Uncle Sam's Dumbest Tech Buys

Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI)

Final cost: $8.8 billion (as of 2009)

Who's responsible: Electronic Data Systems, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps

When the Department of the Navy's contract for the Navy-Marine Corps Internet (NMCI) expired on September 30 of this year, it marked the end a decade of poorly managed enterprise software development that cost taxpayers more than $8.8 billion dollars and the CEO of a large technology firm his job. It was one of the military's biggest tech blunders ever.

Envisioned as a massive, enterprise-level IT network, NMCI began with some lofty goals. Not only would the network provide broadband access and secure communications to U.S. Naval facilities around the world, but also it would give IT managers the ability to manage and handle software licensing and desktop and laptop installations remotely.

Unfortunately, the Navy and EDS, the prime contractor for the project, severely underestimated the scope of the planned network. Originally envisioned to serve 300,000 Navy and Marine personnel, NMCI eventually encompassed a network of 700,000 systems--but not without some serious growing pains, including (once again) security issues. EDS's CEO Richard Brown was shown the door in March 2003, after cost overruns and problems contributed to a drop of EDS's stock price from $63 per share in March 2002 to $15 per share when Brown departed.

Counterfeit Computer Chips

Final cost: unknown

Who's responsible: Disreputable chip suppliers

During wartime, shortages of critical spare parts can cost lives. Unfortunately for many military contractors, a significant number of highly sophisticated counterfeit electronic components--such as specialized computer chips--have infiltrated the supply chain.

Late last month, federal agents raided VisionTech Components, a Clearwater, Florida supplier of computer chips, arresting its owner Shannon Wren on charges of fraud and of trafficking in counterfeit merchandise. The chips sold by VisionTech allegedly went to military contractors BAE Systems and Alstom, according to the indictment, and were intended for installation into handheld geiger counters and missile systems.

Also in the past year, Mustafa Aljaff and Neil Felahy, were indicted in California for selling more than 13,000 counterfeit semiconductors and processors to the U.S. Navy. In both instances, virtually all of the counterfeits originated in China.

But the problem appears to be more widespread than these two examples suggest. A GAO report warns that several military branches have had close calls with faulty chips (later determined to be counterfeit) sold for use in military aircraft, communications systems, and medical devices. Customs and Border Protection reports claim that the agency has seized more than 5.6 million counterfeit chips since 2007, and the Department of Commerce has received thousands of reports of counterfeit chips ending up in the hands of government agencies and contractors. The problem is compounded by the fact that the counterfeits are so difficult to detect.

FBI's Virtual Case File System

Final cost: $170 million

Who's responsible: FBI, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)

The FBI handles huge amounts of paperwork and evidence in the course of investigating criminal cases. The bureau's Virtual Case File program, begun in 2001, attempted to ease the tracking of cases by pulling together, in electronic form, as much of the casework as possible.

But after four years of development--with $170 million spent and not a single component of the system finished--the FBI decided to scrap the Virtual Case File.

California's Decertified Electronic Voting Machines

Final cost: unknown, probably in the millions of dollars

Who's responsible: manufacturers of noncertifiable voting machines

Okay this isn't a federal government fiasco, but it does involve the most populous state in the nation. Technology advocates claimed a huge victory in February 2008, when California's secretary of state officially decertified thousands of electronic voting machines. In one county alone (Riverside, near Los Angeles), all 3700 e-voting machines were taken offline a few days before the presidential Super Tuesday primary of that year.

The e-voting system was dogged by allegations that the machines could too easily conceal mistakes or deliberate code changes that would make valid recounts impossible, though the machines' manufacturers resisted calls from security experts to solve the recount problem. But for the California counties that bought the machines, the cost remains a sore point that resurfaces every two years during primaries and elections.

FAA's NextGen Air-Traffic Control System

Final cost: expected to be between $15 billion and $22 billion by 2025

Who's responsible: Federal Aviation Administration, Metron Aviation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boeing, CSSI, General Dynamics, and ITT

Would it concern you to find out that, as planes approach some of the nation's busiest airports, air traffic controllers periodically lose all radar tracking and have to switch hastily to a system involving paper, pens, and the controller's persistence of vision and memory, lest planes crash into one another during approach or takeoff?

It certainly is an issue for the FAA, which manages the air-traffic control system in the United States. And yet the agency's planned update to the air-traffic control system is not expected to come online for at least two years.

(Click the thumbnail for a closer look at the FAA's NextGen air-traffic control system.)

Named NextGen, the system is, in the words of an FAA spokesman, "a portfolio of separate stand-alone products" designed to help planes fly closer together in an attempt to save on fuel costs and reduce waiting times in the air and on the ground. Each separate, stand-alone product has to be custom built, however, and the FAA is not exactly a model agency when it comes to technology integration. The whole thing is scary enough to make me think seriously about sticking to the rails, the roads, and the high seas.

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