JAIC thinks AI might solve DoD’s struggles with contract writing systems

The DoD Reporter’s Notebook is a weekly summary of personnel, acquisition, technology and management stories that may have fallen below your radar during the past week, but are nonetheless important. It’s compiled and published each Monday by Federal News Network DoD reporters Jared Serbu and Scott Maucione.

The Defense Department has been trying to move the military services and Defense agencies to a single, modernized contract writing system for a decade now. And although those efforts have seen major setbacks, DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center thinks it might be possible to build one with AI, and to have something to show for it as early as next March.

Under the auspices of Tradewind, the new acquisition vehicle the JAIC established earlier this year, the center issued a Sept. 20 call for commercial technologies for a possible “AI-powered contract writing system.” The goal is to automate as much of the procurement process as possible, and maybe also prove out some new use cases where AI can be brought to bear on other DoD business systems.

“There is no Joint DoD common infrastructure and platform that would enable collaboration and execution of contracts with partners across the DoD,” according to the solicitation. “If successful, the solution will result in efficiencies in contract award lead times, regulatory processes, data analytics, performance management, and audit compliance.”

Vendors had until last week to propose their first round of ideas to solve real-world problems DoD contractors and other acquisition professionals submitted. That phase of the process, according to JAIC, is meant to determine how many vendors and AI entrepreneurs understand the problems.

Next, in phase 2, a narrowed-down group of participants will be invited to 45-minute sessions to pitch their ideas and field questions from a government panel. Then, in phase 3, an even smaller group will get $50,000 awards to build prototypes.

The JAIC wants the prototypes to be operational by March 15, and able to perform tasks like building an automated request for proposals or market research report.

Both the broader Tradewind project and the AI contract writing system use DoD’s other transaction authority, which lets the department award production contracts directly to companies who’ve already successfully competed for prototype work on the same project. The solicitation makes clear that JAIC is considering using that authority, so it’s at least theoretically possible the new solicitation could end up forming the basis for a real-world contract writing system, or at least part of one.

In recent years, the Army and Navy in particular have struggled to build or buy modern contract writing systems that suit the needs of their own services, let alone one that interoperates across the entire department.

In July, the Navy paused work on a 10-year, $222.9 million contract with CGI to build its new Electronic Procurement System (ePS), citing the vendor’s failure to meet requirements and users grading the system as an “F.”

The Army is working on a system based on the same commercial software – Momentum – and sent CGI a cure letter in 2019 to fix defects in its version, the Army Contract Writing System (ACWS). The Army confirmed to Federal News Network earlier this year that it was also looking at other potential options. —JS


White House initiative aimed at mitigating government pollution coming soon

The White House is currently drafting an executive order that will mandate greenhouse gas mitigation efforts from at least the Defense Department, if not other agencies.

The announcement comes just after 23 departments and agencies, including DoD, released their climate adaptation plans, which provided a framework for how they will operate in a world impacted by climate change.

The Pentagon’s mitigation will build on past statutes like the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the newer version of the law from 2020.

“All of that statute sets out targets for greenhouse gas reductions which will be followed on by a new executive order from the White House,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for environment and energy resilience, said during a Defense Writers Group event. “That will set forth our targets and I think our targets will be in line with many of the things you’ve already heard from the administration.”

“We have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero and we have to do it — before 2050,” he added. “If we want to have the most pronounced effects of climate change. Using the federal government are expected to contribute to that objective within our mission set and parameters. We’re going to be part of that effort.”

If DoD were a country, it would be the 55th largest polluter, beating out 140 nations.

Kidd said DoD will not be completely independent of fossil fuels. Part of the climate adaptation plan is a focus on resiliency. That includes a plan that will build microgrids on bases, so that those installations can run self-sufficiently. At times, that will require the use of nonrenewable energy sources.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said last week that DoD is planning to give climate change its own category in the budget so that funds going to mitigating or remediating environmental issues can be tracked easier.

The Pentagon will also need cooperation from its contractors to cut back on emissions. DoD’s climate adaptation plan says the department “will use its position as the single largest buyer of goods and services to drive transparency within and across its supply chain; expecting major suppliers to fully disclose greenhouse gas emissions and broader environmental, social and governance performance.”

Kidd said that won’t necessarily come in the form of requirements.

