CALS Faces The Music Of Disaster

Critics: Program Is Out of Control, Without Oversight

Federal auditors and regulators are scrutinizing a 10-year-old Pentagon computer-buying program, saying they're afraid its tangle of conflicting initiatives, mismanagement and lost opportunity may have doomed its future.

The Continuous Acquisition and Life-Cycle Support program -- more popularly, CALS -- was meant to get rid of the tons of paper used in designing, building and maintaining weapons systems. Its mission, among others, was to streamline.

What auditors and inspectors general have found and documented in at least one recent report, however, is an almost complete lack of accountability.

Says a June 8 Department of Defense Inspector General's report: "We found no DoD mechanisms to capture or estimate cost savings associated with CALS and to use that information as incentives.

"The managers of programs currently using CALS digital data technology have identified neither long-term nor short-term benefits," says the report, yet to be circulated outside the Pentagon and key congressional committees.

To be fair, those kinds of reports often emerge during the course of huge computer initiatives. Many turn out to be partisan attempts to kill one program in favor of another.

But in CALS' case, investigators are discovering there truly may be cause for alarm: no one, from the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology on down, seems to know exactly what CALS is, how much has been spent on it, nor what the government really got for its investment.

In an interview with Washington Technology, Noel Longuemare, principal deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition and technology, would not say how much has been spent on the program, deferring to a pending General Accounting Office audit. Longuemare is the Pentagon's chief overseer of CALS."Based on experience to date, we expect major cost savings," he said.

This much seems accounted for: At least $1 billion has been spent on a mixed bag of computer systems spread across the armed services and Defense's depot centers. The billion-dollar figure is an estimate based on average spending of about $100 million per year on CALS technology. This estimate may in fact be conservative, at least if funding figures are extrapolated from one year -- fiscal year 1993 -- when proposed CALS funding was actually listed, program by program, as a line item in the Department of Defense's budget. That year 32 programs were listed as part of CALS, with a total allocation of $367 million.

Initiative, Strategy?

Over the years, the grab-bag of computer systems has been grouped under the general rubric CALS. Officials refer to it interchangeably as a "program," "initiative," or, most recently by one Pentagon higher-up, a "strategy."

That's a problem, noted the June 8 inspector general's report: "The distinction is important because the program managers we interviewed believe that, unlike a program, a strategy is optional."

But if the Pentagon doesn't know how much it has spent on CALS, how can it calculate an overall return on its investment? One official close to the program doubted the Pentagon could track money spent on CALS, given the almost complete lack of management for dozens of programs at one time or another lumped together under its name. Sometimes these programs have been funded by the Pentagon, but managed by the services. Often, CALS initiatives are funded through the operation and maintenance budgets at depot centers or weapons systems programs. For a time, CALS cash came from a revolving fund.

Congress itself has sometimes included funding for CALS programs as separate line items in the budget, sometimes not.

Spending without plans

How could a program appear so adrift? CALS was launched in the milk-and-honey years of the defense industry of the mid-1980s. With little demand for return on investment and dollars freely flowing, few took great pains to justify their spending plans. Most organizations that could wrap some type of computer modernization under the rubric of CALS got funding. Thus CALS programs, without any central management, sprung up at the separate services, depots, and logistics operations.

To the Defense Department's credit, it realized program management was seriously lacking, if not totally absent. The one thing CALS promised -- a kind of lingua franca for exchanging technical data -- was becoming all but impossible, as largely incompatible CALS systems proliferated.

By 1992, with the Pentagon's orders to create standard computer systems for all the services, a central organization at the Office of the Secretary of Defense -- now into its second director -- was created to provide direction.

But that office has in part fallen victim to the contentious politics of interservice rivalry -- not to mention nearly constant redefinition of its duties and authority. Right now, as far as can be told, no single entity has direct control over funding. Said Longuemare: "Funds release is coordinated among appropriate offices." That seems to include the Pentagon CALS Office, weapons systems program management offices, and the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Logistics, Gen. James Klugh.

A fourth reorganization

The Pentagon is now in the midst of reorganizing CALS a fourth time, said one source. No less than 13 organizations or individuals across the defense establishment are listed in a draft strategic plan released this April as responsible for leading the effort.

"If everyone is responsible, no one is," said one Pentagon official.

