Airmen conduct cyber operations in support of the command and control of Air Force network operations. (Air Force)
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The Air Force is back on track with an innovative contract initiative that it hopes will soften budget pain in the coming years, after being delayed by two bid protests.
Under the service’s Network-Centric Solutions-2 contracting vehicle, IT managers will be able to choose from a preapproved list of commercial routers, electronics and networking software. Up to $6.9 billion in task orders were supposed to be spread among the winners of the competition held last year.
The program hit a snag in April when 14 vendors protested the Air Force’s contract award to eight vendors — the second protest of the contract in a year. The service responded by revetting all products proposed by each offer to make sure their products come from approved sources.
On Sept. 5, the service announced eight of the 14 vendors that filed protests were added to the contract award. None of the previous eight companies was deleted from the contract award, bringing the total number of companies approved to compete for task orders to 16.
The protests and “an increase in recent cyberattacks occurring within the defense industry” prompted the “intensive review of the availability and origin of the products” offered by each competitor under Netcents-2, the service explained in a statement. The Air Force hasn’t said which of the winning contractors and products it wasconcerned about and precisely why.
But in general, U.S. information security experts fear that foreign governments could tweak components to unleash malware from their microchip layers or to steal data from sensitive U.S. computers. Less dramatically, but maybe just as importantly, products from unapproved sources could turn out to be less reliable than advertised.
The Air Force plans to cut IT costs in the long run by assembling high-volume, commoditized commercial hardware and software into a common networking infrastructure of servers, data centers and online applications.
“We’re taking advantage of the marketplace to reduce the cost for those components,” said Tim Rudolph, the Air Force’s senior leader for integrated information capabilities. “The other major objective is to not have a unique infrastructure for every application.”
In the Air Force’s vision, airmen would be linked by fiber-optic cables to far-off data centers, cloud services and applications.
“We have to see how we can leverage commercial capabilities to reduce the costs and footprint for data centers. Some bases might no longer have data centers at all,” Rudolph said.
The first applications to be wrapped in would be business management tools for handling things such as personnel data and logistics.
Eventually, command-and-control and intelligence apps would be included, but only in locations where connectivity permits it.
“Some of our war fighters are in areas with disadvantaged or limited communications, so there may be a need to still host parts of applications locally,” Rudolph said. “That fiber-optic cable in the sky may be severed or the bandwidth is insufficient.”
Netcents-2 is supposed to provide the nuts and bolts for this initiative.
“There are a series of data center modernizations and consolidations, and the [Netcents-2 products] vehicle could be used to support that activity,” Rudolph said. “It’s hypothetical since those aspects aren’t fully awarded, but that was part of the intent of expanding the scope of the Netcents-2 contract over the Netcents-1 contract.”
Netcents is the Air Force’s contribution to the Defense Department’s broader IT modernization effort.
Just as in the intelligence community, the Pentagon is counting on investments in IT modernization to soften the budget pain down the road. The Netcents-2 delay has complicated the Air Force’s modernization work, but it has not stopped it. The previous contract vehicle, called Netcents-1, is unaffected, as are other elements of Netcents designed to deliver the online applications.
No one’s ready to give up on indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracting vehicles like Netcents-2. Once an ID/IQ vehicle is in place, it’s faster and more efficient for the government because multiple suppliers are approved at once.
“It’s an effective manner for the Air Force to increase competition and decrease the timeline to get capabilities to the field,” said Mike Twyman, vice president and general manager of the Defense Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Information Systems. It can take up to three years to conduct a traditional competition, but once an ID/IQ vehicle is in place, task orders can be awarded within a few months, said Twyman, whose company has other Netcents work underway.
Judging by the Air Force statement, the service is not giving up on Netcents-2 by any stretch: “The Netcentric Products contract will provide the Air Force with a full range of innovative, competitively priced, world-class netcentric IT products to support the full spectrum of netcentric operations and missions.”
During the contract delay, the Air Force found two workarounds to keep the modernization effort from stalling.
“To support these requirements in the interim, the Netcents-1 contract is still available for use,” the Air Force noted in the statement.
On top of that, Rudolph said the Defense Information Systems Agency and other agencies are helping out.
“DISA has contracts with different vendors that provide capabilities that we can use,” Rudolph said. “There are other common contracts that are available through different federal agencies that we can also order off of in advance of having our own contract.”
Faster 'C and A'
Rudolph is a big believer in the modernization initiative, the ID/IQ approach and cloud computing for users who have the connectivity required for it. Getting started is the hardest part.
“It becomes a hurdle to basically get the momentum going in a particular area, because there are some sunk costs, but ultimately the overall payoff is significant,” he said.
Money and technologies aren’t the only issues, though.
“Interestingly enough, the ‘T’ for technology is the easy part. Probably the biggest challenge we have is changing the business model that we use in interacting with providers to us, and how we offer that infrastructure back to other [program executive officers] and programs,” Rudolph said.
A major goal is to speed up certification and accreditation — the “C and A” — of networks and products. Traditionally, whenever an Air Force office submitted a network or product for security certification and accreditation, the designers of that system had their own way of handling security.
The security approach was assessed individually for each network or product. It was added late in the development and acquisition process, almost as an afterthought.
“Because of certification and accreditation, there is a time lag associated with getting capabilities into the field,” Rudolph said.
The Air Force wants to end the approach of one-off security solutions and move to standard processes.
Ultimately, the Air Force and the other services are supposed to tap common applications residing in a single, Defense Department-wide computing infrastructure called the Joint Information Environment.
The Air Force is being mindful of JIE as it works through the Netcents-2 issue to keep modernization moving forward.
“We ultimately want to be able to directly migrate applications, or rationalize applications, into JIE,” Rudolph said. “It wouldn’t make sense for the Air Force to do a temporary, expensive migration. We would try to migrate to the full JIE directly.”
This article first appeared in the September issue of C4ISR & Networks. Iannotta is the founder and editor of www.deepdiveintel.com.
Nicole Blake Johnson contributed to this report.