Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Receive Briefings on JEDI Program After Trump Expressed Concerns

President Donald Trump, left, sits with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, during a full honors welcoming ceremony for Esper at the Pentagon, Thursday, July 25, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Defense Secretary Mark Esper will soon receive a series of briefings on a Pentagon program that could thrust him into deciding whether or not Amazon snags a potentially $10 billion defense contract to create a giant data cloud for the Department of Defense.

The Pentagon’s Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy said on Friday that Esper requested the briefings to fully comprehend the program, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), and that he will receive those briefings over the next several weeks.

“We have put together a series of education programs that allow him to get deep understanding,” Deasy told reporters at a briefing at the Pentagon on Friday.

“We’re going to explain to him, what is the overall strategy for the Department of Defense when it comes to enterprise cloud? Where does JEDI fit into the much larger strategy? And we’re going to have a bunch of questions I’m sure we’ll go back and forth with on that,” he said.

Deasy said there would also be discussions on the JEDI program itself — “how was it created, who were all the people involved, what were the things that we needed to consider bringing into an RFP [request for proposal] process, how was that constructed, what’s the selection criteria,” he added.

The Pentagon is planning to award a single technology company an initial two-year contract to build the data cloud, with three option periods that could total ten years for up to $10 billion. It would be the largest information technology contract the U.S. government has ever awarded.

The Pentagon argues that the chosen company would not be locked in and that other companies would be able to compete over that timespan, but defense industry officials are concerned that whoever snags the first contract is likely to exercise the follow-on options and be locked in for the future and have argued for a multi-cloud system.

Amazon has long been seen as the frontrunner for JEDI — due to its experience building a cloud for the Central Intelligence Agency. Competitors have launched protests and lawsuits, arguing that the contract has been being unfairly tailored for Amazon. Currently, only Amazon and Microsoft meet the specifications put out by the Pentagon.

President Donald Trump himself has raised concerns over prospective awarding of the contract to Amazon, telling reporters in July: “I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon. … They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid.”

Esper told the Washington Post this month he had heard from “folks in the administration” and that he would take a “hard look” at the issue.

“I’m going to take a hard look at it. We’re not going to be making any decisions soon until I’m comfortable with where it is and … then we’ll look at what adjustments we need to make, if any,” he told the Post.

Deasy said the process to select a cloud provider has not paused but indicated the Pentagon would not move forward before Esper has been fully briefed.

“He obviously has a role, to weigh into the overall direction of this program. And for him to be able to do that, he needs to first go through a series of deep education sessions,” Deasy said.

“At the end of this process, he will obviously be at a point and a position to weigh in with his thoughts and views on this. We obviously will need to incorporate his thoughts and views on that at that time,” he added.

He predicted a decision on a vendor would be made after August but did not give a timeline.

Deasy pushed back against the idea that the contract was worth $10 billion over ten years but admitted it could potentially total that much.

“One of the narratives says that the DOD is doing a single cloud, that we’re going to pick a vendor that’s going to run all the DOD cloud. It’s going to receive a $10 billion award and they’re getting a 10-year contract,” he said.

“The winner of this actually receives $1 million, not $10 billion. It is a two-year contract with a three-year — three-year plus two-year extension. And so if you were to execute all the extensions, and if we were to pivot workloads, we believe it could, over a 10-year period, generate up to $10 billion,” he said.

“But in no way is this is a $10 billion cloud. It is technically a $1 million award with a two-year contract with extensions that follow on. That will be complementary to other cloud awards that we will continue to do across the Department of Defense,” he said.

Another top defense official also briefed reporters on why the Pentagon needs a giant cloud to supplement smaller clouds it currently has.

“The warfighter needed enterprise cloud yesterday. Dominance in A.I. is not a question of software engineering. But instead, it’s the result of combining capabilities at multiple levels: code, data, compute and continuous integration and continuous delivery. All of these require the provisioning of hyper-scale commercial cloud,” said Lt. Gen. John “Jack” Shanahan, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

“For A.I. across DOD, enterprise cloud is existential. Without enterprise cloud, there is no A.I. at scale. A.I. will remain a series of small-scale stovepipe projects with little to no means to make A.I. available or useful to warfighters. That is, it will be too hard to develop, secure, update and use in the field,” he said.

Shanahan argued that potential adversaries such as China were already coming out with cloud solutions, and the U.S. needed to keep pace.

“In this future high-end fight we envision a world of algorithmic warfare and autonomy where competitive advantage goes to the side that understands how to harness 5G, A.I., enterprise cloud and quantum, when quantum’s available, into a viable operational model,” he said.

“We don’t want to waste any more time moving forward because we know our potential adversaries are doing it at their own speed, whether it’s Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, SenseTime, they’re all coming up with their own cloud solutions,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make them 1,000 feet tall, they’re going to have their own cloud interoperability challenges.”

“But the level of investment and the number of people they’re putting at the problem, they’re moving at a very rapid pace and what I can’t afford to do is slow down anymore,” he said. “We want to move equally fast and actually outpace them and they’re taking a very similar approach, they know the importance of an enterprise cloud solution to what they’re doing with artificial intelligence.”

Follow Kristina Wong at @kristina_wong.

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