US Air Force mulling changes as major ERP project stumbles

The U.S. Air Force is close to making decisions on the future of a sprawling Oracle ERP (enterprise-resource-planning) project that is supposed to remake the military branch’s worldwide supply chain, according to a recently released document.

The Expeditionary Combat Support System project stems to 2005, when Oracle Corp. won an US$88.5 million software contract, beating out SAP AG and other rivals. It will replace 240 legacy systems and more than 500 interfaces.

“Unfortunately, the development and implementation of ECSS have lagged,” Air Force Deputy Chief Management Officer David Tillotson said in testimony last week before the House Armed Services Committee.

Along with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Air Force is “now engaged in strategic reassessment of the overall program,” Tillotson said.

The joint team “will make recommendations on the way ahead for this program … by December 2011, and we will make appropriate program changes immediately following that review,” Tillotson added. “Alternatives under consideration include building on the current ERP software, leveraging other service/Defense Agency solutions, and/or modifying legacy capability.”

ECSS’ total cost will be far more than the $88.5 million awarded to Oracle, given the amount of systems integration work required. Its total estimated lifecycle costs ballooned from an original $3 billion to $5.2 billion, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last year.

Its schedule has also morphed from three to four phases and it is now estimated to be fully deployed in 2016, “a slippage of at least four years,” the GAO said.

An Air Force spokesman didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment on the project, including the question of whether scrapping it entirely is one outcome under consideration. Systems integrator CSC and Oracle did not respond to requests for comment.

Organizations don’t embark on ERP upgrades in hopes of wasting money, however. Indeed, the Air Force expects billions in savings over the years once the ECSS project is complete.

But projects like ECSS are disasters in waiting, according to one expert.

“The size and scope of government IT projects is staggering and failure rates are high,” said Michael Krigsman, CEO of Asuret, a consulting firm that helps companies run successful IT implementations. “Then you take massive projects combined with the intense politics and information silos in the government,” as well as the politics of dealing with various enterprise vendors during the procurement phase, he added.

However, while the expected costs of the project have nearly doubled, “merely having an increased cost does not in and of itself mean that it’s a bad project,” he said. “You have to look at what the cost increase is, and the reason for that cost increase. Did the project change midstream because there was some substantial change in scope?”

Those changes could come from any place, including customer requests or a realization later on of the project’s true complexity, he said.

In addition, systems integrators “feel tremendous pressure to keep their prices low during the bidding process,” and tend to submit the “cheapest defensible” offer that will enable them to meet minimum project requirements and still win the bid,” he said. “The bid up front later turns out to be apparent guesswork.”

Air Force officials are clearly eager to see ECSS be a success, but have their work cut out for them, according to a October 2010 posting to the website Air Force Enlisted Forums by a user who said he attended a pre-rollout briefing on ECSS.

“The briefing was not a highly publicized affair, and only about 30 people showed up from the entire base. Most people showed up through word-of-mouth invitation only, and others were ‘voluntold’ to show up,” the poster wrote.

It began with a slickly produced introduction video packed with testimonials from Air Force members who had tried out a pilot version of ECSS. “When I came to, I found myself chuckling at its infomercial-esque propaganda,” the poster wrote. “My interest peaked as the speaker got on the stage for a Power Point presentation, and I was curious more than ever to find out why the Air Force was making such an overt attempt to sell ECSS. As the speaker went on about the vision, goal, and time line of ECSS, I realized the magnitude of the project. The Air Force was getting a heart transplant!”

“The speaker opened the floor for questions,” the poster added. “The moment of truth was here. End user specific questions, from tool crib custodian, supply warehouse grunt, tech-savvy COMM CSA, etc., were unsuccessfully answered. It was a sorry sight. If the preparation level of the speaker was any indication, ECSS was still only at its concept stage! And this was supposed to roll out in 2 years?!?!”

While there is no doubt the Air Force would benefit from an upgraded logistics system, “I am now a firm skeptic of ECSS,” the post adds.

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