Pentagon lays out final details in $11.2B plan to consolidate IT networks

Final bids are due Feb. 8 for yet another massive DoD IT contract. Although it's attracted much less attention than JEDI, this one's winner-take-all too.

Vendors have a little less than two months to submit their final proposals for what’s arguably one of the most complex IT integration contracts in the government’s history – and what will inarguably be one of its most high-valued.

On Tuesday, the Defense Information Systems Agency released the final solicitation for its Defense Enclave Services (DES) contract, the main vehicle the Defense Department will use to unify the IT networks of the “fourth estate” — the support agencies and field activities that exist outside the military services. Bids are due Feb. 8.

The single-award contract, worth up to $11.2 billion, has echoes of what the Navy and Marine Corps did 20 years ago in consolidating their stovepiped networks into the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet. That effort, in many ways, is still a work in progress. And DoDNet, the common network DISA wants to use DES to create, may be an even tougher integration challenge.

By 2025, it seeks to unify 22 different agencies — each with distinct missions and own ways of operating enterprise IT — under one common network. As of now, taken together, those agencies use 600 separate contracts to maintain their networks across 850 worksites, and the Pentagon sees the current reality as wasteful and counterproductive.

“Organizations whose primary missions are contracting, health, human resources, logistics, and financial services, just to name a few, are dedicating a significant portion of their resources to IT,” John Sherman, DoD’s principal deputy CIO said during a conference hosted by AFCEA earlier this month. “However, even with this investment, they’re unable to keep pace with technological advancement and industry best practices … it forces many of them to maintain their own networks and the department’s digital enterprise in a less than optimal security posture.”

DISA has structured the contract as a best value competition, meaning price is a factor, but it’s not everything. When the agency picks a winner — a vendor that will hold the contract for at least four years and as long as ten — officials will weigh price about equally with the vendor’s past performance and proposed technical approach.

But before pricing and merits are seriously scrutinized, vendors will have to pass a series of gate criteria, similar to the approach DoD used for another recent multibillion dollar IT contract, JEDI Cloud. To clear those initial hurdles, they’ll have to be scored as “acceptable” on four different factors:

  • A staffing and transition plan that will let them get started on the contract within 90 days of the award
  • The ability to support and operate a network of the scale DoD needs without using proprietary or closed approaches
  • A credible plan to meet the 25% small business subcontracting goal the final RFP sets for DES
  • An adequate approach to supply chain risk management

One further wrinkle to the gate criteria: if too many companies end up clearing the bar, DISA still reserves the right to use other factors to cull the list of competitors further so that it can conduct an “efficient competition.”

The $11.2 billion ceiling for DES doesn’t include the end user hardware or software that will be needed to bring commonality to Defense agencies and field activities; DISA plans to contract for those separately. Instead, DoD wants the DES contractor to focus on constructing a network that uses open standards and can be upgraded with best-of-breed commercial technology over time. It also calls for a structure in which the government owns the network’s underlying intellectual property, but lets a contractor handle most of the day-to-day operations.

A data call DISA attached to the RFP gives some scale of the challenge. The services the new contractor will be expected to take over from the 22 agencies currently deal with 357,000 users in DoD’s unclassified environment, plus 36,000 more seats on its Secret Internet Protocol Network. One outlier example, the Defense Contract Management Agency, has worksites in 309 different locations worldwide, many with single-digit numbers of employees in one office.

Once it’s implemented the basic network architecture, an example of the tasks the contractor will need to assume from those 22 different stovepipes is helpdesk services. Its employees will be expected to answer 80% of tech support calls within the first 30 seconds, respond to initial email requests within four hours. However problems are reported, the vendor will be expected to fix them after the first contact 65% of the time.

Rich Forsht, the chief of DISA’s global service desk said DoD wants a wide variety of options — ranging from online chat and face-to-face support — since users’ preferences tend to vary substantially, mostly along generational lines.

But ideally, DISA would like at least some proportion of DoDNet’s tech support needs to be handled via self-service methods.

“We have to evolve into what are known as one-click fixes — automation of processes that takes the actual human out of it and self-heals the customer through a click of a button,” he said. “The key is to reduce the mean time to restore and get the customer restored as quickly as possible. The ultimate goal is to drive up customer satisfaction and really improve how we interact with our customers.”

As Federal News Network reported in 2019, the Pentagon handed DISA the responsibility for managing Defense agency networks long before the agency began the procurement process for DES. The larger project is known as Fourth Estate Network Optimization (4ENO), and least some of the groundwork is already done.

DISA’s Fort Meade, Md. headquarters has already implemented an early version of DoDNet. Two much smaller fourth estate agencies, the Defense Technical Information Center and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Agency are serving as pathfinders, and are expected to have migrated to the new network by the time the DES contract starts.

Whatever vendor wins the DES contract would take on sustainment responsibilities for those three organizations while they expand the basic framework, using their own approaches, into the rest of the fourth estate.

Assuming the schedule isn’t delayed by bid protests — an extremely high-probability event considering DoD’s recent history with large IT contracts — the rest of the contractor-implemented network consolidations would be broken down into two phases over the next five years.

In Phase 1, By Oct. 2024, DES and DoDNet would encompass:

  • Defense MicroelectronicsActivity (DMEA)
  • Defense Media Activity (DMA)
  • DISA’s field sites
  • Defense Contract Management Agency
  • Defense Contract Audit Agency
  • Defense Human Resources Agency
  • Defense Manpower Data Center
  • Defense Finance and Accounting Service
  • Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  • Defense Logistics Agency
  • Missile Defense Agency

In Phase 2, by October 2025, most of rest of the fourth estate would be brought into the fold, but DISA reserves the right to add other organizations in future task orders.

For now, the planned Phase 2 agencies include:

  • Office of the Secretary of Defense
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Pentagon Force Protection Agency
  • Washington Headquarters Services
  • Joint Services Provider
  • Defense Health Agency
  • Defense Legal Services Agency
  • Defense Security Cooperation Agency
  • Defense Technology Security Agency

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