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With a $10 billion cloud-computing deal snarled in court, the Pentagon may move forward without it

The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract has been wrapped up in litigation for so long that the military could move on without it

(Michel Euler/AP)

The Pentagon is preparing for the possibility that it will have to move on without the long-fought JEDI cloud-computing contract, as an impending court decision threatens to leave the embattled procurement even more bogged down in litigation than it already is.

The weight of two long-running lawsuits has the Defense Department openly questioning whether JEDI will still be worth the trouble if the court seeks to depose former president Donald Trump and other former officials. And the success of some of the Pentagon’s other, quieter cloud initiatives is lending new weight to the idea that JEDI’s one-cloud-to-rule-them-all strategy might not be necessary in the first place.

One senior defense official told The Washington Post that he thinks the department’s enterprise cloud should draw from more than one tech company, breaking not only with past statements from the Pentagon but also with a central aspect of how JEDI was designed.

“If I were to make a decision today to create an enterprise cloud, I would totally think of having a multi-cloud approach. For reasons of diversity, avoiding lock-in,” said Nic Chaillan, a former entrepreneur who is the Air Force’s chief software officer.

Pentagon reaffirms Microsoft’s JEDI cloud contract win despite procurement mistake

In a statement, the Pentagon’s acting chief information officer, John Sherman, said his team still wants to move forward with JEDI but is also looking for other ways to meet the military’s needs.

“The Department is fully committed to meeting our warfighters’ urgent and unmet cloud requirements — we hope through JEDI Cloud — but other elements of DoD’s Cloud Strategy requirements, such as cloud-based storage and cloud-enabled software development, are still moving forward,” Sherman said.

JEDI, which stands for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, was conceived in 2017 as part of a broader set of technology investments meant to help the United States win an artificial intelligence arms race with China.

It is meant to create a cloud-based central operating system for the U.S. armed forces that will bring new technologies to the battlefield, as well as provide new ways to protect and share classified intelligence. It is worth up to $10 billion over 10 years. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM submitted proposals. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

An Amazon representative declined to comment for this story. Rick Wagner, corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft’s federal business, said JEDI should move forward along with other cloud initiatives.

“We won the JEDI contract twice and think concluding the litigation and moving forward is the fastest way to get our troops the technology they deserve,” Wagner said. “We’re committed to building on our 40-year relationship with DoD both by working on JEDI and by working on numerous other existing partnerships through which we support every branch of the U.S. military.”

After Trump cites Amazon concerns, Pentagon reexamines $10 billion JEDI cloud contract process

Defense officials hoped to get started with JEDI in 2019 but have been repeatedly stymied by lawsuits. The Pentagon’s insistence that the award be limited to one company made the project a lightning rod for bid protests from the start. And Trump’s actions cast doubt on the procurement at a critical moment, playing into the latest of several bid protests.

It has become increasingly obvious to many in Washington that endless litigation may have already doomed JEDI.

The first major delay came from a bid protest first filed in 2018 by database giant Oracle, which claimed that a web of unsavory relationships unfairly wired the award in Amazon’s favor. Those allegations were struck down, but the lawsuit delayed the award by several months.

Then, after the Defense Department awarded JEDI to Microsoft the first time in October 2019, Amazon became the protester. It accused Trump of acting on a long-standing grudge against Amazon founder Bezos. Amazon has sought to depose Trump, former defense secretary Jim Mattis and other former officials in the lawsuit. Microsoft and the Defense Department asked to dismiss those allegations.

The Defense Department has spent millions of dollars attempting to push JEDI through its procurement pipeline. In a Nov. 18 letter to the office of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Defense Department said JEDI had already cost taxpayers about $5.3 million, not including attorneys’ fees.

Judge’s order halting JEDI work just the latest roadblock in Defense Dept.’s frustrating journey

Amazon, Microsoft and the Defense Department are now waiting for Patricia Campbell-Smith, a federal judge with extensive experience in government procurement matters, to decide whether the allegations involving Trump can move forward. Oracle is still pressing its case in parallel.

The Defense Department, in a Jan. 28 memo to Congress that was distributed widely to reporters, seemed to imply that conducting depositions would hopelessly delay the project to the point that it is no longer worth pursuing.

