One Air Force, one network firm?

The fate of a controversial Air Force proposal to consider adopting an all-Cisco Systems Inc. network for the information technology infrastructure at all of its bases could be decided in the coming months, according to service officials.

If adopted, the proposal—detailed in a July 31 announcement in Commerce Business Daily (CBD)—would give the California-based company a virtual lock on the Air Force market for items that include routers, switches, associated software upgrades and technical support services. The service sees the move as a way to improve data sharing, cut costs and reduce the training needed to support Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs).

The Air Force recently adapted the AEF concept to compensate for the loss of overseas bases after the Cold War ended. The AEF concept requires the rapid deployment of combat teams who maintain communications links with supporting bases in the United States.

But the service has found that support personnel deploying with the AEFs often find themselves using different networking equipment than they usually use. That requires extra training and creates data-sharing problems, ultimately affecting the Air Force's combat mission, according to Air Force officials.

"We're moving toward a network- centric architecture where, because of manpower limitations, we want to do more remote operations," said Joe Mardo, Air Force product area director for the Global Grid. "We have gotten comments this summer that the way we're implementing the network is not efficient from an operational perspective."

He added, "The issue is one of combat effectiveness."

Mardo and other officials said the heavy preponderance of Cisco equipment already in Air Force base infrastructures was a major factor in the plan. "If you have a boatload of one guy's equipment, do you want to just throw that away?" he asked.

But the move has stirred controversy among Cisco competitors—who have shied from speaking publicly—and even among some service officials, who support an all-Cisco solution only if it results from fair competition.

"I prefer to use a fair and open competition, and if the competition says to go Cisco, then we'll go Cisco," said one Air Force official. A follow-up CBD announcement seeks industry comment by Aug. 15. The announcements are the first step in the legal process of justifying a sole-source contract.

The first CBD notice stated that 95 percent of Air Force bases have already turned to Cisco products and services, but Air Force officials have since said that 17 out of 105 bases lack a Cisco infrastructure—about 16 percent.

Although the Air Force announcement stated that the sole-source approach could be adopted this month, that is unlikely, said John Gilligan, Air Force deputy chief information officer.

"I'm not inclined to put this on any type of time scale.... The dialogue with industry may take weeks or a couple of months," he said.

Lawrence Delaney, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, will ultimately decide on the proposal. In the meantime, Gilligan and Lt. Gen. John Woodward, another Air Force deputy CIO, are discussing options with industry.

Gilligan indicated that he expects complaints but challenged critics to offer viable alternatives. He said his own priority is to look for a strategy that will address the complexity of maintaining a mostly Cisco-based infrastructure with other varied products, while keeping costs low and maintaining competition.

Although competitors have been reluctant to speak out, some may complain to their respective members of Congress.

"To announce such an intention drives the cost up considerably and blocks [the Air Force] from buying the best technologies vendors have to offer and voids fair competition," said one Cisco rival.

But Scott Spehar, area vice president for Cisco Federal, dismissed such worries. "My motto is that water seeks its own level, meaning that if we're not putting out competitive products or prices or not meeting end-user demands, they will quickly find somebody else who meets those criteria."

All parties agreed on one issue, however. "It's a long way from over," Spehar said.

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