I read with some amount of personal interest the Wall Street Journal
editorial “Solar Flare-out” regarding the $535 billion dollar taxpayer funded bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar manufacturing company, and especially the writers characterization of its failure as “politically directed investment”.
I worked as a software developer at the Naval Weapons Center (NWC) at China Lake, CA in the 1990s, and over a period of three years in the late 90s was an unwilling participant in what I have since labeled “politically directed development”.
Faced with the threat of a brand new replacement system for the “Top
Gun training system” which we supported, management at NWC and Naval Air Systems Command in D.C. decided to carve out the Input/Output segment as the exclusive domain of our NWC lab. This resulted in the development of a very expensive military/industrial style computer system (VME) intended to be the “standard” interface to the new replacement system. These interface computers were complex, expensive to the tune of the high tens of thousands of dollars each along with non recurring costs approaching a million dollars. They were totally
unnecessary, as the alternative solution consisted of cables costing on the order of $20 at Radio Shack, a little bit of software and a specialized PC card
costing several hundred dollars.
I fought this fiasco over the entire three years, and at one point was told to “shut up and sit down, this is a political decision!” The project ultimately failed, and we then developed the cable based system in short order.
This past year in I spoke at the Systems & Software Technology Conference
in Salt Lake City and presented this episode as a case study in failure. Along
with the expose’ I offered a method for mitigating such abuses in the future;
but I have scant hopes of it ever being implemented. You can view the pesentation as follows at SSTC:
* In your web browser go to: http://sstc-online.org
* Click on “PROCEEDINGS” in the menu below the blue
* Click on “2011: “Syncing-Up With Technology” under
the Proceedings list.
* Log in using Sstc11 as the
* Click on “Technical Tracks”.
* Click on “Monday 16 April 2011”
* Scroll down to Track 5 and click the item “(I) The Problem of Politically Driven System Development
Donald L Johnson, Retired Software
* View the presentation by clicking under” View Slides”
But the story does not end there. After leaving the NWC shortly after the
collapse of the misguided Politically Driven miss-adventure, I went back to the
original developer of the Top Gun system. Several years later, around 2005, the Navy and Air Force again set out to replace the Top Gun system, and Cubic was selected for the project (which has turned out to be successful). However, the NWC lab where I previously worked was inserted into the program as a sort of “technical liaison”. This gave them a new opportunity to carve out a piece of the action at the expense of the contractor, and also at the expense of system complexity and cost. The new carve out was a significant piece of electronic warfare simulation which had been developed in the mid 1980s and was an integrated part of the software baseline we used in developing the new Top Gun system. There were no compelling technical reasons for this carve out, but there were significant political and economic benefits to the NWC lab. Again, this carve out resulted in significant cost increases to the program and taxpayer. And note that these costs were not brought about due to contractor action, but rather by the Government.
To make matters worse, another political decision was made to introduce a
significant level of unnecessary interface complexity and cost in the interface
between the simulation package and the main body of the system. This interface.
TENA, while probably a worthy product in its own right was miss-applied to the new system. The basic interface requirement for these two systems was to pass
pertinent status and control information to one another; the interface was well
established going back to the mid 1980s. The TENA implementation converted this basic data to the the TENA language and transmitted it over a cable to another computer that was a whopping 6 feet away. Then at the receiving end of this cable, another TENA program retranslated the data back to the original format which was originated at the other end of the wire. This is akin to translating a simple English language conversation to Swahili and back to English using two Swahili translators so that the two English speakers can carry on a conversation across a table. The need was to communicate in English, not Swahili. Madness and wrong!
With this sort of “politically directed investment/development” seemingly prevalent at all levels of government, is it any wonder that we have massive debt and deficits?
There are many good and responsible civil servants out there, but it’s time to reform the Civil Service system and require real accountability from those holding the public trust and pocket book. Politicians,Program managers and Systems Engineers at Government organizations such as the White House, NavAir and NWC should be held accountable for such corruption, but as far as I can tell are not, resulting in much monetary abuse, the most egregious being programs such as Solyndra.
Sad to say, Solyndra is not alone.