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Air Force still finding its way on logistics modernization

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
A C-5M Galaxy transport plane undergoes maintenance at the Warner Robins Air Logistics complex in Georgia.
A C-5M Galaxy transport plane undergoes maintenance at the Warner Robins Air Logistics complex in Georgia. (Air Force)
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A year after ending a costly and high-stakes logistics modernization program, the Air Force claims some headway in adopting a “building block” approach to accomplish the program’s original goals.

But a daunting road still lies ahead.

Rather than create a wholly new framework along the lines of the now-canceled Expeditionary Combat Support System, the Air Force has laid out a four-stage incremental strategy that will rely heavily on upgrades to existing systems. Full implementation could be as much as a decade away, according to the current timetable.

The first stage — aimed at better managing depot workload — is already underway, Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson, the Air Force’s director for system integration, said in written responses to questions from Federal Times.

The goal then is to build up “foundational needs” to ensure that the new approach is working reliably, followed by expansion across the full range of field maintenance, she said. Similarly, improvements to supply-chain management will be rolled out gradually, progressing from wholesale orders to retail supply.

Among the weaknesses that need addressing, Johnson said, are inaccurate item data and getting the right part to the right place “at the right time.”

Because the Air Force is still figuring out what’s needed, no long-term budget is in place. Planned spending from fiscal 2013 money for software updates and other needs adds up to about $11 million, according to official figures.

By contrast, the Expeditionary Combat Support System had consumed more than $1 billion before Air Force leaders pulled the plug in November 2012. They made the decision after concluding that it would take another $1 billion to gain one-quarter of the capability the system was supposed to have, with fielding delayed until 2020.

Failed transformation

The ECSS also was supposed to be a keystone in the Pentagon’s campaign to have all of its books auditable by a congressionally mandated 2017 deadline.

Johnson said the Air Force still expects to reach that goal, but did not elaborate in her written answers. Because of scheduling issues, she was not available for an interview late last month.

The ECSS began ambitiously almost a decade ago with the aim of transforming Air Force logistics. That vision instead fell prey to muddled governance, ineffective change management and revolving-door leadership, according to the results of an internal inquiry completed earlier this year.

With the Pentagon’s consent, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recently provided a copy of the report’s executive summary to Federal Times.

Based on more than 100 interviews with people involved in the program, the findings highlight four contributing causes and six root causes behind the ECSS failure.

While the Air Force had originally wanted to use commercial off-the-shelf software, for example, what it got from Oracle needed customization and later affected the ability of Computer Sciences Corp., the prime contractor, to deliver on the job, the summary said.

Another problem was getting “buy-in” from a user community fearful of how the new system would affect them personally. As time went on, the absence of effective change management snowballed “because the lack of successful implementation signaled to the field that Expeditionary Combat Support System was not worth supporting,” the report said.

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,” the SASC report summary said.

That problem, the report summary said, “is not yet resolved.” But the ECSS wasn’t a complete waste, the review team concluded.

While Air Force Controller Jamie Morin said last year that the program had produced “negligible capability,” the review team instead concluded that much of the work can be reused.

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

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