Military’s focus on space a boon for cloud, IT companies

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Space modernization and applications are driving demand for cloud computing, rapid software development and artificial intelligence.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and intelligence agencies are preparing for the day when wars are waged in space and enemies attempt to take down U.S. satellites. They are working to “defend” space at a time when the military has become hugely dependent on Big Data from space for critical missions like tracking enemies around the globe and supporting U.S. forces with tactical intelligence and weather forecasts.

This increasing focus on space is driving demand for cloud computing, rapid software development and artificial intelligence, industry executives said.

At Polaris Alpha, a defense technology contractor, business related to space and cloud is booming, the company’s executive vice president Marcus Featherston told SpaceNews. “We have tons of work and many job openings.”

The new national defense strategy calls for the military to prepare for “contested environments,” including space. Enemies like Russia and China are rapidly developing electronic and cyber weapons, the strategy warns, and the U.S. military can no longer spend decades developing technology.

“The challenge over the past few decades with IT programs is that they take much longer and more money than planned,” Featherston said. DoD wants “agile software development.” For contractors, this means “working directly with operators to get them what they need, not what somebody wrote on paper.”

Missions like space situational awareness, space command and control, and “multi-domain” command and control demand cutting-edge IT and cloud computing, he said. Polaris Alpha for the first time is exhibiting at this year’s National Space Symposium, a decision driven by the growing demand for space-related Big Data work.

Multi-domain command and control is now one of the buzziest topics in military technology. This follows the Air Force’s decision to cancel a new aircraft procurement to replace the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, and instead invest in an integrated sensor network that merges data from space, air, ground, maritime and cyber domains.

Polaris Alpha developed a data-fusion box for Air Force combat operations centers that integrates space, air and cyber data. The company plans to pitch the product for broader multi-domain applications.

The obstacle in multi-domain command and control is not technology, but the way the military services are organized, said Featherston. The fragmented organization makes it difficult to integrate data. “Traditionally those warfighting domains are managed separately within the government.”

Jay Lennon, a strategic adviser at Polaris Alpha, said the military wants an “omnipresent ability to command and control the war” and a coherent picture of the battlefield in near real time. As more data comes in from space, artificial intelligence tools will be needed to manage the information fire hose.

The military and the intelligence community are moving their data to cloud environments. What they need now are tools to exploit that data, said Featherston. “We are agnostic to the cloud platform.”

The Air Force, meanwhile, is looking to upgrade its cloud computing systems to support the massive downloads of weather data from satellites.

Ralph Stoffler, the director of weather at the office of the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, said he is pushing to terminate legacy systems and move to the cloud. “Moving data becomes more difficult as weather models become more data intensive,” Stoffler told SpaceNews in a recent interview.

“We are actively working with operators to determine requirements,” said Stoffler.

The Pentagon announced last month it plans to embark on a major acquisition of commercial cloud services.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan revealed last week that Dana Deasy — who retired in November from JP Morgan as chief information officer — will be joining the Defense Department in May to oversee IT modernization and cloud investments. Shanahan said Deasy was chosen for his skills at managing risk at large scale.

According to the market research firm Govini, the Defense Department in 2017 spent $7.4 billion on cloud, Big Data and artificial intelligence.