The U.S. Defense Department’s expectation that future wars will be fought across dispersed, disconnected environments is driving changes to its cloud needs. Industry is preparing for that reality.

With the nascent concept of connecting the best sensor from any location with the best shooter in any service, known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control, the defense industrial base is seeing a shift in the Pentagon’s need for tools that people can access from any location.

Cloud computing, which allows users to store data more cheaply and access it remotely, is a core principle of the department’s digital modernization strategy. With distributed war fighting on the horizon, the department will need tactical cloud abilities available in remote places.

At IBM, customers ask for cloud environments that will allow users to access data across security classifications.

“We’re seeing more much interest in more mobile environments [including] more distributed, mobile environments that can operate at multiple [classification] levels,” said Terry Halvorsen, former Defense Department chief information officer and IBM general manager for public sector client development.

The department’s cloud computing needs are expected to grow from an estimated $2.1 billion in fiscal 2020 to about $2.7 billion in 2023 — an increase of about 29 percent, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Government.

Several efforts will drive much of that growth — increased use of cloud-native applications and remote collaboration tools, continued migration of legacy systems, and the department’s artificial intelligence push.

The demand for cloud access from any setting is part of a “fundamental transition” in how the DoD views the technology, said Hillery Hunter, chief technology officer of IBM cloud.

“Cloud is no longer a conversation about being in one place,” she said. “In the next three to five years it really is a conversation … about cloud being a consistent platform that spans all the way from the original data center … out to the edge.”

In the future the military wants to process data, such as drone footage or vehicle-mounted sensor data, in the tactical environment, rather than transporting it back to data centers thousands of miles away, a process that sucks up precious bandwidth and takes too much time.

The need is driving investment by major cloud providers in smaller servers and processing devices for war fighters in remote environments. The need is evident, for example, with the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, which uses cloud services from vendors Microsoft and AWS through indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts.

“We have to create devices that can operate in those austere environments,” said Rick Wagner, president of Microsoft Federal for government customers. “Some of that goes with custom design. This is clearly obviously not simply pulling something off the shelf that’s been developed, so it’s driving us into doing more work in … creating our own devices, optimizing them to work in those environments and work with our cloud.”

At Microsoft, joint war fighting is pushing the company to think about how they can get cloud-computing capabilities into disconnected and challenging environments, such as outfitting an individual ship with cloud-enabled devices or giving every battle group a data center.

“How can we get to the point where we get pieces of the cloud everywhere the DoD is operating and then you can start tying things together?” Wagner asked. “At Microsoft, that is one of the things we are trying to optimize for … how we do compute at the edge, where the data sits, reduce the amount of time you’ve got to move data back and forth and to be able and operate with it?”

Beyond that, the department needs to be able to easily and securely pass data between classified and unclassified environments — another requirement that has industry brainstorming new options.

“There is a push to do things more remotely, and so the idea of cross-domain solutions starts to become a big” capability, Wagner said. “How do we work from unclassified to secret to top secret and beyond over a consolidated environment where you’ve got the same tool sets on every environment?”

The Pentagon plans to provide data access at different classification levels through the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud, but its enterprise cloud has been mired in controversy and is potentially on the verge of getting scrapped over a court battle. That cloud contract, experts said, is a gaping question for what the DoD’s future cloud needs looks like.

The JEDI cloud also would provide some tactical edge capabilities. Former DoD CIO Dana Deasy consistently presented JEDI as a solution that would allow soldiers at the battlefront to access data, once noting that on a trip to Afghanistan, soldiers had to use three different systems to identify an adversary, make a decision and find friendly forces.

“Over the next three to five years, it’ll really depend on if JEDI gets off the ground in fiscal 2021, which it may possibly do at the very end [of the year] if the legal decision goes the Pentagon’s way,” said Chris Cornillie, a federal market analyst at Bloomberg Government. “Otherwise, you have the DoD starting from scratch and looking to replace that big general-purpose cloud that JEDI represents with a more federated structure.”

The JEDI program is billed as a cloud that will host 80 percent of the DoD’s systems, deliver data to the war fighter at the edge and enable artificial intelligence development. In the absence of the cloud due to court cases and protests, services and other components have had to find other solutions. Cornillie suspects the military branches and fourth estate agencies will continue with the solutions they started to fill the void.

If JEDI is scrapped, “will they try to recompete another big cloud contract? I think that’s yet to be determined,” Cornillie said. “I don’t think we’ll have one big cloud contract and certainly not destined for a single vendor and a single cloud provider.”

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.