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The Pentagon’s cloud strategy to catch up to the commercial tech industry

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo)

An outdated, patchwork approach to managing computer systems has slowed the U.S. military’s adoption of artificial intelligence at a time when rival nations are investing deeply in those capabilities, U.S. military officials wrote in a strategy document released last week.

The cloud strategy document, which Congress required it to produce as part of a recent spending bill, calls for a department-wide cloud-computing infrastructure that will bring the Pentagon’s systems up to par with the commercial technology industry.

So-called “cloud-based” computer systems rely on databases and programs that are connected through the Internet rather than local hard-drives, something that has made those programs faster and more powerful.

Cloud computing is already ubiquitous in the commercial technology industry. It powers the smart-phone apps consumers use every day, enables artificially-intelligent chat-bots like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, and makes possible a vast array of complex applications that large companies use to manage data and conduct business. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Perhaps owing to its unique cybersecurity challenges, however, the Pentagon has proceeded with caution. Rather than build a single cloud network for all of its applications — an approach the CIA followed through a $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services — it has allowed specific agencies to set up their own clouds designed for narrowly-defined purposes.

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The cloud strategy document released last week unsparingly described how that patchwork strategy has hurt the Pentagon’s operations. Having so many data centers has created unnecessary security risks, officials said. And it has complicated the department’s ability to stay ahead of software and hardware updates, they wrote, something that could make computer systems more vulnerable to hackers.

“The Department of Defense has multiple disjointed and stove-piped information systems distributed across modern and legacy infrastructure around the globe leading to a litany of problems that impact warfighters’, decision makers’, and DoD staff’s ability to organize, analyze, secure, scale, and ultimately capitalize on critical information,” the strategy document reads.

And managing so many computer systems has been challenging for military agencies, which face a shortage of technology workers.

“As DoD has continued to stand up independent clouds, we continue to dilute our already constrained cloud expertise," the document reads.

Defense Department officials now say they want to move away from that approach and toward something more centralized. The strategy document released last week is the clearest official notice yet detailing how the Pentagon will handle cloud computing strategy under new chief information officer Dana Deasy, a former technology executive from JPMorgan Chase, who became the Defense Department’s chief information officer last year.

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The Pentagon is turning to commercial tech companies for help in that endeavor. It partnered with a company called CSRA, now a unit of General Dynamics, for a $500 million computer modernization effort known as MilCloud2.0. It is in the early stages of a much larger $8 billion effort for cloud-based email and messaging services, called Defense Enterprise Office Solutions, or DEOS.

And the JEDI contract, at $10 billion over ten years, promises to be its most ambitious effort yet. It is set to become a springboard for not-yet-imagined artificial intelligence capabilities that could fundamentally re-vamp how the department wages war.

It comes at a time when the Pentagon is working to ensure it is technologically superior to “near-peer” nations like China and Russia. Those countries have been quietly building military arsenals over the past two decades while the United States has focused on expensive, drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Rapidly providing DoD access to underlying foundational technologies, like cloud computing and data storage, on a global scale is critical to national defense and in preparing DoD to fight and win wars,” officials wrote in the strategy document. “If the department wants to maintain its overmatch, it will need to leverage technologies such as AI and therefore, it must urgently create an enterprise cloud environment.”

But the effort has not been without controversy.

Google, a global leader in artificial intelligence technology, announced in October that it would not pursue the JEDI contract for moral reasons, saying the project is not aligned with the company’s principles with respect to AI-enabled weaponry.

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And numerous companies have taken issue with a Defense Department decision to structure the JEDI contract as a single, winner-take-all award. (The department has emphasized that it will continue to rely on multiple provider for broader strategy, even as it awards the JEDI contract to just one company.)

And one official said the JEDI cloud will absorb 80 percent of the Pentagon’s existing applications, suggesting the companies servicing those applications will see some of their business swept aside.

Such a high-stakes opportunity has sparked a competitive frenzy among the leading U.S. cloud providers. Microsoft and especially Amazon Web Services, the two market leaders, are thought to be the front-runners.

IBM and Oracle are also in the running, and each has protested the award, seeking to force the Pentagon to re-write the procurement and go to more than one provider. Pre-award bid protests from the two companies were separately denied and dismissed last year.

Next, Oracle took its case to the Court of Federal Claims, where it has brought a litany of charges against the Defense Department. Unless one of the JEDI contract’s many opponents succeeds in getting the department to change course, an award is expected in April.

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