TCS Daily

No STARS in Terror War

By Ken Adelman - May 1, 2002 12:00 AM

It's a new world out there for U.S. security, as most federal agencies have recognized since 9/11. Contrary to gibes at overblown bureaucracies, key government agencies like the FBI, FEMA, and Department of Treasury have risen to the occasion. They know our lives and liberties depend upon them - now more than ever.

Two key agencies, however, still just don't get it. One, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is paying the ultimate price as a result. Its mission is being split into two new, refurbished agencies.

The final blow to the soon-vanishing INS came six months to the day after Sept. 11, when the Florida flight school that trained two of the 19 terrorist hijackers received INS letters approving those student visas.

The president was hopping mad about the fiasco, and Congress and the public were similarly outraged. While the INS signaled approval of the dead terrorists, the administration and Congress signaled disapproval of that comatose agency, hence its demise.

This is fitting and proper, for no federal agency should receive our hard-earned taxpayers' millions if it will not adapt or become dedicated enough to protect us in this dangerous world.

The other federal agency that still doesn't get it, the Federal Aviation Administration, isn't being scuttled. It isn't even being criticized - much, in any case.

But it sure should be.

Not for the FAA's performance on 9/11 itself. Then air controllers performed professionally, even nobly, in the worst of situations.

No, the FAA's looming fiasco concerns its continuing failure to modernize some of its critical air traffic control systems - on which our air safety and daily convenience heavily depend. A handful of these programs are distinguished only by having record cost overruns and maddening delays.

Don't take my word for it. Take the word of the inspector general of the Department of Transportation, who supposedly oversees the FAA.

A few months ago, the IG's report informed Congress and the public that the major FAA programs to upgrade its satellite navigation and air traffic control systems - among the programs most critical to our safety and convenience - have a "long history of cost increases, schedule slippages, and vexing technical problems" resulting in the "systems [being] delayed by several years."

Take one critical FAA program, STARS. Its formal name is Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System -- bureaucratize for its mission to replace air-controller and maintenance workstations with new color displays, processors and computer software at nearly 200 FAA facilities.

More important to the national security is STARS's modernization plans for some 200 of our military facilities, upon which the lives of our troops depend.

The IG report tells that STARS' 10-year program is already years late and millions of dollars -- perhaps as much as a billion dollars -- over budget.

Congress was initially told that STARS would cost $940 million. Now, the best estimate is upwards of $1.6 billion. Even that may be a lowball, with the actual cost coming in at more than $2.2 billion, when - or if -- the program becomes operational.

I say "or if" intentionally because the IG report explains that "the complete deployment is now estimated to be nearly four years late." Then comes the kicker: even "deployment by 2008 under current cost and schedule estimates remains at risk."

So far, STARS has spent some $660 million, 65% of the initial cost estimate of the entire program. Yet it has deployed 4 - that's only 2% - of the terminal displays ordered for FAA's 173 non-military facilities.

Airports in Boston and Washington, D.C., were scheduled to receive STARS early on. Those plans have been scrapped due to STARS deficiencies. Philadelphia, whose airport is plagued with woefully out-dated hardware and software, will likely miss its November 2002 installation date, again due to critical problems.

Unlike the INS, the poor-performing FAA has not been the target of administration or congressional fervor. The chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, Congressman John Mica of Florida, says that trying to get responses on STARS poor performance is like "trying to get your hands around a greased pig. You think you've got your hands on it, but it slips away."

That's what congressional oversight is all about - getting your hands on a top-level program that is performing poorly, and making fundamental changes, rather than letting the irresponsibility continue.

Public outrage may be just around the corner. After 9/11, the FAA was given responsibility for a host of new programs to make our skies safe from terrorism. As the FAA tries to implement these new mandates, while working to ease the huge traffic congestion at our nation's airports, the public won't likely stomach throwing good money after bad on programs like STARS - plagued with cost overruns and delays.

While few credibly argue that the FAA should be privatized - it shouldn't -- continued problems with programs like STARS give critics all the ammunition they need for at least advocating a wholesale restructuring of the agency.

Ideally, the FAA can remake itself. After its current administrator, Jane Garvey, leaves in August (rumor has it to make a political career in Massachusetts), the new FAA administrator must force the agency to finally "get it."

A close reading of the IG report and thorough review of STARS would show a new seriousness and an opportunity to show true management responsibility. No program plagued with such poor performance, cost overruns and schedule delays should be allowed to continue in our post-9/11 world.

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