The U.S. Military Can’t Wait for the Politics of Cloud Contracting to Be Resolved

The U.S. Military Can’t Wait for the Politics of Cloud Contracting to Be Resolved
Air Force photo by TSgt Gregory Brook
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In most businesses and government organizations, whether local, state or federal, changing information technology (IT) systems gets little attention from senior leaders, at least until something goes wrong. The provision of IT services is generally viewed as part of a company’s or organization’s “back office” activities. These are generally support functions that enable the work of the “front office” which deals directly with clients, customers or, in the case of the military, enemies. They are sometimes unseen and often under-appreciated.

Rapid advances in IT are blurring the traditional line between the front and back offices, particularly when it comes to military operations. There are two reasons for this. First, the speed at which military decisions are taken, particularly those involving the decision to fire a gun or launch a weapon is increasing. This requires a network that can rapidly and securely connect all the elements in the so-called “kill chain” including sensors, data processors, command and control nodes and shooters.

Each military operation, target type and combat environment requires a unique kill chain. Every kill chain involves a specialized set of organizations, information sources, databases, analytic tools, decision makers and rules of engagement. The trick is to be able to pull together an effective kill chain on the fly and with constituent parts that may be widely dispersed.

The second reason that IT is blurring the line is the increased ability to collect and mine massive amounts of data that is useful to the operation of units in combat. Take the field of prognostics which focuses on predicting the time at which a system or a component will no longer perform its intended function. 

The Department of Defense is looking for ways to employ the science of prognostics to develop predictive maintenance strategies for complex military systems. Being able to predict when a specific part is likely to fail or what percentage of the installed base will fail over time can dramatically impact field maintenance, thereby improving the availability of critical military platforms and weapons. Predictive maintenance can reduce the number of specific parts that must be kept in inventory as well as how often the logistic system must conduct resupply.

The demand by the private sector for faster IT networks that provide increased data storage, easy sharing of information and rapid access to applications and configuration led to the creation of Cloud computing. Cloud computing is a way of organizing information technologies and providing access to data and applications to customers.

The Cloud computing paradigm is based on the on-demand delivery of computer power, database storage, applications, and other IT resources through a cloud services platform via the Internet with pay-as-you-go pricing. The Cloud environment allows for access to both commercially-available and purpose-built applications on an as-needed, fee-for-service basis without the requirement for long-term leases.

Cloud computing offers ways of making defense network operations faster, more agile, more responsive to emerging challenges and effective. Former Director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Lt. General Alan R. Lynn explained the value of DoD moving to the Cloud thusly:

When you go to the cloud, you’ve modernized your applications, [so] you can get data out of the application. If you can take a lot of different applications and pull the data out of them, that’s powerful. And once the data is available, you can see all the pieces of everything everyone is working on.

You build a lake of information that you can pull from, and that’s a big benefit that helps with warfighting. If we need [a certain amount] of logistics to go here, and an amount of ammunition to go there, we’re now able to correlate all those different pieces at one time, which is very powerful for the warfighter.”

Until recently, DoD was moving forward with plans to migrate much of the military’s IT infrastructure to the cloud. DISA’s flagship cloud contract is milCloud, launched in 2013. According to DISA,

“milCloud is a cloud-services product portfolio, managed by DISA that features an integrated suite of capabilities designed to drive agility into the development, deployment, and maintenance of secure DoD applications. One of milCloud’s core products is an 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.”

As evidence of the success of this program, DISA is now moving to a contract for milCloud 2.0 which will provide enhanced services at reduced costs.

DISA was about to release the request for proposal (RFP) for an even more ambitious cloud computing contract called the Defense Enterprise Office Solutions (DEOS). According to DISA officials, DEOS will provide “a seamlessly integrated, enterprise [cloud service offering] as a replacement for disparate DoD legacy enterprise IT services, such as voice, video, collaboration, email, content management, records management, and office productivity.” DEOS could provide secure connectivity for some 3.5 million DoD employees.

Unfortunately, Washington politics has created roadblocks to the Pentagon’s efforts to leverage the richness of cloud computing for the military. Critics within the IT industry and on Capitol Hill generated a miasma of misinformation targeting one pending cloud computing effort, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract. As a consequence of the barrage of criticism, the Pentagon is delaying the release of the JEDI RFP while it seeks to explain to Congress the rationale for its structure.

Unfortunately, the kerfuffle over JEDI has caused some in DoD to slow their effort to move the department to the Cloud. Plans to release RFPs for other cloud contracts seem to have been delayed. This is a mistake. DoD personnel should heed the words of Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan: "While technological modernization has many dimensions, I believe accelerating the DoD's adoption of cloud computing technologies is critical to maintaining our military's technological advantage,” Those responsible for near-term cloud computing contract efforts need to accelerate these efforts.

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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