was to be a key piece of the Defense Department’s drive to make its books fully auditable by a legally required deadline of September 2017. Because of scheduling issues, key officials were not available for an interview in recent days.

In written answers to questions, Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson said the Air Force still expects to meet both the 2017  target, as well as a preliminary deadline to produce an audit-ready statement of budgetary resources by the end of next September. Since the ECSS was cancelled, she said, the service is using a “building block approach” to deploying “new, improved transformational technologies.”

[This post has been updated to include new information from the Air Force]

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