Pentagon cloud computing program moving ahead slowly

The Pentagon has struggled for years to make the jump to cloud computing, now the preference of most American businesses. It’s still struggling amid concerns that the cloud isn’t secure enough for sensitive military use.

The Defense Department’s earlier effort — memorably dubbed JEDI cloud — died in the cradle, after Microsoft’s win of the contract was challenged in court by Amazon and Oracle. In an effort to get things moving, the Pentagon started over in December 2022, divvying up a new $9 billion contract among four vendors: Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Oracle.

But a year into what is known as the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC), less than 2 percent of the $9 billion earmarked for the program has been committed. The slow start reflects lingering fears over the security of commercial cloud technologies, even as the Pentagon’s tech planners say this initiative is key to propelling the United States into next-generation warfare capabilities.

“Cloud software are the backbone of the development, the application and advancement of AI and machine learning,” Lily Zeleke, the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer for the information enterprise, said in an interview. “They are integral to our modernization efforts.”

Some defense experts say the delays could weigh on the U.S. military’s competitiveness.

“The time that we lost with JEDI was really painful because you need a computing structure to train AI models,” said former Defense Department technology official Paul Scharre, referring to JWCC’s predecessor, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. “DoD needs to have that cloud infrastructure in place to move forward on AI.”

At an Association of the United States Army conference in October, Google Public Sector CEO Karen Dahut, a former Navy officer, said the Defense Department tended to “think too long and hard” about potential risks of new technologies.

“We’ve got to start talking about AI models and developing specific use cases. Let’s just get on about developing the use cases,” Dahut said. “Right now, we’re talking a lot about risk and the things that need to be done to get there. And we just need to move, because our adversaries are moving quickly.”

Microsoft is in the lead in publicly reported JWCC contracts, with $22.8 million in awards, according to official procurement data from Following behind are Oracle, with $9.3 million, Amazon with $7.8 million, and Google with $3.9 million.

Among the orders is $33,000 each for Microsoft and Amazon to demonstrate their technologies for the Joint All-Domain Command and Control project, or JADC2, a next-generation system that will employ artificial intelligence and automation to guide weaponry. JADC2 is designed to connect “any sensor to any shooter in any domain at any time,” as Vice Adm. Ron Boxall, director of force structure, resources and assessment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the U.S. military IT unit overseeing the JWCC rollout, said those records don’t reflect all orders placed to date. The Washington Post counted 30 contracts on, though DISA said 39 contracts have been placed, representing up to $269.9 million in orders if all options are exercised. About 40 more are in processing, DISA said.

Sharon Woods, director of hosting and compute at DISA, said in an interview that these technologies will allow troops to crunch data on battlefields with AI algorithms, helping them make swifter decisions and, ideally, giving the United States an edge over adversaries.

“Data is often collected in theater, on the battlefield,” Woods said. “What JWCC offers is the ability to collect and process that data at the point of collection, where the warfighter operates.”

Asked whether the program will power autonomous weapons, Zeleke said that cloud systems can support any type of computing function. “Any capability is supportable through cloud,” she said.

Zeleke and Woods pushed back on characterizing the JWCC rollout as slow. Zeleke said the team has cut the processing time for a contract from months to about a month on average. It’s the first multi-vendor cloud contract the department has handled that spans classification levels, making it more complex, she said. “The team has worked really, really hard,” she said.

Concerns remain over the security of cloud systems following a high-profile hack over the summer of Microsoft’s cloud by Chinese cyberspies, who managed to infiltrate the email accounts of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other U.S. officials. The Post reported this month that Chinese military hackers have been ramping up their ability to disrupt key U.S. infrastructure such as power and water utilities.

“The pendulum swung hard. Everything was going to go to the cloud a few years ago. That’s sort of coming back,” Steve Wallace, DISA chief technology officer, said at an event for defense contractors last month.

Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Oracle are in the middle of bidding for individual contracts with different branches of the U.S. military under JWCC, a process that is ongoing and time-consuming. Woods said all four vendors had an ample set of catalogues for the program that are updated monthly and that “continue to grow in terms of the capabilities being offered.”

One general requirement for the four companies is to supply “tactical edge devices,” or rugged computing units designed to survive rough conditions, including extreme heat and cold or explosions. But none of the four has made public its full product line, though Amazon has announced certain products in its “Snow” line, including a small, portable computer that can fit in a backpack or be delivered by drone, and the room-size “Snowblade,” designed to crunch large amounts of data in remote locations. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer is a member of Amazon’s board.)

