Contract Guide: NetCents-2: Air Force Builds a Bridge to the Future

NetCents-2: Ensuring the Air Force’s net-centric future

The second generation of the NetCents program is expected to pave the way to true interoperability

The Network-Centric Solutions (NetCents) contracts are key to how the Air Force acquires information technology systems and services in support of its continuing focus on building a “net-centric” fighting force. Resources also for other Defense Department organizations and federal agencies, the contracts have evolved over the years from a relatively simple vehicle into something far more sophisticated and complex.

NetCents-1 began life 10 years ago basically as a replacement for a contract that provided commercial networking products and solutions. Over the years, however, NetCents-1grew in importance and reach with a final ordering ceiling of $10.45 billion, a nine-fold increase over its initial ceiling. The ordering period ended in September 2013.

That expansion has continued into NetCents-2, which has a total ceiling of more than $24 billion. It’s also become an important part of the Air Force’s strategy to force IT costs down while maintaining that net-centric push.

In an article in Air Force Times, Tim Rudolph, the Air Force’s senior leader for integrated information capabilities, said the service plans to cut costs in the long run by building a common networking infrastructure of servers, data centers and online applications through the use of high-volume commercial hardware and software.

The idea is to take advantage of the marketplace to reduce component costs, he said, and “not have a unique infrastructure for every application.”

Programmatic objectives for NetCents-2 are:

  • To make use of Air Force buying power to meet strategic sourcing goals.
  • Meet or exceed operational net-centric requirements.
  • Ensure technical compliance with Air Force and DOD standards.
  • Meet or beat required delivery time frames.
  • Promote small-business support goals.

The Air Force is using several techniques to meet those objectives. To create the greatest purchase volume and enforce standards, for example, NetCents-2 is mandated for Air Force IT products and solutions that fall under the scope of the contract. Few waivers from that mandate will be granted, and those that will can come only from the Air Force chief information officer.

NetCents-2 customers will also be able to write task orders instead of contracts for pre-qualified vendors using the much simpler Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 16, which should save time for the contracting officer and for the overall acquisition effort. FAR Part 15, under which contracts are written, requires the contracting officers to both do market research and qualify vendors.

Ease of use is also furthered by no fees on contract orders and no need for any product catalog approval, a decentralized ordering process that allows any Air Force contract shop to issue a request for proposals.

The NetCents-2 program office also provides a series of templates and user guides that list all the standards buyers must comply with, which should also speed acquisitions.

That’s all a result of the “tremendous amount of lessons learned” during the length of the NetCents-1 contract, said Robert Smothers, NetCents-2 program manager and chief of the Logistics and Installation Systems Branch at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex, in a recent interview.

“We’ve tried to take advantage of opportunities to lessen costs, increase efficiencies and to utilize as many web-based [Microsoft] SharePoint [sharing and collaboration] opportunities as we can to speed the process,” he said. “Basically there’s been a process over the past 10 years of NetCents-1 from which the entire service has learned how to move much more quickly to get task orders on contract.”

NetCents-2 also makes a significant departure from the single contract approach of NetCents-1 by splitting what can be bought into seven separate indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) vehicles, in effect creating separate areas of expertise under the umbrella of NetCents-2. Each of the seven categories has different teams of contracting officials, engineers and subject-matter experts to help NetCents-2 customers navigate through the acquisition process.

The seven categories under NetCents-2 are:

  • Enterprise Information and Service Management
  • NetCentric Products
  • Application Services (small business)
  • Application Services (full and open)
  • NetOps and Infrastructure (full and open)
  • NetOps and Infrastructure (small business)
  • IT Professional Support and Engineering Services

That kind of differentiated focus has become a necessity for contracts like these that have such complicated requirements, Smothers said. He’s been doing acquisitions for some 37 years, he said, and in that time it’s become a far more complex process, with more instructions, regulations and requirements. Providing the level of user assistance that NetCents-2 does has become a vital part of the success of complicated contracts.

“Having various teams, with one assigned to applications services and another to network operations, they become very skilled in those particular areas,” Smothers said. “And they can help the customer with the templates and guides that are particular to them, and we can execute much more quickly.”

Breaking the contracts down this way, into what are essentially different segments of the IT market, should also help create closer relationships and partnerships between the various program personnel and contractors.

“People on both sides will know much better who is into providing certain things in various areas,” said Ashley Bergander, federal defense manager at Deltek, a government market research company. “If the government person is only handling that area, then contractors will know who to go to and they’ll be able to build a much closer relationship with that person, and that will lead to better interactions between them.”

Momentum from NetCents-1 has led to pent-up demand for NetCents-2. Over the length of the first contract, 17,550 task orders were awarded for a total of $10.02 billion, just less than the final extended ceiling.

Meeting small business commitments

Getting more government procurement dollars to small businesses is a focus overall in government, and it was a key aspect of the first Network-Centric Solutions contract. NetCents-1 had a goal of targeting a minimum of 20 percent of the total contract dollars for small-business set-asides, with additional income for subcontractors to large prime contractors.

NetCents-2 expects to funnel even more to small businesses. The Products vehicle, for example, has a separate category for small businesses that requires 23 percent of that vehicle’s total obligated dollars to be directed their way.

Both Applications Services and NetOps and Infrastructure have separate small-business indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, with the requirement that orders of $3,000 to $150,000 be competed in the Small Business pool. Higher orders are available to small businesses at the discretion of the ordering office.

If all the goals are met, small businesses could net anywhere from $7.5 billion to just less than half of the $24.2 billion NetCents-2 total.

NetCents-2 will be an important bellwether for the Air Force in meeting its small-business commitments. Despite its earlier goals for NetCents-1 and other contracts, small-business participation in Air Force procurements has been on a steady slide. By early 2012, it had slipped to just 13.4 percent of total obligated dollars, compared to more than 16 percent in 2009.

In February 2012, the Air Force published its Small Business Improvement Plan, requiring that both the assistant secretary for acquisition and the Air Force Small Business Office collaborate to develop “better buying power” business strategies to provide better value for Air Force customers and the maximum opportunity for small-business participation.

Small businesses themselves will probably need to be convinced that the Air Force is serious, given the previous mismatches between commitments and the actual dollars they’ve earned. But Robert Smothers, NetCents-2 program manager, believes it’s a new era. The small number of overall vendors on NetCents-1 just didn’t provide the small-business opportunity the Air Force wanted, he said -- something that will be different in the new version.