“Most smart companies [are] recognizing gas closure is the reality in the future,” he said. “There’s a tremendous set of initiatives in the private sector already to look at greenhouse gas emissions, we’re just going to get in line with that momentum. A number of companies are publishing greenhouse gas emissions information. We frequently meet with the highest levels when these companies come in and talk to us and we are asking what their greenhouse gas emissions profile is like and what their climate commitments are.”

DoD’s climate adaptation plan makes drastic changes to the way it operates in a world affected by extreme weather.

“Climate change will continue to amplify operational demands on the force, degrade installations and infrastructure, increase health risks to our service members, and could require modifications to existing and planned equipment,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in the plan. “Extreme weather events are already costing the Department billions of dollars and are degrading mission capabilities.” — SM


Does DoD need such a big budget? CBO report finds alternatives to high defense spending

The more liberal wing of the Democratic Party has found traction recently in reducing military spending. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for example, created considerable debate with his amendment to last year’s defense authorization act that would have reduced defense spending by 10%, and put that money toward infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

With the United States now withdrawn from the War in Afghanistan, many are questioning what kind of funding the Defense Department needs.

A new study from the Congressional Budget Office lays out three options for reducing the military budget by $1 trillion, or 14%, over the next 10 years. That comes from DoD estimates that it will need $7.3 trillion in budgeting for the next 10 years.

The study outlines three options that will protect the nation, while also costing taxpayers less.

The first option is a proportional reduction in military size by moving the United States away from the National Defense Strategy and more toward the strategy it used before 2018. The force would be 19% smaller than it currently is and would assume that the United States take a less interventionist role in global politics.

“The expectation that U.S. forces should have overmatch against all opponents can be traced to post–Cold War conflicts like the Gulf War in 1990, operations in Bosnia in 1992 and Kosovo in 1998,” the CBO authors wrote. “Those demonstrated successes against lesser adversaries might not be possible against adversaries in the future regardless of the size of the U.S. defense budget. Changes in technology and tactics make it less likely the United States can achieve overmatch in military confrontations with adversaries.”

CBO said DoD could even achieve overmatch by focusing on building strength in specific areas and cooperating with allies.

Under the first option the Navy would reduce its ship size to 238, older aircraft would be retired and the Army’s brigade combat teams would lessen from 31 to 25.

The second option is similar to how the United States handled the U.S.S.R. by focusing more on alliances.

“The United States would plan to promptly counterattack an aggressor’s military forces and follow up with military, economic, and diplomatic actions designed to force the aggressor to change its behavior,” the authors wrote. “The objective would be to increase the cost of aggression rather than to mount a full-scale defense or immediate counterattack.”

Under that option the United States would focus on building up allies and put its money toward long-range weapons and naval power. The Navy would have a fleet of about 370 and the Marine Corps would prioritize the development of new capabilities of that team with partners.

The Air Force would trim tactical and airlift squadrons and the Army would retain its ability to maintain large-scale operations while using smaller units and assisting allies on long-range strikes.

The final option would focus on protecting the United States’ economic and commerce priorities and convene with allies to create more of a military coalition.

“If an enemy attacked an ally, the United States could use its command of the commons to restrict the enemy’s movement and trade while providing direct material support to U.S. allies who were under attack,” the authors wrote.

This option would increase the Navy to 340 ships and significantly reduce the Army’s funding. The Air Force would increase airlift, fueling capacities and bombers.

Some of these options have been proposed, at least in part, by more moderate Democrats as well. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has repeatedly said the National Defense Strategy stretches the United States too thin.

Many taxpayer advocacy groups are praising the report.

“The CBO report enriches the debate about the real costs and opportunities of unaffordable Pentagon spending. There are numerous ways to protect our national security interests for significantly less than three-quarters of a trillion dollars,” said Mandy Smithberger, director for the center for defense information at the Project on Government Oversight. “It is critical that Congress hold hearings on CBO’s findings and seriously consider its proposals for Pentagon and nuclear savings.”

William Hartung, co-director of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, said the CBO report is a useful, if not conservative, framework for Congress.

“The CBO was able to find multiple pathways to saving $1 trillion over ten years even under the current overly muscular National Defense Strategy developed during the Trump administration, which relies on military force to the detriment of other more effective solutions,” he said.

Some on the Republican-side of the aisle and supporters of the National Defense Strategy are sticking to a model increasing the defense budget by 3% to 5% per year. Congress is possibly going to be adding funds to the president’s 2022 budget to achieve that framework.— SM

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