DOD Looks to Use Afghanistan as Cloud, AI Proving Ground

Pentagon Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy, shown at the Pentagon on June 15, 2018, will soon travel to Afghanistan to see how troops are managing and sharing combat data in the field. Photo by former Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan via Twitter.

Afghanistan will serve as a proving ground for the Pentagon’s future cloud infrastructure known as JEDI, as artificial-intelligence algorithms are introduced into America’s almost 18-year-old war, Defense Department officials suggested in a recent media roundtable.

USAF Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the director of DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, told reporters Aug. 9 that the “Project Maven” initiative is developing an AI-enabled “smart system” to fuse military intelligence with US Special Operations Command operations data. Project Maven began as an effort to catalog the information collected by remotely piloted aircraft sensors to lessen the workload for intelligence analysts.

“The pace of operations in Afghanistan is higher than it’s been in an awful long time right now, and they were giving me very concrete examples of downrange using these capabilities,” Shanahan said of AI-enabled systems. “But the more they’re using them, the more data they need, the more data they’re actually pulling off the battlefield.”

The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud is intended to solve the problem of gleaning too much data with no common place to put it. Project Maven and the JAIC’s AI-centered efforts will be among the first to migrate to the JEDI cloud. If a task force in one part of Afghanistan has discovered important new information, the cloud can hold it for forces elsewhere in the country to use, Shanahan said.

Someone still has to scrub military data and feed it into an AI algorithm so the system can learn, which is time-consuming, he added.

Pentagon Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy said he’ll head to Afghanistan to spend time with troops and see firsthand the impact of “siloed data,” or information that is kept in separate systems and clouds instead of being accessible to all with the right clearance. The Defense Department already spends more than $500 million a year on multiple other military clouds that are expected to plug into JEDI.

“There are questions of, ‘cloud A is not interoperable with cloud B—what does it take to make that happen’” Shanahan noted. “I think we’re seeing real tangible examples of that playing out in Afghanistan right now, and that’s in a fight that we’re largely calling counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency. Imagine the speed of operations in a fight in the Pacific, 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’”

He envisions a time when troops in Afghanistan can use and create their own applications, built to work with the enterprise cloud, to access information from combat outposts across the country.

Their dig into how JEDI and other efforts can assist military personnel in Afghanistan comes as Defense Secretary Mark Esper gets a crash course in the overall purpose of the program. His deep dive follows remarks by President Donald Trump that he would ask officials to review the effort amid claims that the bidders’ proposals are being unfairly judged.

JEDI, which Amazon and Microsoft are still in the running to provide, will run alongside DOD’s other cloud infrastructure efforts. Deasy said the winner will receive a $1 million, two-year award with possible contract extensions and spinoff workloads that could be worth up to $10 billion over 10 years.

A contract award is now slated for this fall at the earliest because source-selection work was put on hold during a failed bid protest by Oracle. Those considerations will take “a number of weeks to complete,” Deasy said.