Out of the Swamp Amazon Emerges

Member Group : Gregory Archetto

As a former defense department employee that has wrangled with antiquated information technology legacy systems from a bygone era, the news that the Pentagon was updating its IT infrastructure was no doubt good news. This is especially promising to hear for the legions of powerpoint rangers managing data on systems developed before they were born.

The massive Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, valued at approximately $10B, would theoretically allow the award winner (expected to be Amazon Web Services) to manage the cloud services for the Department of Defense (DOD) for as long as a decade while the IT infrastructure is updated.

First off, the request-for-proposal (RfP) stage for this effort was reportedly crafted as to favor a specific vendor (Amazon) using criteria favorable (and exclusive) to that company. This is not a new or unique phenomena, unfortunately, and has been part of previous DOD procurement reform efforts.

When I was working to provide defense articles and services to partner militaries, it was not uncommon to see requirements crafted for platforms that fit the specifications of a very specific model/brand of vehicle or aircraft or radio that our folks on the ground wanted.

In fact, this was the norm. You begin to ask yourself if all the laws and regulations put in place were worth the cost, given that it was merely to provide the appearance of fairness and how easy it was to subvert them. You also begin to question who might be benefitting from crafting specifications to favor one defense contractor over another.

Another issue is the scope of the proposed deal. Is it wise from a national security perspective to have just one company managing all of the Pentagon’s data? What sort of security protocols can the sole source offer and would they be more effective than the separate stovepipes that having multiple vendors would presumably offer?

While there is a case to be made here that since Amazon already has a cloud contract with the CIA, the U.S. government is already familiar with their systems. However, given the transition from an era where technology has developed primarily in the military sphere and trickled into the commercial realm, to one where the commercial sector is outpacing government research in these areas by leaps and bounds, we must be careful not to outsource too much, lest we unwittingly cede U.S. national security policy to a single private company.

Diversification in this regard seems a more prudent course, not only from an information security perspective, but also from a cost perspective, as competition tends to keep costs down. With information technology evolving so rapidly, who is to say that another vendor does not develop a faster, cheaper, more versatile “mouse trap” that might benefit the Pentagon, but is locked out of providing it because one company has already established its own monopoly within the Department.

One of the main reasons the Pentagon and the U.S. government overall are having to deal with replacing these “legacy” systems at enormous expense is because they got locked into long term contracts for technologies that became obsolete before they were fielded 30 years ago and had to put patches on top of patches to keep those systems minimally functional. Anyone that has spent countless hours trying to get reimbursed for official travel through the Defense Transportation System (DTS) is intimately familiar with this issue.

Bottom line, the speed of government and the speed of technology are at opposite ends of the spectrum. To force the technology sector to slow down to the speed of government is to hamstring innovation. Being nimble is necessary for success in Silicon Valley, and if Secretary Mattis truly wishes to bring that spirit to the massive defense department, he should question the wisdom of putting all of the Pentagon’s sensitive data in one basket.

Greg Archetto was a foreign affairs officer at Bureau of Political Military Affairs at State Security Assistance and  a former officer at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Office of Secretary of Defense. He was also foreign policy advisor to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He has a BA in Political Science from Rowan University, MA in Public Policy from Rutgers University, and MA in National Security/Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. Follow him on Twitter: @GregArchetto.