As the Air Force’s massive Network-Centric Solutions (NetCents) contracting vehicle rapidly approaches its end, the Air Force is preparing a follow-on program to continue the services’ drive toward a more standards-based network infrastructure.

NetCents, as its name suggests, supports network-centric operations through the acquisition of commercial information technologies; networking equipment and services; and voice, video and data communications hardware and software.

The Air Force has used NetCents exclusively for networking and IT products and service requirements. The other military services, in addition to the Defense Information Systems Agency, also have made acquisitions through NetCents.

The first NetCents contract, which will expire this year, was awarded to eight prime contractors, four of them small businesses. All of the contractors, together with their teams of subcontractors, were entitled to compete for task orders issued under the contract. This contracting scheme will be changing significantly under the new contract, in which eight separate contracts will be awarded to dozens of prime contractors.

The NetCents-2 acquisition strategy calls for eight separate procurements, two products-related contract vehicles and six solutions vehicles, each with multiple contract awards. Of these, four contracts will be set aside for small businesses, one for products and three for solutions.

The scope of the contract also will shift. Other Air Force and non-Air Force net-centric programs, such as the Distributed Common Ground System, will likely be incorporated in NetCents. In addition, there will be more emphasis on acquiring the services necessary to establish and maintain service-oriented architectures. This shift reflects the continued reliance on SOAs to inject greater network centricity into military information systems.

“The requirements for NetCents-2 encompass the current requirements for net-centric products and services,” said Debra Foster, the Air Force’s NetCents-2 program manager. NetCents-2 will also include advisory and assistance services, biometrics, and SOA-type services, such as Web, metadata, and data and content delivery services, she said.

Another of the primary objectives of NetCents-2 will be “to provide the Air Force with a wide range of hardware and software tools to support, interconnect and enhance the Air Force's highly complex and critical command-and-control operations as well as its cyber mission,” Foster said.

The NetCents-2 contracts, which will be awarded in May, are likely to provide greater direct opportunities for small businesses.

“In NetCents-2, the functional areas will be split up, so customers can start doling out pieces directly to small business,” said Bill Schuhle, NetCents program manager at Lockheed Martin. “When task orders involve enterprise work, the contractor must have very broad capabilities and has to be pretty large to handle it. When the projects are smaller, small businesses are better able to cover the whole gamut.”

Stiff competition

The NetCents program office has awarded thousands of task orders totaling more than $4.5 billion through eight prime contractors since the program was inaugurated in 2004. “Because of the NetCents contract, the Air Force has made progress toward a more standardized net-centric infrastructure,” said John Taylor, the NetCents program manager, based at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala. “We will continue to do so with the expanded capabilities that NetCents-2 contracts will bring in fiscal year 2010.”

“The NetCents contract is the mandatory source for communications capabilities procured to satisfy Air Force appropriated fund requirements for products and services associated with the design, engineering, integration, installation and configuration of Air Force networks and networked infrastructure,” Taylor said. “NetCents enables the Air Force, DOD and other federal agencies to effectively and efficiently integrate and implement [commercial] net-centric solutions worldwide, paving the way for convergence by installing and upgrading switches and providing savings by way of efficiency [and] discounts, with the right mix of prime [contractors] and subcontractors.”

The Air Force, including the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, not surprisingly gobbled up the lion’s share of dollars and task orders. Sixty-eight percent of the dollars spent, or $3.1 billion, and 84 percent of the task orders went to those activities.

But the other military services also made substantial use of the vehicle. The Army procured $493 million in goods and services, 11 percent of the total dollars spent, the Navy spent $317 million, or 7 percent of the total, and DISA consumed $199 million, or 4 percent of the total.

NetCents appears to have succeeded in spurring competition among the eight prime contractors — Centech Group, Multimax, Northrop Grumman Information Technology, NCI Information Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics Network Systems, Lockheed Martin and Telos — leading to pricing discounts that benefit the contract users.

“There was less competition when NetCents first started,” Lockheed Martin’s Schuhle said. “That has increased as we have gone forward. Pricing is often very competitive and aggressive. Customers are getting some good bang for the buck.”

