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MoD system: 'unmitigated disaster'

By Julian Rush

Updated on 15 November 2007

A Channel 4 News / Computer Weekly exclusive reveals serious problems at the heart of a multi-billion pound Ministry of Defence computer system.

First there was the NHS computer system. Then the Child Support Agency, the tax credit system and the Passport Office. Now Channel 4 News can reveal another government IT project has hit major problems.

Over £4bn is being spent on a huge new defence computer system designed to help Britain's troops operate more effectively in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the globe.

But a joint investigation by Channel 4 News and Computer Weekly magazine has uncovered internal emails from civil servants describing parts of the system as "an unmitigated disaster" and "not fit for purpose".

Julian Rush has his exclusive report:


For the last three months, Channel 4 News has been investigating disturbing claims this has become the latest government IT fiasco.

It is designed to bring the military into the digital age. A single, secure, defence computer system, connecting battlefield to barracks. The aim: greater efficiency for the armed forces.

Efficient logistics for things like ordering boots for soldiers in the front line, fast and efficient 21st century data links for communications between units and their headquarters.

For the last three months, Channel 4 News has been investigating disturbing claims this has become the latest government IT fiasco.

It's behind schedule; there are claims that much of it doesn't work and there are questions too over whether the tax-payer is getting value for money.

The Defence Information Infrastructure is the largest single government IT contract ever awarded - originally worth over £4bn over ten years. In March 2005, the MOD gave the contract to a consortium of computer firms called Atlas.

It's led by a company familiar from past government computer scandals: EDS - the firm at the centre of the Child Support Agency and tax credit disasters.


Another email says bluntly, DII is nothing short of "an unmitigated disaster

So what's been going wrong?

Civil servants working with DII have been so alarmed they have spoken out to their union.

They reported a number of serious problems that they claimed jeopardised their ability to support troops in the front line.

"Our members are very unhappy about failing systems because of course they want to do the job. They're passionate about supporting the MoD and supporting our troops in the front line.

"The failures are across the range. They can include things like the system being too slow, it actually not working, things that have been promised haven't materialised actually meaning that it's very difficult to do their job." - Mark Serwotka, General Secretary PCS Union

Abbey Wood is the MoD centre for purchasing all the armed forces supplies, from toilet rolls to tanks. It is the first major defence site to get DII, and staff here are not happy.

We've seen internal emails that complain that DII has meant they've gone for several weeks unable to email their suppliers; of their fears that if equipment was to fail on operations they'd be unable to respond.

That from the team supporting the Army's new Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket System, shortly after it had first been fired in anger in July in Afghanistan. DII, they said, was not fit for purpose.

Another email says bluntly, DII is nothing short of "an unmitigated disaster".

In response, senior managers at Abbey Wood admitted the problems had meant the roll-out had almost stopped on a number of occasions.

Even the most senior officer in charge of military supplies has conceded DII has experienced severe difficulties.

Just last month, in an Open Letter to his project team leaders, General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue wrote: "As with all major IT roll-outs we have experienced major problems"

And he went on: "These initial problems are frustrating..."

"There are challenges around changing the way things are done. We dropped the ball we should have left another dozen people around for a little longer to help people bed in those new systems.

"And the latest feedback we have from Abbey Wood is that that situation is stabilised and out client is content with the way were handling that." - Bill Thomas, Executive Vice President Europe, EDS


The MOD has admitted to us the plans for implementing DII have changed no less than 22 times

Delays on roll out

The first increment or phase of the computer contract started in March last year but Channel 4 News has learnt there have been delays.

The first phase of the DII was meant to roll out 70,000 computer terminals on to the new system - and all by the end of March this year.

But we've seen internal figures that show that at the end of July - three months past that deadline - just 6,000 terminals had been connected, less than a tenth of what had been planned.

The MoD has admitted to us the plans for implementing DII have changed no less than 22 times. And Channel 4 News has seen evidence suggesting the project is now some eighteen months behind schedule.

Atlas admits the delay, but they say the problems are behind them.

"The schedule for the programme has changed. And its changed because it's been re-prioritised. And it's changed because we've suffered some delay.

"We've learned things. Like we need a much more flexible lead time to implement systems on sites, to cope with the amount of change that was hitting the Ministry of Defence. Things like fighting two wars." - Bill Thomas


Unfortunately the people who suffer are the taxpayer, MoD people who want to do their job and can't, and potentially our front-line military personnel
- Mark Serwotka, General Secretary PCS Union

A final twist?

Ministers have always referred to the cost of the DII contract as around £4bn. But our investigation has discovered that Ministry of Defence figures now refer to an overall cost of over £5bn.

When we put this to the MoD they denied any budget increase. The £5bn figure, they said, reflected an accounting change. The extra billion came from additional, notional costs for depreciation and cost of capital.

The contract with Atlas, they insisted, remains on budget.

"I don't recognise that as the overall... as a cost increase. The MoD is in a position where, the DII as a whole, the cost increase is actually around 2 to 2.5 per cent." - John Taylor, MoD Director General, Information

"They don't appear to have learned from previous government failings in IT, like the Child Support Agency for example. None of those lessons appear to have been learned.

"Unfortunately the people who suffer are the taxpayer, MoD people who want to do their job and can't, and potentially our front-line military personnel." - Mark Serwotka

MoD officials and the Atlas consortium both insist lessons have been learned and lives have not been put at risk. But no minister volunteered to Parliament or the public the problems we have exposed.

Given the scale and cost and importance to the military of DII - the MOD can now expect calls for greater scrutiny from MPs.

MOD statement

"Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) is one of the largest and most complex IT programmes in Europe. DII will greatly improve information between headquarters, battlefield support and the troops on the ground, allowing better communication across the Defence community.

The programme has overcome a number of obstacles during the early stages of roll-out. The benefits and efficiencies of DII are being delivered; roll-out has improved significantly and is now consistently delivering 3-4,000 terminals per month with 50,000+ users benefiting.

Costs have been tightly controlled and the contracted programme remains within 3 per cent of the original budget. Lessons have been learnt from both the MoD and ATLAS perspective to ensure the process is more effective on future sites."

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