Woods said she could not discuss many of the details of JWCC for security reasons, including what systems have been ordered so far and where they are operating. She said that in general, the Pentagon planned to integrate AI technologies into JWCC for data analysis and cybersecurity.

“We’re seeing customers leveraging AI for analysis of live video feeds and pictures, analysis of documents, and then simultaneous translation and transcription of handwritten messages,” she said. “The other area of AI is related to cybersecurity. We’re able to use AI to analyze data and logs to find and identify anomalies.”

An unclassified slide show presented by a DISA official in September for purchasing managers reflected some of the capabilities the companies are touting.

Google’s slide said its products for JWCC have “embedded AI & ML [machine learning]” capabilities that can accelerate “time to decision by up to 30x” for the Defense Department. Amazon’s slide promoted its “advanced data analytics” and “advisory and assistance services,” and included graphics of a tank, a submarine and a fighter jet. Microsoft’s slide said the company offered “cutting-edge AI and machine learning” and highlighted the company’s 165,000 miles of fiber and subsea cables, and its handling of over 8 trillion signals a day. Oracle’s slide also mentioned its AI and machine-learning “predictive analysis” capabilities, as well as monitoring and automation.

The slides said the product information was provided by the companies and did not reflect the Defense Department’s assessment.

While presenting the slides, Dave Henson, a DISA section chief, said the four companies were each offering double-digit discounts and were open to tailoring their offerings. Henson said Google and Oracle are aiming to gain clearance to handle secret-level projects in the spring, which would put them in the running for more sensitive contracts alongside Amazon and Microsoft, which already have clearance through existing contracts with the federal government.

Microsoft and Amazon’s cloud subsidiary, Amazon Web Services, declined to discuss details of the services they are selling through JWCC.

Oracle did not respond to requests for comment. The company has previously said its cloud products can work in conjunction with F-35 military jets for surveillance operations, crunching “terabyte-sized streams of data” in real time to produce insights such as predictions of troop movements.

The JWCC program ramp-up comes amid broader interest among Silicon Valley companies in defense work, driven by rising competition from China, the war in Ukraine and the prospect of more Pentagon funding. Zeleke said she didn’t think the four companies saw the contracts as just “transactional.”

“Everyone’s aware of where we are in this world right now,” she said. “It is ultimately supporting our fight initiatives across the board.”

Michael Brown, director from 2018 to 2022 of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, which helps the U.S. military make use of commercial technologies, said that in the past five years, he had seen a “sea change” in the number of companies “not only willing but enthused” to work with the Pentagon.

“The war in Ukraine has been a game changer in terms of recognizing there is evil in the world and we must provide technology to the side fighting for freedom and against unprovoked aggression,” Brown said.

One other change has been the recategorization of some of the more potentially controversial projects as intelligence work, which subjects them to lower public disclosure requirements.

In 2018, Google was beset by employee protests over its participation in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative to use artificial intelligence to analyze drone video. Google said it was dropping out of Project Maven, citing its AI principles, which say the company will not deploy artificial intelligence for weapons, “surveillance violating internationally accepted norms,” or technologies that “cause overall harm.” Soon after, Google also dropped out of bidding for the JEDI cloud program, citing similar reasons.

When Google decided to bid for JWCC, it said the multi-vendor structure would allow it to sit out of any work that did not meet its principles. “We will proudly work with the DoD to help them modernize their operations,” Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian wrote in a public update in 2021 about the company’s intention to join the project.

In January 2023, 80 percent of Project Maven — including the controversial drone video analysis work — was transferred to the control of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA spokesperson Robbin Brooks said. Although NGA is part of the Defense Department, Brooks said its procurement is done through the intelligence agencies’ cloud contract instead of JWCC.

Orders placed through that contract, known as C2E, which stands for Commercial Cloud Enterprise — do not have to be reported publicly, and the CIA did not announce a vendor list when it awarded the contract in 2020. News reports have named Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle as the vendors.

Asked if those five companies are Project Maven’s vendors, Brooks said, “We generally don’t discuss specifics when it comes to vendors, but we are working with a variety for Maven.”

Google declined to say whether there has been any change in its stance. A person familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the government contract, said that Google will only pursue contracts consistent with the company’s policies and that any custom AI work would need to be vetted through its AI principles governance process.

The Defense Department’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, which operates the other 20 percent of Project Maven, declined to comment.

Woods said the U.S. military has a five-year window to use the $9 billion under JWCC, after which the Pentagon plans to issue a replacement contract that may be open to more vendors.

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