WASHINGTON ― As the Pentagon mulls whether to scrap the so-called JEDI cloud computing contract worth potentially $10 billion, it will decide what’s next within a month or so, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Monday.
“We’re very actively looking at our options right now, and we have a good sense of what our needs [are], and we’re working through what the potential solutions are,” Hicks said at a Defense One conference. “We’ll be moving in a direction over the next month or so, but I’m not going to get into where we might end up.”
The contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud for use across the DoD was awarded to Microsoft, but it’s been mired in legal challenges. Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, said she could not discuss the matter in detail because of the ongoing litigation over the JEDI deal.
Hicks acknowledged that Pentagon’s centerpiece joint war-fighting strategy, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, hinges on its implementation of cloud computing ― and that using the technology at the “boardroom” level would enable efficiency measures such as internal audits and inventory control.
“There’s no doubt we have to have a pathway forward on cloud,” Hicks said.
The comments came as Pentagon officials have been pitching a $715 billion defense budget on Capitol Hill that emphasizes technology development and divests from legacy platforms. That budget reflects a forward push, even as the administration is conducting a revamp of the national defense strategy to direct future modernization efforts.
Within DoD, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved some analyses of joint concepts, expected to inform future investments. At the same time, DoD has launched a new program called the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, using the acronym RDER, pronounced “raider,” which Hicks mentioned Monday for the first time.
“To compete for the RDER, you have to have multiple components involved, you have to be tied into where we’re heading with our joint concepts, and we hope we can advance, ahead of the national defense strategy, some of those concepts and capabilities we want to see,” Hicks said. “We’re trying to move from rhetoric to reality, concepts to capabilities.”
A new AI and Data Accelerator Initiative, Hicks said, would have teams visiting each of the combatant commands to look at how to tie artificial intelligence and data sharing into operations “at the tactical edge in support of the war fighter.” The effort would also include teams of technical experts.
Hicks acknowledged that there is high-level work afoot, as part of the JADC2 effort, that would revamp requirements for weapons platforms and their manufacturers so DoD can harvest more data and share it across different platforms.
“The ability to share data is a key piece of how we think about decision advantage in the future, and also how we work with industry partners,” Hicks said.
In part to figure out new ways to compete with Silicon Valley for tech talent, Hicks set up a Deputy’s Workforce Council to elevate “people issues” to the Pentagon’s highest levels. As DoD looks at fluid and flexible arrangements between military services and private sector, one question is which of several ongoing pilot programs is appropriate to scale up.
“If you look at, for example the National Guard, and the ability to bring in private-sector expertise to augment what’s happening in the military ... to create that permeability and fluidity back and forth to the private sectors, that’s a good example,” Hicks said, adding that Space Force is looking at tapping talent in the Reserve.
Asked how the Pentagon hopes to compete with China, whose civil-military fusion model allows it to move quickly, Hicks said the U.S. should employ “collaborative disruption” between the private sector and research institutions in the U.S. and allied countries.
“We have a very critical role to play in seeding, particularly in some exquisite areas, that research or that science and technology base, but in many areas, what we need to be is a good customer that ecosystem wants to work with so that we can disrupt, in a way that’s going to be much more innovative than what a [state-controlled] model like the Chinese are pursuing can do,” Hicks said.
Though some lawmakers have pushed back in defense of systems with local jobs attached, Hicks noted it’s always been challenging to make a case for potential for a future capability over existing capabilities. DoD can bring evidence, some classified, of the vulnerability of certain systems to Russian and Chinese capabilities, as well as the hefty sustainment costs associated other systems, she said.
“We are part of an administration that is all about bringing manufacturing jobs to the United States. We are all about securing our supply chains in the national security space and beyond,” Hicks said. “There’s a lot of opportunity in that for DoD, as we start to look ahead to the capabilities of the future and the type of workforce ... that we really want to incept and generate here inside the United States.”
C4ISRNET reporter Andrew Eversden contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.