Delaying DoD Cloud Contract Could Harm National Security

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The great power race to dominate advanced computing technologies – cloud applications, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) – is intensifying. China is seeking to replace the U.S. as the dominant player in these areas. The United States, in general, and the Department of Defense (DoD), in particular, are responding to these threats by increasing investments in advanced computing technologies. But time is of the essence, and any delays in moving forward on creating an enterprise-wide cloud for the Pentagon could put national security at risk.

Both Russia and China have created national programs in these areas with the intent of pushing the United States out of first place. Understanding the commercial and national security significance of achieving preeminence in AI, the government of China has set a national goal of dominating this area by 2030. Russian President Putin recently announced a National AI Strategy intended to more closely coordinate private and public investment.

Both countries are racing ahead to achieve a warfighting advantage in the application of some of the most critical technologies of the millennium. The Russian military sees AI and ML as their path to achieving an asymmetric advantage over the United States. China’s military and defense industry see future battlefields as dominated by autonomous systems directed by advanced AI and netted together by cloud infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is in danger of falling behind in the race to apply advanced computing to the demands of 21st Century warfare. According to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, “accelerating DoD’s adoption of cloud computing technologies is critical to maintaining our military’s technological advantage.”

Maintaining or defending the Pentagon’s military-technological lead is not just a matter of money. It is also a matter of pursuing the proper strategy and using the time available wisely. In particular, this means organizing and directing DoD’s numerous programs in advanced computing technologies towards the right objectives. First and foremost, this means getting DoD’s investments in cloud computing right. The Department’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), Dana Deasy, stressed that the right cloud infrastructure is critical to the Pentagon’s ability to exploit AI and ML: “A modern digital infrastructure is critical to support the warfighter, defend against cyberattacks and enable the department to leverage emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

The intensifying competition with Russia and China is a primary reason DoD is seeking to acquire an enterprise-wide cloud computing infrastructure. The key to this capability is the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) program. JEDI is envisioned as the general-purpose cloud, the base to which all other purpose-built clouds will be anchored. JEDI will provide the Department access to the latest in commercial security technologies, support the rapid development of new applications and capabilities, move DoD in the direction of software as a service, and leverage commercial cloud service to transform the way data is acquired, manipulated and disseminated. JEDI will help provide the warfighter with the advantages of effective military AI and ML.

Time is not on our side in the race to gain military advantage in the new way of war empowered by advanced computing technologies. Given Russia and China’s drive to achieve decisive military advantage through the exploitation of AI and ML, the Pentagon needs to pick up the pace of its efforts to implement its cloud strategy.

Time is one reason that the Pentagon has been insisting that the JEDI contract be a single award. Not only would allowing multiple awards complicate and even undermine the goal of a seamless enterprise-wide cloud, but the resulting requirement to put out individual task orders for bids by multiple contractors would increase the time to get the desired work done.

Unfortunately, the efforts to get the JEDI contract underway have been met with a series of challenges and delays. Both the Government Accountability Office and a Federal judge have sided with the Pentagon in a series of pre-award complaints from industry. Now the award is delayed by an internal investigation of a conflict of interest allegation by a single individual.

These delays will have an impact on JEDI implementation. The Pentagon has said that its current investigation will delay the JEDI award by as much as three months. The Pentagon has been clear that it will take time to build out JEDI and to populate it with the desired applications. More time will be needed to familiarize DoD organizations and personnel with how JEDI works and what it can do. It is impossible to plan and organize military exercises involving JEDI. As the DoD CIO pointed out in recent testimony to Congress: "The longer we delay standing up a JEDI capability the military services are going to need to go solve for mission sets and they're going to continue to stand up in their own individual environments and I don't see that as being beneficial over the long term to the Department."

Moreover, the delay in awarding JEDI means that additional resources are being spent on legacy applications and outdated cloud services. Nor can training begin on the new cloud or work begun on applications purpose-built to mesh with JEDI. All the competing contractors are having to keep their teams together awaiting an eventual award.

DoD needs to move with speed to resolve the current legal issue regarding JEDI. Every day that the award is delayed, the risk to the Nation’s security increases.

Dan 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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