Deposing former officials including Trump and Mattis “will be complex and elongate the timeline significantly,” the Defense Department wrote. “The prospect of such a lengthy litigation process might bring the future of the JEDI Cloud procurement into question. Under this scenario, the DoD [chief information officer] would reassess the strategy going forward.”

The department argued in the same memo that it “continues to have an urgent unmet requirement” and pledged to “ensure it is met one way or another.”

Oracle lost its JEDI court battle. Its campaign against Amazon may have succeeded anyway.

Some interpreted the Pentagon’s statement as a sort of threat.

“The government is making a not-so-thinly-veiled threat that it may well choose to jettison all or part of the procurement if it is forced to participate in the depositions of former president Trump and other top DoD officials,” said Franklin Turner, a government contracts attorney with the law firm McCarter & English. Turner is not affiliated with the litigation.

Turner said the Biden administration could add an extra wrinkle to JEDI’s already-complicated path. Dana Deasy left the job as the Pentagon’s chief information officer last month after shepherding JEDI for about two years. He was replaced by acting CIO Sherman, who most recently served as the CIO responsible for the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.

As intelligence community CIO, Sherman oversaw the CIA’s new cloud program, called C2E. That contract, which procurement documents describe as being worth tens of billions of dollars, took a decidedly different strategy than JEDI: It was awarded to five cloud providers.

It’s possible that after confronting JEDI’s legal woes, the Biden administration will conclude that JEDI is more trouble than it is worth.

“This procurement has been under a national litigation microscope since Day 1, and we have a new sheriff in town in the form of the Biden administration,” Turner said. “While it would be unusual, it is entirely possible that the government decides to go back to the drawing board on this one.”

Read the inspector general's full report on JEDI

Throughout the litigation, military agencies have pressed on with other cloud initiatives of their own.

There are 13 other large cloud initiatives operating across the Defense Department. Although none of them have the departmentwide reach that JEDI would command, some of them are taking on tasks that would have been powered by JEDI if not for a court order.

One is Cloud One, an Air Force program that uses Microsoft and Amazon products. The Air Force has lent it to the other services for certain projects, officials say. It is also being used, in place of JEDI, by the military’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

It has been used to implement a system called Kubernetes, originally developed by Google, that allows AI algorithms to be “containerized,” so they can be applied to military systems in an isolated format.

It has also enabled an aircraft development process known as digital twinning, in which experimental jets and missiles are designed in a virtual format before physical prototypes are created. That technique has been applied to aspects of the Boeing-developed T-7 Red Hawk training aircraft, as well as the Air Force’s new ballistic missile.

Air Force seeks a radical shift in how jets, missiles and satellites are designed

The Pentagon has always said its overall approach to cloud computing should rely on more than one provider. But, in a major break from the past, at least one high-level official is openly advocating that the enterprise cloud should also tap more than one provider.

In a recent interview, Chaillan said he would like to see the Defense Department go to multiple providers not only for its broader strategy, but also for its enterprise cloud contract. That would mean starting over with something other than JEDI.

“The concern right now is that really we only have one classified top-secret cloud, and it’s Amazon,” Chaillan said in an interview. (Amazon is the only company certified to handle top-secret data. Microsoft is approved to work one level below that, at the “secret” level, and is seeking the necessary accreditation for top-secret.)

Echoing long-standing concerns aired by JEDI’s critics, Chaillan said: “It’s just never good to be in any type of monopoly situation, for whatever reason, whether it’s because the companies can decide one day [they] do not want to do business with DoD anymore, or it could be for strategic reasons in terms of a foreign state potentially attacking those locations and effectively shutting off these clouds because of the lack of diversity in locations, in physical locations.”

Chaillan, a senior official overseeing the Air Force’s cloud technology, does not administer JEDI. He joined the Defense Department in 2018 through a program meant to bring in outside tech talent, typically for terms that last five years or less. He is referred to as the Air Force’s “senior software czar” on the service’s website.

He added that it made sense to structure JEDI as a single-cloud solution three years ago. But the department has changed, and so has the technology.

“We think it’s easier to have a single cloud, but it’s not,” Chaillan said. “The long-term impact of that monopoly and vendor lock-in aspect … [means] it’s going to be very difficult to move off of one cloud.”