Lockheed Martin was compelled to modify its original approach to NetCents to reap the full benefits of its contract. “We had originally anticipated NetCents to involve more products than integrated solutions,” Schuhle said. “We had to strengthen our team by bringing in additional players to help us compete. As a result, we have seen our business under NetCents significantly increase in the last year and a half to two years. It started out a little slow.”

Contractors like Lockheed Martin that were able to field a broad array of capabilities did well under NetCents. “We did quite well with both product and services offerings,” said Sharon Muzik, who manages NetCents for Booz Allen at its office in Dayton, Ohio.

“We did a lot of IT installations on Air Force bases,” she said. “This was not necessarily our product as much as our engineering services. Many of our tasks orders involved providing engineering to help the Air Force strengthen and standardize its network infrastructure. We were also involved in some leading-edge work on service-oriented architectures, especially for DISA.”

SOA refers to an approach toward the development of software capabilities through the integration of loosely coupled, reusable components. SOA promotes interoperability among systems and the multiplication of capabilities. As such, it is an emerging and important part of the net-centric environment, Muzik said.

Many of Lockheed Martin’s task orders related to sustaining and upgrading telephone systems. “Our group has done a lot of telephony work in terms of enterprise engineering and in the sustainment of existing system,” Schuhle said.

This work included the design and installation of systems at three different naval bases: Point Magu, Port Hueneme, and San Nicolas Island, all in California.

Telos posted more than $230 million in new NetCents sales in fiscal 2008, winning the most contracting dollars of any of the program’s eight prime contractors.

“One of the largest was a wireless node order for the Army with a value of more than $50 million,” said Charisse Stokes, Telos’ NetCents program manager. “There were also multiple orders for [information transport system] work for the Air National Guard, and a number of wireless orders for the Air Force.”

The Air National Guard project, a $115 million task order, involved providing a wireless network communications infrastructure on 96 different flight lines that facilitate aircraft maintenance, said Ralph Buona, senior vice president of the Telos Managed Solutions unit.

“We acquired and integrated all of the products involved in this project at our headquarters and then shipped out the total solution to the guard bases," he said. "We managed the installation and performed all of the testing, certification and accreditation of the systems to ensure that security is robust and that the network can’t be penetrated. We also trained the end customers on how to use the systems.”

Telos has focused on providing enterprise level solutions under the NetCents contract, Buona said.

One of Telos’ most recent NetCents task orders was awarded in December 2008. The one-year, $13 million task order from the Army Information Technology Agency called for Telos to provide support for the Defense Message System at the Pentagon Telecommunications Center. Under the task order, Telos will integrate and operate a single, integrated system at three security levels and will operate a DMS customer service organization.

Ready, willing and able

The experience of prime contractor Harris illustrates the variety of task orders that have been issued under NetCents. Harris acquired Multimax, a small-business NetCents contractor, in June 2007 and since then has been competing as a large business.

At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and at the naval installation on Santa Rosa Island, Calif., Harris designed and installed a storm-resistant, fiber-optic cable communications system, said John Heller, the company’s vice president for Defense Department programs. “Santa Rosa Island sits out in the ocean and is subject to water surges,” he said. “The system we installed was buried deep underground in order to protect it from that contingency.”

Harris also provided network design and engineering services to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and network refresh services to 14 overseas Navy locations. “Some of those systems don’t have latest upgrades for security,” Heller said, referring to the Navy project, “nor the ability to add on additional services and new equipment that might enable them to expand the type of things they can do with the network.” The project involved installing new Cisco Systems routers and servers.

In contrast, Harris also was contracted by the Army through NetCents to provide IT support to the service’s dental clinics. The contract involved providing basic support to the systems used by the clinics, Heller said.

One of the benefits NetCents has provided to its contractors has been access to new sets of customers and programs. “We have grown tremendously amongst non-Air Force customers,” Telos’ Stokes said. “In addition, we’ve strengthened our information assurance practice across the Air Force and are providing extensive support to a variety of Air Force customers that were not initially in our portfolio.”

From the Air Force’s perspective, NetCents has been instrumental in its program of net-centric transformation, Taylor said. “Much of the work under NetCents has helped to globally interconnect the network environment, ensure timely and seamless sharing of data among users, and helped shorten decision-making cycles,” he said.