DoD’s Move to the Cloud Is Critical to Operate at the 'Speed of Relevance'

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In discussing the key messages of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a particular point of the need to accelerate the pace at which weapons systems, military organizations, and concepts of operations evolve to meet future threats.

To keep pace with our times, the department will transition to a culture of performance and affordability that operates at the speed of relevance. Success does not go to the country that develops a new technology first, but rather, to the one that better integrates it and more swiftly adapts its way of fighting.

The most noteworthy phrase used by the defense secretary is “the speed of relevance.” Every current senior leader in the Department of Defense (DoD) has stressed the need to develop and deploy new capabilities faster to re-establish military superiority.

The belief that adversaries are innovating more rapidly than the U.S. military has sent DoD on the hunt for the magic elixir that will make its acquisition system more agile and creative. The Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services are looking to cutting-edge commercial firms both for advanced technologies with military applications and as a source for the “spark” of innovation.

The management of information is critical to future U.S. warfighting capabilities as well as to the ability of the defense acquisition system to be more innovative and agile. The entire U.S. defense enterprise from individual weapons systems to platforms, individual units and command and control elements, to supporting infrastructure is becoming increasingly information-centric.

The result is an order of magnitude improvement in the ability of the U.S. military to conduct the full range of missions. Much of the technology underpinning this revolution in military capabilities is commercial in nature. Moreover, the breadth and speed of innovation in commercial information technology (IT) is such as to completely confound the traditional defense acquisition process.

This is, even more, the case when it comes to cybersecurity. It is clear that entirely new approaches to the acquisition of cyber capabilities and the management of military networks will be required if the defense department has any hope of staying abreast of the threat. If the U.S. military cannot successfully defend its systems and networks against the ever-changing threat, current efforts at innovation, which are largely based on IT, will be for naught.

The speed of relevance matters as much or more in commercial IT as it does in national security. Increasingly, the commercial world is focused on cloud computing and on fee-for-service delivery of capabilities. This approach allows for the rapid advancement of applications, high-speed access to data, effective security and reduced costs.

The federal government is beginning the transition to this new approach to managing its networking and computing needs. Based on the proven value of cloud computing, the 17 members of the Intelligence Community (IC) are benefitting from a first of its kind contract with the private sector for cloud services managed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. This is essentially a public cloud on private property, a government facility built by a private company to IC security standards.

The IC’s Commercial Cloud Services contract has reduced the time it takes to set up a server from 180 days to a matter of minutes. After using it for approximately five years, the CIA’s Chief Information Officer, John Edwards, observed that "it's the best decision we've ever made." He went on to declare at a public event that "it's the most innovative thing we've ever done. It is having a material impact on both the CIA and the IC."

The importance of rapid migration to the cloud is not lost on Pentagon leaders. The new Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, James F. Geurts, declared that “we need to get all the apps on the cloud in three years or less.”

Cloud migration is one area where DoD’s acquisition system is trying to do the right things: leverage advances in commercial IT, improve acquisition agility, support the warfighter and more cost-effectively introduce new applications. According to the Defense Information Services Agency’s Cloud Service Catalog, DoD components currently have access to dozens of cloud contracts of different scope, scale and duration.

One of the largest of these contracts is the milCloud, managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). It provides “infrastructure as a service solution that leverages a combination of mature commercial off-the-shelf and government-developed technology to deliver cloud services tailored to needs of the DoD.”

DISA has released a request for proposal for the multi-year, multi-billion dollar, single source award Defense Enterprise Office Solutions contract. This will provide a range of capabilities including cloud-based email and messaging as well as infrastructure as a service solution with access to commercial off-the-shelf and government-developed technologies that can be tailored to the needs of individual DoD users.

Recently, there has been a lot of public furor over one proposed cloud contract, which is for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, intended to support core DOD services, data management and advanced analytics. Critics erroneously claim that it is somehow “wired” for a particular service provider and argue that it should be a multi-contractor award.

According to a DoD report to Congress, the need for speed dictates a single award contract. A multi-award contract would require competing each task order, adding both time and cost to the effort for no additional benefit. As the report makes clear “that pace could prevent DoD from rapidly delivering new capabilities and improved effectiveness to the warfighter that enterprise-level cloud computing can enable.” This would undermine two of the most important advantages of operating in the cloud: speed and agility.

The Pentagon’s desire to transform its warfighting capabilities by implementing concepts such as the Navy’s Distributed Operation, the Army’s Multi-Domain Battle and the Air Force’s Multi-Domain Command and Control will require the speed, flexibility and data management capability only possible in the cloud. DoD needs to accelerate its migration to the cloud to achieve Secretary Mattis’ goal of the speed of relevance.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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