Air Force takes a look at the big IT picture

In a memo to Army buyers, CIO John Gilligan noted that 'the overwhelming consensus is that the AF should minimize the number of separate commercial system solutions that must be integrated.'

The Air Force is in a hurry.

The service is hustling to consolidate purchases of commodity IT products and to streamline and integrate the myriad activities that support air operations.

'We need to treat logistical support in the same way we treat operations themselves,' Gen. Gregory Martin told civilian and uniformed software buyers and developers at the recent Air Force IT Conference in Montgomery, Ala.

The commander of the Air Force Materiel Command vowed to reorganize 'the whole command chain' under the Operational Support Modernization Program.

Jobs and subcommands are being realigned, and what and how the Air Force buys are changing'all with the overarching goal of creating a support group that can give air personnel and commanders a common view of their battlespace.

Common goals

On the organization front, the brass want to make sure acquisition and program managers operate from the same set of assumptions and goals. On the buying front, top officials see a growing role for the Air Force Commodity Council and an emphasis on enterprise resource planning.

In a July policy memorandum, CIO John Gilligan and warfighting integration director Lt. Gen. William T. Hobbins spelled out the service's plans for a preferred ERP system to be used throughout the Air Force.

'Based on industry experiences, the overwhelming consensus is that the AF should minimize the number of separate commercial system solutions that must be integrated' to support the Air Force's enterprise approach.

A single-vendor approach 'will assist the Air Force in achieving effective and integrated operational support functions,' the memo said, adding, 'We must quickly select an ERP product and make it available for use by modernization programs across the full range of our operational support domains.'

Gilligan and Hobbins asked domain executives for their views on what that specific product suite should be, while making it clear that use of the chosen one will be mandatory.

'Time is of the essence,' the memo stated, because some units are already choosing their own ERP products with 2004 dollars.

As of early this month, the Air Force hadn't selected its ERP vendor, but Kenneth Heitkamp, Gilligan's deputy CIO for life-cycle management, said there will be a contract vehicle created for Air Force users to buy the ERP software.

Although several PC vendors have privately expressed dismay with the Commodity Council, the group has secured impressively low prices for its quarterly volume buys. The Air Force has been a PC-acquisition innovator since the days of its Desktop series of indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, instead of winner-take-all IDIQ contracts lasting several years, the Commodity Council approach pits multiple vendors against one another during the quarterly buys.

An executive with one PC supplier said the service's relentless drive for low prices makes the quarterly buys seem like reverse auctions. Like it or not, the council will embark on a similar tactic for digital imaging products'printers, fax machines, copiers and scanners.

Lt. Col. Tom Gaylord, deputy director of the Commodity Council, said the Air Force 'could drive 10 percent to 30 percent of the cost out of imaging ... by rightsizing, standardizing on fewer devices and purchasing more competitively.'

Also under consideration is use of managed services, or pay-per-page, contracts for digital printing, Gaylord said. The service will decide on a strategy within two months, he said.

Beyond that, the council also within the next few months will turn its attention to handheld computers, wireless devices, storage area networks and networking equipment.

And it has inked an enterprise license with Microsoft Corp., consolidating 43 separate contracts and paying the software vendor a single, yearly $86 million tab for more than 500,000 copies of its operating system and productivity suite products.

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