AF Abandons rigid specs for base upgrades

The Air Force has scrapped its original strategy for the 10-year
Base-Level Systems Modernization II contract and asked industry to provide the specifics
on how the program should work.


Why? Because the service wants to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued many of the
Defense Department's complex systems modernization and integration projects, Air Force
officials said.


When the request for information for BLSM II appeared nearly two years ago, the program
looked much like the Army's similar 10-year Sustaining Base Information Services (SBIS)
contract. That contract, held by Loral Corp., will provide a standard package of
administrative programs for Army bases. It stumbled through its initial years behind
schedule and over cost.


Like the Army program, BLSM II originally laid out detailed requirements for how the
contractor would go about transforming 9 million lines of Cobol code for disparate
base-level systems into an integrated family of Ada applications that can share data
across multiple hardware platforms.


But over the course of three draft requests for proposals, the Air Force gradually
threw out its requirements. It replaced them this month with a two-page "statement of
objectives" that gives bidders unprecedented freedom to define what, how and when
they will deliver under a BLSM II contract.


Industry executives hailed the move and said it represents a quantum improvement on the
Army's approach to SBIS.


"The Army told us: Here's the environment I want and here are my 53 [legacy]
applications," said an executive from a company that bid unsuccessfully for SBIS.
"They asked for a standard way of modernizing them all, told us how many we had to
develop in how many months, and then they tried to extrapolate costs based on that."


That rigidity resulted in artificial cost and schedule estimates that proved far too
ambitious, the executive said, adding that, by contrast, the Air Force RFP "allows us
to define our solution uniquely as compared to our competition. It also makes no bones
about the difficulty of predicting development costs for a program of this scale and gives
bidders an incentive to propose innovative ways of accelerating the development
schedule."


Only two concrete requirements remain in the BLSM II RFP, a final version of which is
expected later this month. One is for a detailed plan showing how the contractor would
modernize a single application, the Standard Base Supply System, within 18 months of
award.


Kenneth Heitkamp, technical director of the Air Force's Standard Systems Group in
Montgomery, Ala., said that plan will be used for evaluation purposes as an example of
each bidder's development methodology.


The other requirement is for a full demonstration of the common operating environment
(COE) proposed by the contractor. The Air Force will use this in weighing whether the
various software elements the bidder proposes will operate with one another and with
legacy systems.


Some potential bidders said this requirement will add an average of $1 million to each
company's proposal costs, but that it would help weed out poor proposals.


As defined by the BLSM II statement of objectives, the COE is a set of interoperable
parameters for server, client, standalone and development applications.


The definition is so vague, however, that some bidders are wondering how the Air Force
will come up with meaningful criteria to evaluate what are bound to be "vastly
different" proposals.


"There is a potential for a very difficult evaluation because of the large number
of variables and the flexibility built into this RFP," said an executive from another
bidding company. "The same applies to price proposals."


Heitkamp said he is keenly aware of this risk and the Air Force consequently has asked
vendors "to participate with us in developing evaluation criteria" for BLSM II.
The latest in a string of meetings between representatives of likely bidders and BLSM
program officials was scheduled to take place in Montgomery last week.


"We've had input into the process in a manner I've never seen before,"
another industry official said. "It's ground-breaking."


Heitkamp said the consultations reflect a push by Lt. Gen. Charles E. Franklin,
commander of the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscomb Air Force Base, Mass., to
increase industry participation in development of RFPs, streamline acquisitions through
electronic document exchange and minimize use of DOD-specific contract data requirements.


Although the new acquisition strategy does not require bidders to demonstrate a
particular software Capability Maturity Model (CMM) level, industry sources said they
believe this will be a key discriminator in the BLSM II evaluations. The Software
Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh defines reliable
software development processes in terms of CMM levels 1 through 5. Air Force officials
have said in the past that they would prefer a contractor with a Level 3 CMM or better
rating.


Teams led by PRC Corp., Science Applications International Corp., Lockheed Martin
Corp., Loral Corp. and TRW Inc. are expected to bid on BLSM II. The Air Force plans to
award the contract sometime next year.


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