Radha Iyengar Plumb, the Pentagon’s Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Officer, is seen here in a 2022 photo. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

WASHINGTON — Less than two months into her new post as the Pentagon’s Chief Digital & Artificial Intelligence Officer, Radha Plumb is working on some big plans for the coming months.

“Our goal is to at least start some of those announcements by the end of the summer,” Plumb told Breaking Defense in her first interview since taking the job. “But certainly, between the end of the summer through the fall, you’ll start seeing those publicly in terms of solicitations, solutions, that sort of thing.”

Her first big move since taking office was to hand out a set of awards for a new model of AI and big data analytics that CDAO calls Open DAGIR, short for “Open Data and Applications Government-owned Interoperable Repositories.” That initiative gives upstart defense contractor Palantir up to $513 million to build “mission command” data and planning tools for the military’s four-star Combatant Commands around the world — part of the Pentagon’s high-priority push to expand its nascent global command network, called CJADC2.

But the way CDAO structured Open DAGIR — both the technological architecture and the contract language — creates a model Plumb plans to expand to a wide range of other areas, starting with AI-powered “enterprise analytics” for back office business functions, and a “tactical layer” for units in combat.

What’s more, as the “Open” in its name implies, the new model does not depend on Palantir or any single prime contractor, as in many traditional Pentagon programs. Instead, Plumb emphasized, it’s meant to open the door wide to rapid innovation from a host of competing vendors, large and small.

“Palantir, right now, is one of the providers,” Plumb told Breaking Defense. “Our goal is really to have multiple providers in that ecosystem … That’s partly a competition issue, but partly a technology issue.”

Certainly, being able to pick between competing vendors gets the government better prices, she said. But just as important, no one company will have the best tech for all the different things the Department of Defense needs to do.

“You want the infrastructure you design for mission command to look different than the data infrastructure you want, say, for enterprise analytics,” she said. “You want that to look still different than, say, your tactical data infrastructure.”

Imagine a spectrum of systems, with enterprise analytics at one end, tactical data on the other, and theater-level mission command somewhere in the middle. The “enterprise” is the Pentagon’s back office business functions, ranging from financial management and human resources to weapons development and acquisition. Those can operate much like a commercial firm, even using some of the same commercial software, cloud-based services, and high-speed internet to crunch vast amounts of data day-to-day.

At the other extreme, units in combat need to get updated tactical data in hours or minutes, and they need it delivered over rugged radio networks that can withstand not just extremes of climate but enemy hacking, jamming, and attempts to triangulate the source of signals for precision strike. There’s no commercial market for such a system. However, troops in combat don’t need to crunch massive databases to prepare thousand-page budget requests or financial audits. They mostly need coordinates and status of targets, threats, friendlies, and objectives, ASAP.

“Enterprise analytics… could be higher latency,” Plub explained. “Tactical data… you want to be very low latency, but much lower volume of data.”

But there’s one more wrinkle: A theater planner or battlefield commander will sometimes want to pull logistical and business data — maintenance status on a unit’s vehicles, for instance, or medical records on casualties. So while the tactical, theater, and enterprise systems all need to work at different speeds and scales to serve their different users, they also need to be interconnected and able to share data, not isolated in separate silos.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, no one mega-contract or super-vendor to solve all these problems, no One Ring to rule them all. Instead, Plumb said, “what we want to do is, for each of those infrastructure investments, [to] make sure we’re getting the right company and the right architecture.”

Sometimes this means inventing new systems, she said. Often, however, it means building on proven tech the DoD has already invested in, like Palantir’s Maven Smart System for COCOM planners — which last week’s contracts expanded tenfold — or Booz Allen Hamilton’s work on the Advana enterprise analytics system.

“The Department’s actually invested in all of these things already,” Plumb said. “They just haven’t been — to use it as a verb — ‘Open-DAGIRed’ yet…. Part of this kind of six-month procurement during the run is getting the contracts for those right so that we can make them more modular and less vertically integrated.”

From Open DAGIR To Data Stacks

Plumb’s Open DAGIR model is a layered approach, with many interconnected pieces. It is meant to be modular, able to swap out any vendor’s software and seamlessly swap in another’s, while all other elements keep working smoothly and without interruption.

That plug-and-play process is easy in principle but takes a lot of clever engineering in practice. In the Pentagon, it also requires considerable contracting finesse. For Maven Smart System, Plumb made a point of working through the Army Contracting Command, whose skills she extolled.

“We took two months to negotiate just that kind of enterprise license piece, so that we can maximize government leverage but [also] ensure reliable access to this mature application,” she said.

In particular, in order to change contractors at will without losing access to key data or functions, the Department of Defense needs to own the data — and not just the raw data scattered around disparate DoD databases, Plumb emphasized, but the metadata and analytic outputs built on that data as well.

“Start with the data infrastructure,” Plumb said. “At that layer, rather than having one solid slab at the bottom, we already have this data mesh” — that is, a “federated” system that connects many distinct databases maintained by different DoD organizations, rather than trying to dump everyone’s data into one massive (and often unmanageable) “data lake.”

“The infrastructure needs to match that,” she went on. “[That means] having it be multi-vendor, with clear documentation and government ownership of, not just the data that goes in and the data that comes out, but the secret sauce that happens in the middle: the metadata management and business logic [and] data ontology…. We need to know what’s the processing that’s done to the data from the raw data up to the data product.”

How swappable will systems be in reality? In the current iteration of Open DAGIR, everything depends on Palantir. The Denver-based company runs the foundational data layer; it runs the primary suit of software applications that use that data, Maven Smart System; and it even manages the marketplace for trying out innovative new applications from third parties.

But, Plumb emphasized, the government is still calling the shots on what third-party software to bring in, rather than letting Palantir act as a prime contractor or “lead systems integrator” that can pick and choose its subcontractors.

“Palantir is tasked with integration because they are the contract operator for the stack, but the selection of third-party vendors and the negotiations on data rights and IP is [done] in partnership with the government,” she said. “Rather than Palantir deciding what third-party vendor it wants to integrate and offer up to the government, we’re deciding what are our requirements, who are our third-party vendors, what is the data they need, and then pushing them into the stack that we own.”

What’s more, the data system that Palantir now runs is not the only one CDAO plans to build, Plumb said. Her long term goal is multiple, interoperable “data stacks” for different kinds of data, she told Breaking Defense, all owned by the government but operated by the best contractor for that specific task, all accessible to software applications built by any vendor and to users in the tactical, theater, and enterprise worlds.

“The Department’s actually invested in all of these things already,” Plumb said. “Now…we’re making the enduring investments in that infrastructure, so it is available in a reliable way, with the right open-data interoperability principles, so that we can actually build applications.”