Army wrestles with competing intel analysis software tools

by Michael Cochrane
Posted 3/30/15, 11:50 am

The military acquisition system is supposed to provide the weapons, equipment, and tools service members need to defend the country. But when it wasn’t agile enough to meet a critical and fast-changing intelligence analysis need during the height of the Iraq war, some Army Special Operations units turned to a popular and effective commercial data analysis tool, setting up a showdown in Congress over meeting the troops’ needs and wants.

In the last several months, six Army special operations units about to be deployed into Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hostile environments have requested software made by Palantir, a Silicon Valley company founded in 2004 that has synthesized data for the CIA, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Navy SEALs, and the country’s largest banks, among other government and private entities.

Only two of those requests have been approved, and only after members of Congress intervened. Although legitimate requests for needed commercial software are typically approved in the military system, email messages and other military records obtained by the Associated Press show Army and Special Operations Command officials have been pressuring troops to use an analytical toolkit fielded through the military’s formal R&D process.

Development work on the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) began in 2000. It was to be the Army’s primary and all-encompassing system for intelligence processing, analysis, and dissemination. Fifteen years and $2.3 billion in development funding later, DCGS-A has not delivered the promised capability many military analysts expected. The Washington Times reports internal Army surveys “reveal a rash of soldier complaints that the network often fails to provide its stated goal: to be a one-stop source for satellite images, terrain maps, surveillance video, and intelligence reports on the enemy.”

Palantir, which received $2 million in start-up funding from the CIA, began to prove its worth to the U.S. military in 2006 with one of its first contracts, for the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Office. Technology website reports the Pentagon used the software to track patterns in roadside bomb deployment and was able to conclude attackers used garage-door openers as remote detonators.

DCGS-A is still releasing capabilities under its first iteration. But according to an internal audit by the Army’s auditor general, obtained by The Washington Times, the program deferred “immature capabilities” to a future release, satisfying only minimum capabilities for two key performance parameters.

“Minimum standards do not make sense when you are sending an intelligence network into battle,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told The Washington Times. “What the Army needed to be looking for was maximum capabilities for war fighters.”

The solution to maximizing those intelligence analysis capabilities might not end up as an either/or situation. Future releases of DCGS-A might incorporate some of Palantir’s capabilities. In an interview with Col. Robert Collins, DCGS-A program manager, C4ISR Networks magazine reports DCGS-A is reaching out to the analytics community—including Palantir—for feedback as part of its second increment development.

“Palantir offers some phenomenal solutions sets,” Collins said. “And so I encourage, invite, and plan to discuss with them any opportunities that we’ve got in order to do the best we can for the war fighter, and for DCGS-A.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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