By Brett Wilkins
One thing is for certain: at the end of next month, the US Defense Department will award a $10 billion contract to a tech company to develop and deploy JEDI. That’s not another less-than-serious Pentagon foray into Star Wars-inspired folly, like the Defense Innovation Unit’s recent quest for a real-life “Death Star” or the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation estimate that building the actual movie Death Star (or, the DS-1 Orbital Battle Station for all you Star Warriors out there) would cost $193 quintillion. No, it’s a real plan — called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure — consisting of a cloud computing project that will store and process vast quantities of classified data so that the US military can use artificial intelligence to greatly improve its war planning and fighting capabilities.
JEDI will move more than 3 million users and 4 million devices off private servers and into the cloud. “This program is truly about increasing the lethality of our department and providing the best resources to our men and women in uniform,” explained John H. Gibson II, the Pentagon’s chief management officer. Gibson said JEDI “will revolutionize how we fight and win wars.”
What’s not yet certain is exactly who will get the JEDI contract. As of right now, it looks like either Amazon or Microsoft will emerge victorious. However, like the plot of any Star Wars film, this story isn’t so simple. Having beat out IBM to win a $600 million contract to run Amazon Web Services supercomputing projects for the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence services, Amazon has been viewed as the frontrunner to land the JEDI contract. Oracle and IBM were eliminated from contention during an earlier round of contract competition, leaving Amazon and Microsoft as the last companies standing.
A legal challenge by Oracle claiming that the JEDI contract was being crafted specifically to favor AWS was rejected last week. A judge ruled that since Oracle acknowledged that it couldn’t meet the security requirements laid out in the contract, the company did not meet the gate criteria necessary for judgement in the case. There was celebration at Amazon, but it may have been a bit premature. The same concerns regarding favoritism that Oracle has expressed have been echoed by an increasingly wary Congress. Defense appropriators in the House of Representatives recently placed a hold on JEDI funding for fiscal year 2020 over concerns that “the rapid pace of innovation in the industry… may lock the Department of Defense into a single provider for potentially as long as ten years.”
It also doesn’t help Amazon that its CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, surely ranks high up on President Donald Trump’s enemies list, as Bezos also owns the Washington Post, one of the president’s most hated “fake news”/”enemy of the people” media outlets. In other words, the Post has been a dogged critic of Trump’s daily barrage of odious policies and actions, and it drives him tweeting mad.
AWS has long been the industry leader in cloud computing. Microsoft, with its Azure cloud platform, has always been playing catch-up. But it is catching up, as are other competitors including Google, in both private and public sector applications. And while Microsoft has remained mostly quiet during the current battle, it has gently reminded the Pentagon of its 40-year partnership with the military, providing services including email. Earlier this year, Microsoft celebrated after winning a five-year, $1.76 billion enterprise services contract with the Defense Department and intelligence agencies.
While Amazon remains the favorite to land the JEDI contract, many observers warn not to count Microsoft out. No matter who wins the deal, however, what is certain is that the project is indicative of the increasing cooperation between tech companies and the military-industrial complex. This is a trend that is highly unlikely to reverse itself, even in the face of growing objections of tech workers to their companies’ complicity in the death and destruction brought on by nearly two decades of open-ended global US war against terrorism.