Military IT projects wracked with delays, higher costs, GAO finds

The Government Accountability Office says only three of 14 large projects surveyed are fully on track

A U.S. government watchdog agency has found that nearly half of 14 large ongoing military IT projects are over budget and more than half are behind schedule.

The Government Accountability Office's recently released report focused on 14 of the 48 so-called MAIS (major automated information systems) projects being conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense. At least US$5.6 billion was earmarked for these projects in 2011, out of the total $36.6 billion military IT budget, according to the report.

In order to be part of the MAIS group, a project's total lifecycle cost must be greater than $378 billion, according to the GAO.

Nine of the 14 projects surveyed in the report had lower lifecycle costs than initially estimated. This was partly due to lower-than-expected contract costs but also other factors, such as budget cuts, the transfer of costs to other programs, and "significant reductions in scope or functionality," according to the report.

Also, while the expected lifeycle cost for an Air Force project held steady at $1.4 billion, that benchmark had only been set in February 2012, after some nine years and $334 million in spending, the GAO said.

The remaining five MAIS programs discussed in the report are experiencing lifecycle cost increases ranging from 3 to 578 percent, according to the GAO.

The latter percentage regards a program at the Navy, which was originally estimated to cost $347 million, a figure that ballooned to $2.4 billion in September 2012. "Program officials attributed the cost increase to the addition of new requirements for two additional Navy command and support centers, which also required the development of additional systems, and related costs that were added to the program in 2002," the report states.

The Air Force's Expeditionary Combat Support System had a relatively minor estimated cost hike, from $3 billion in 2005 to $3.2 billion as of February 2011, but due to a variety of problems the Air Force recently decided to scrap the project altogether.

Meanwhile, only five of the 14 MAIS programs examined remained on schedule, with nine experiencing delays from a handful of months up to 10 years, according to the report.

Just three of the 14 programs hit their planned cost, schedule and system performance thresholds, the GAO said. Even so, these projects "demonstrated mixed results in effectively defining and managing risks of various levels," the GAO said.

The report's findings will no doubt be familiar albeit foreboding music for Capitol Hill lawmakers, who of late have been agitating against wasteful government IT spending and calling for reforms.

Lawmakers have estimated that as much as 25 percent of the $80 billion spent by the U.S. on IT each year goes to waste.

U.S. military IT projects face a particularly dire set of risks, given their sheer size as well as the vast and far-flung user base they must serve.

But even with "flawless execution" multiyear projects such as those in the MAIS group "still face the prospect of being at least partially outdated by completion," said analyst Michael Krigsman , CEO of consulting firm Asuret, via email. "Therefore, the government should also find ways to reduce the scope of its projects by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable components," Krigsman added.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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