White House budget proposes boost for military’s AI while keeping overall DOD budget steady

President Trump's fiscal 2021 budget request asks for more funding for emerging technologies as DOD leaders look to contain costs on legacy systems and buy more cloud services.
President Donald Trump
President Trump addresses journalists in New York on Sept. 25, 2019. (U.S. Department of State / Flickr)

The Department of Defense’s programs for artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies would see increased investments under President Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget, along with a corresponding divestment from legacy systems and other programs.

The increased investment to AI would be taken from “redundant” programs that in part were identified by Defense Sectary Mark Esper through his Defense Wide Review. A copy of the review obtained by FedScoop identified more than $5 billion that would be “harvested” from the so-called Fourth Estate support agencies and put into parts of the budget more directly related to the National Defense Strategy.

The Defense Information Systems Agency — which handles the military’s IT systems — is one such agency that Esper wants to see cuts to, but neither the review nor Trump’s budget specifies exactly how much DISA could stand to lose. With DOD’s emphasis on acquiring cloud services, work that traditionally has belonged to DISA is being done elsewhere.

The budget request proposes $841 million overall for AI research and development, or about 8 percent over current-year funding of $780 million.


“This budget reflects a major increase in AI funding for defense,” Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the outgoing founding director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) said on a call with reporters. The White House requested a 20 percent increase in JAIC funding, up to $290 million from $242 million in the current year, Shanahan said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would see an 8 percent bump in AI research funding, up to $459 million, said Elaine McCusker, DOD’s chief financial officer at a press conference about the budget.

“DAPRA is aggressively applying current AI technology to the hardest DOD problems … and leading the creation of the next wave of AI technologies which are fundamentally different,” Shanahan said.

The proposed increase in funding comes as report after report and expert after expert has called for increased research and development funding for emerging technology like AI. A recently departed DOD official called for a tenfold increase in funding for the JAIC and other groups.

“Now is the time to supercharge DOD access to innovation,” Raj Shah, former head of the Defense Innovation Unit, said last week during congressional testament.


The top-line DOD funding request is $705 billion, a number in line with the current fiscal 2020 spending estimates provided in the budget released Monday.

Other DOD IT systems could land on the chopping block

Esper’s review stated he wants Congresses to help it further his reshuffling of billions of dollars within the DOD to move away from costly legacy IT systems. DOD CIO Dana Deasy has been tasked with continuing to identify legacy systems to divest from as budget reviews continue.

“The CMO, in partnerships with the DOD Chief Information Officer, will rationalize Information Technology (IT) systems to improve efficiency and accountability,” according to the report. “Eliminating legacy applications” is listed as a theme in the review.

The White House’s request did not include any mention of the controversial Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) but did champion cloud migration as a long-term cost-saving measure.


“DOD’s reform efforts include initiatives to sunset legacy data systems, transfer personnel data infrastructure to cloud technology, and transition legacy information technology infrastructure to emerging capabilities,” the request states.

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