Defense Department’s AI Center Seeks Own Acquisition Authorities

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Having its own mechanism for purchasing artificial intelligence will increase speed, according to the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center’s chief.

In the two years since its conception, the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center has built out its staff from four people to 175 and now commands an annual budget of approximately $240 million.  

And while the JAIC has been able to meet the Defense Department’s mission demands so far, its chief—Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan—believes that the JAIC will need its own acquisition authorities to meet future technological demands.

“What I need honestly is our own acquisition authorities in the JAIC, I don’t have them right now,” Shanahan said Thursday, speaking at a virtual event held by AFCEA. “If I project another year or two forward, we are going to have to come up with different models.”

Shanahan praised partnerships JAIC has forged with other federal agencies, such as the General Services Administration and the Defense Innovation Unit. JAIC uses those partnerships to execute procurements through other agencies’ acquisition authorities, most recently awarding an $800 million contract for AI-enabled products to Booz Allen Hamilton. But as Shanahan prepares to retire from the Air Force at the end of May, he said JAIC has “to move faster” to keep pace with the technology itself and foreign adversaries’ own inroads with it.

“I couldn’t ask for better support, but it’s not fast enough as we start putting more money into these developments,” Shanahan said. “It’s a very fast curve, so we know we have to deliver. The next year will be about delivery for this organization and also about joint warfighting operations. We need to have combatant commands knocking on the door.”

Shanahan added that JAIC has “strong support on the Hill” regarding its willingness to consider different acquisition authorities and models for the Defense Department. However, acquisition isn’t the JAIC’s only hurdle. Shanahan lamented the continued delay of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, which is to provide enterprisewide cloud computing to the Defense Department. With that contract nearly two years behind schedule, Shanahan said JAIC has turned to the Air Force’s Cloud One contract in the interim for software development.