Days after the new SecDef put a hold on the massive cloud program, two Pentagon leaders went on the record to defend it.
On Friday, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who runs the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and Defense Department CIO Dana Deasy added several supporting details to the ones offered last week by anonymous former Pentagon officials to Defense One and Nextgov. The officials' willingness to go on the record shows how important they believe the pending contract is to current and future U.S. military operations.
Dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, program, the networking contract that could be worth as much as $10 billion over ten years is intended to link all of the military’s service branches and provide cloud capabilities to operators in combat as well as the commanders at headquarters behind them. Pentagon officials aimed to award it as early as this month to finalists Amazon Web Services or Microsoft. Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared his intention to review the program on Aug. 1 but officials said that Esper's review was not going to delay the award.
Shanahan and Deasy invited reporters to hear them explain why they believe the program is vital to getting troops the information they need and to implementing the Pentagon’s plans for artificial intelligence.
“We’ve never stepped back and created a holistic solution. That is causing challenges out in the field,” said Deasy.
Cumbersome and potentially even dangerous is how Shanahan described the Pentagon’s current patchwork of networks and siloed data.
“Right now, there are questions over whether cloud A is not interoperable with cloud B. What does it take to make that happen? How do I get data from over here to over here? I think we are seeing real, tangible examples of that playing out in Afghanistan right now, and that’s in a fight that we’re largely calling counterterrorism and counterinsurgency,” Shanahan said.
“Imagine the speed of operations in a fight in the Pacific” against an aggressor like China, “where you just do not have time to figure out how do I get my data, clean my data, move it from point A to point B. If I’m a warfighter, I want as much data as you could possibly give me. Let my algorithms sort through it at machine speed…It’s really hard for me to do that without an enterprise cloud solution,” said Shanahan.
It’s also a big concern for the future. The Defense Department is trying to move new AI-enabled tools to soldiers in Afghanistan for things like video image analysis, to help operators quickly pick out threats and targets in video footage. Shanahan said that the Department would continue to have trouble meeting those goals without an enterprise cloud.
“The pace of operations in Afghanistan, it’s higher than it’s been in an awful long time right now. [Soldiers] were giving me very concrete examples of downrange of using these capabilities,” he said, referring to new artificial intelligence tools and software. “But the more they’re using them, the more data they need, the more data they are actually pulling off the battlefield…But one of the task forces in a different location is bringing in enormously important information and data. But there’s no simple way to share that with another part of Afghanistan or another part of the task force.”
The program is receiving fresh scrutiny from new Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Esper last week said that he would be taking a “hard look” at the program before an official award announcement is made. The two companies currently competing are Amazon and Microsoft.
Deasy said that Esper’s re-evaluation would involve talking to soldiers, technical experts, and others about why the program was structured the way that it was. Last week, the Pentagon said that no decision would be made until Esper had finished his review but Deasy did not think that would have any meaningful delaying effect.
Deasy, too, said that he would head to Afghanistan to talk to soldiers about their IT needs. “I will be going to Afghanistan, the reason they want me to come out and spend some time with the forces is to actually see the problem of what he, General Shanahan, was referring to by having siloed data, By having these clouds that are not connected up in an enterprise manner, to actually see how it is impacting the warfighter,” he said.
President Trump has criticized the program. When Pentagon officials first announced the program to create a massive cloud in November 2017, a handful of industry players lobbied defense leaders and Congress, complaining that the requirements of the program were written to favor Amazon Web Services at the expense of smaller cloud providers such as Oracle and IBM who proposed a network of small clouds, similar to what the Department has now.
Those gripes eventually arrived at the White House. “I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon.…They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid,” President Donald Trump said on July 18 in a conversation with reporters. “Some of the greatest companies in the world are complaining about it, having to do with Amazon and the Department of Defense, and I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on.”