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Air Force tries again on logistics modernization

Simplicity will be key in effort

Jan. 25, 2014 - 01:47PM   |  
Johnson Shofner MWM 20140109
Air Force. Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson and Robert Shofner, a civilian executive, are leading the service's renewed logistics modernization effort (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Think smaller. Know your needs exactly and use government experts, not contractors, to figure them out. Try to avoid tinkering with commercial software.

Those are some of the principles guiding Air Force managers as they regroup from the cancellation of a costly logistics modernization project little more than a year ago.

“It isn’t going to be a panacea, one size fits all,” Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson, the Air Force director of system integration, said in a recent interview at her Pentagon office. “It’s going to be a series of different systems.”

Johnson is leading the effort to pick up the pieces following the demise of the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) program. That project, which was supposed to revolutionize Air Force logistics, was halted in late 2012 with more than $1 billion spent and little to show for it.

In a post-mortem last year, an Air Force review team highlighted a variety of causes for the program’s failure, including constant management turnover, software customization problems, and resistance from the “user community” worried about how the ECSS would affect their jobs.

Now, in place of the high-flown aspirations of the ECSS, the Air Force is proceeding incrementally in a building-block strategy, Johnson said. The first stage, aimed at overhauling depot management practices, is already under way.

Key to that effort is defining what the overhaul is intended to accomplish, a process known as setting requirements. In the ECSS program, the Air Force delegated much of that task to the prime contractor, Virginia-based Computer Sciences Corp. Now, the service is relying on in-house experts, Johnson said, in an exhaustive review that also seeks to “re-engineer” and standardize business practices from the ground up.

Traditionally, for example, Air Force depots in Utah, Oklahoma and Georgia have each had their own process for cleaning and inspecting parts, Johnson said. “Now, we are going to have one process for that.”

While acquisition is supposed to begin shortly, Johnson declined to discuss this year’s program budget because Congress had not yet approved a final appropriations bill at the time of the interview.

But lawmakers, who paid little attention as the ECSS project went awry, are watching more closely this time. Under the 2014 defense authorization act passed last month, spending for “logistics transformation” will be limited until the Air Force provides a detailed strategy on implementation of the review team’s recommendations, along with an overview of short-term options for modernizing or maintaining logistics information technology systems.

Among other lessons learned from the ECSS program: Make as few changes to “commercial off the shelf” software as possible, said Robert Shofner, the Air Force’s program executive officer for business and enterprise systems. While the Air Force had originally wanted to use commercial software for ECSS, what it got from the vendor needed customization and later affected CSC’s ability to deliver, the review found.

“You’re asking [computer] code to do something different from what it was originally designed,” Shofner said, with effects that can be hard to predict.

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