War Clouds On The Horizon

By Paul Cornish

The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI – informally known as ‘War Cloud’) is the US Department of Defense’s programme to enable US armed forces to operate and to prevail in the information age. The future of the programme is now in question just as ISISis going global and going digital.Without JEDI the US will be at a disadvantage. The West will lack the coherence needed for an integrated strategic information network.

The DoD’s December 2018 Cloud Strategy describes JEDI as “a commercial General Purpose enterprise-wide cloud solution” that will “ensure information superiority through data aggregation and analysis,” provide “centralized computing to tactical edge computing for the warfighter” and ‘enable emerging technologies such as AI’.

Under a contract worth US$10 billion over ten years, JEDI will effectively be a cloud service provider responsible for hosting, processing and distributing mission-critical, operational and intelligence material (ranging from unclassified to highly classified) to US armed forces around the world.

The Pentagon had hoped to award the JEDI contract by August 2019 but the process met delays. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure are competing for it. Oracle and IBM were ruled out of the competition in April 2019, although Oracle then mounted a legal challenge in the Court of Federal Claims to remain in the race.

Oracle protested the legality of the Pentagon’s insistence on a single vendor and, more specifically, that they were effectively (and unfairly) excluded from a bidding process that was allegedly designed in such a way that only AWS could meet the requirement.

After an eight month lawsuit, on 12 July the Court ruled in favour of the Pentagon, dismissing Oracle’s claim of a conflict of interest between AWS and DoD officials. For a moment at least, the way seemed clear for the Pentagon to award the contract to either AWS or Microsoft.

But then in late July President Trump entered the fray, expressing concerns about the possible award of the contract to AWS (Trump’s relationship with Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is not especially cordial). As a result, in early August Mark Esper, the newly appointed Defense Secretary, was reported by Defense One to have put the contract award “on hold.”

The award of the JEDI contract is, of course, US business – in both senses of the word. But while it has so far been a bitterly fought commercial contest, what is now of more pressing importance is the strategic struggle that is re-emerging, in which there could be far more at stake.

According to a June 2019 report published by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War,  ISIS is making a ‘Second Comeback’– with a distinctly digital flavour. In spite of having lost the territory of their so-called Caliphate, ISIS is far from defeated and could even be stronger today than its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was in 2011. ISIS forces are continuing to wage a “capable insurgency” involving as many as 30,000 fighters (as opposed to AQI’s 700 or so in December 2011).

The report describes a renewed emphasis on, and enthusiasm for elaborate (and effective) command, control and communications systems, a sophisticated understanding of the role of the global media (ISIS resumed its global media operations in July 2018) and of social media, and a sharpened interest in the value of relatively low-cost technology such as drones.

Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ISIS has ambitions to expand its global presence beyond Iraq and Syria. In a video message broadcast in April Baghdadi encouraged ISIS’s ‘global community of fighters and supporters’ to join a new ‘Battle of Attrition’. A series of suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday – in which 259 were killed and some 500 injured – appears to have been inspired by Baghdadi’s message.  ISIS has also claimed responsibility for operations in West Africa, Libya, Somalia, Central Africa, Pakistan and the Sinai Peninsula as well as others in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

If the “Second Comeback” report is accurate then the ISIS insurgency has not only resumed, it has returned with more ambition and agility than before, and with a sharpened awareness of the value of information in insurgency warfare. ISIS is not only going global, it is also going digital. This internationally distributed, information-enabled, agile war of attrition seems highly likely to challenge the values and interests of western states and their allies. The significance is clear; the information domain is not merely another feature on the strategic landscape, it is an environment for which the West needs to act strategically – or it will fail.

Western governments and security institutions are grasping the War Cloud idea; positioning themselves to win and maintain the initiative in information operations. NATO allies, for example, have agreed to establish a new Cyberspace Operations Centre (CyOc), to be fully operational in 2023. According to NATO Review the CyOc will be the Alliance’s “theatre component for cyberspace … responsible for providing cyberspace situational awareness, centralised planning for the cyberspace aspects of Alliance operations and missions, and coordination for cyberspace operational concerns.” In other words, NATO is developing its own War Cloud.

Information can be a strategic asset if it is networked among like-minded governments and organisations, but a gaping strategic vulnerability if it is not. JEDI is vital, not only in the national security interest of the US but also to ensure that the West’s strategic information network is as coherent and decisive as it can be. For both reasons, the JEDI contracting process should be concluded as a matter of urgency.

Paul Cornish is an independent security and defence policy analyst. He is Visiting Professor at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics, and is a member of The Alphen Group.

Twitter: @pncornish | LinkedIn: pncornish

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