That realization already inspired the June 8 report from the Defense Department's Inspector General -- a report that has been essentially complete for a year. Research was finished by February 1993, and the report's release to the public has been delayed for months pending a draft CALS strategy issued in April -- more than two years behind schedule.

The draft document has not been approved, and within the Defense Department it has been criticized as vague and inadequate -- essentially a jargon-laden description of the status quo.

Meanwhile, investigators from the General Accounting Office are gathering evidence for their own study, at the behest of Ohio Democratic Sen. John Glenn, chairman of the powerful Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Good CALS intentions

The frustration with CALS is all the more painful given the initiative's promise. For example, the weight of supporting technical papers describing a Boeing 747 equals that of the actual plane. Finding critical maintenance data can often be impossible. And updating documents to reflect engineering changes can take months, if it gets done at all.

CALS would eliminate that sort of overhead and, ideally, the tragic errors associated with relying on paper to maintain complex systems. Data get created once, on a computer, and are available online from then on. Changes are instantly incorporated and available to the hundreds of personnel, subcontractors and prime contractors working on a system.

The technology to do this has been available for years. And most of the necessary international standards are in place.

The stumbling blocks arise elsewhere.

Consider the example of the perennially troubled C-17 transport aircraft. In the waning days of the Bush administration, the C-17 program was under the gun to save money. The contract contained a requirement to deliver all the drawings in a digital CALS format, a line item of work worth $850,000. In the short-term interest of saving money, or at least making the appearance of doing so, program managers decided to produce and deliver the drawings just on paper. Now, making them CALS-ready will cost $10 million to $20 million for images of those drawings, conversion to the proper digital format and storage on computer systems.

The incident embodies a myriad of typical Pentagon problems. For starters, program managers get credit for short-term savings, but will probably be gone before their actions might generate greater costs down the road.

No incentive

What makes the CALS office at the Pentagon particularly ineffective is its lack of any real power, budgetary or otherwise, to force major weapons systems programs -- of which there are about 100 -- to use CALS. "I'm more concerned with calling [use of CALS] implementation than compliance," said the Pentagon's Elaine Litman, civilian director of CALS and EDI.

This is perhaps the Defense Department's biggest barrier to applying and using information technology. Those who manage its development and deployment rarely have hands-on experience or knowledge of the people that will supposedly use it.

In Pentagon jargon, the CALS program managers are often separated from "functional" units that will use the technology -- and they often harbor little respect for each other.

Other examples of chaos abound. A program to create CALS Shared Resource Centers has been established around the country to help smaller manufacturing companies and contractors use the technology -- but for what, exactly, is not clear.

These centers, sometimes called manufacturing "extension agents" after offices of the same name set up by the Department of Agriculture, were recently transferred from the Air Force to the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Why this transfer was made has never been explained, and even those closely involved in CALS are baffled by the logic of the move -- although it likely has something to do with the movement to ARPA of Michael McGrath, one of the original CALS managers at the Pentagon.


But one thing is certain: Internal conflict between Defense fiefdoms won't help matters, particularly with budgets universally heading south. Pressures to eliminate some systems and replace them with the officially sanctioned CALS programs of the moment -- particularly one known as Joint-CALS, originally an Army-sponsored procurement -- have only embittered this constant skirmishing.

In this climate, it is perhaps predictable CALS programs tend to get delayed as a way of deferring hard decisions. This, in turn, further demoralizes those charged with resurrecting the effort. For instance, JCALS was awarded in January 1992, but it has not received final approval for deployment -- and won't until 1995 at the earliest.

Another, called JEDMICS, has fared better, largely because it had a 1989 start and has had more time to rally support across the services and politically.

Now the program is attempting to take advantage of JCALS delays to take over some of the latter's functions, said one source.

Along with prime contractor PRC Inc., which has hired Don Upson, a former staff member in the House Government Operations Committee, the JEDMICS people have apparently recruited Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, to come to their aid.

A possible reason for Glenn's support of JEDMICS? The program is favored by Klugh, deputy undersecretary of defense for logistics, who runs logistics operations in Glenn's state. His higher profile in managing CALS could help preserve and even create jobs in Ohio -- although it is not clear if that will do much, if anything, to get CALS back on track.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above.

WT Daily

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.