The War Over Soon-to-Be-Outdated Army Intelligence Systems

Senior Airman Amanda Nolan, 451st Expeditionary Support Squadron Security Forces Flight, scans a sector on a common remote operating weapons station from vehicle at Delta-1 Post on Kandahar Airfield. Senior Airman Amanda Nolan, 451st Expeditionary Support Squadron Security Forces Flight, scans a sector on a common remote operating weapons station from vehicle at Delta-1 Post on Kandahar Airfield. Roger Cloys/ Air Force

In the latest battle of a years-long war over what intelligence data system the Army should use, Silicon Valley firm Palantir is suing the Pentagon for locking out them out of a potentially multi-billion-dollar upgrade.

The service has spent more than $3 billion and a decade to build the Distributed Common Ground System for Army, or DCGS-A, which collates and sends intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data to the front lines. In December, the Army put out a solicitation request for companies to contribute to the system’s next increment, dubbed DCGS-A2. Several companies, including Palantir, are seeking a piece of it.

Palantir makes a commercially available data management platform called Gotham it has long argued the Army refuses to use. Members of the intelligence community use it (the company was started, in part, with money from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s investment arm), as do the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Marine Corps, and members of the special operations forces community.

Palantir officials, in their lawsuit ask that the Army’s solicitation be set aside on the grounds that it’s rigged against companies that make a commercial software that can perform the same data management tasks as DCGS at less cost to the government. The company further argues that the Army’s solicitation is illegal for ignoring a mandate that federal agencies use commercial, off-the-shelf items “to the maximum extent possible.”

Defense One was able to download the complaint last week before a federal claims court judge ordered it temporarily sealed.

“The Army has done precisely the opposite of what [the law] requires: instead of taking advantage of innovation and maximizing the extent to which commercial items are procured to satisfy the Army’s requirements, the Solicitation makes it impossible for innovative commercial items to be offered to satisfy the DCGS-A2 requirements,” Palantir alleges, in the suit. Palantir also accuses the Army of deliberating changing reports that cite soldiers' requests for its system — the charge is not new — and show that Palantir is capable of performing the data management that the Army requires of DCGS.

The suit is part of a long and brutal fight that has pitched general against general. In March, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Washington Times that DCGS “doesn’t do what it’s touted to do.” But Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, former Army intelligence chief, has said the system “provides the underlying intelligence for every decision that our commanders and soldiers make in the field and it saves lives.” In 2013, Gen. Ray Odierno got into a shouting match with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., during a hearing in which the then-chief of staff defended the Army’s intelligence system against allegations of “gaps.” Odierno argued DCGS-A worked well and was liked across agencies.

Defense One reached out to the Army for comment on the suit. They referred us to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment.

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Perhaps the most damning elements in the suit are the testimonials from members of the 82nd Airborne Division who were conducting difficult operations in Kandahar in 2011. They were using DCGS-A for threat assessment but continued to suffer casualties from roadside bombs. They went to Palantir’s website and requested more information. Palantir sent their Afghanistan field representative to provide a demo, according to the suit.

The company provided Defense One with a copy of an email from a member of the 82nd Airborne that states: “we had made an inquiry about Palantir [to the website] and their [field service representative] showed up in the middle of our crisis to do a demo. We gave him a piece of the problem to solve, and what he was able to turn around in a couple hours compared to what we had spent days on made our jaws drop.”

Soon after, the 82nd Airborne’s chief field intelligence officer made a formal request, under direction from Maj. Gen. James Huggins, 82nd Airborne’s commander at the time, to obtain the Palantir platform. “Solving very hard analytical problems takes several days when using existing tools against these data sources. In our experience in using the Palantir platform against the same problems, we were able to reduce this time to a few hours. This shortfall translates into operational opportunities missed and unnecessary risk to the force,” his request said. It was denied.

In October, Hunter wrote to Defense Secretary Ash Carter to tell him that DCGS was “offline” in Afghanistan at the time of the U.S. military strike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, citing letters from military personnel. If true, that suggests that a critical means data management tool, possibly containing data that could have thwarted the strike decision, was unavailable at exactly the moment when the military needed it most.

Hunter’s office provided Defense One with copies of two letters in which soldiers serving in Afghanistan say that DCGS system was “deadlined” in the lead up to and during the strike on the hospital in Kunduz.

A former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who served in Afghanistan, who spoke independently to Defense One on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operations publically, also put in a plug for Palantir over DCGS. “I don’t work with it. I don’t like it,” the intelligence officer said of DCGS and cited difficulty loading map layers remotely. “It’s a problem,” he said, describing the system’s performance, generally, as far from ideal. “Everything is supposed to work together but what you [really] get is a slow-loading trash that’s not easy to use.”

Part of the problem with DCGS, alleges Palantir, is that the Army’s system consists of too many contractors producing too many software products that are all smushed together. “The Army itself has used the term ‘Glue Code’ to describe this approach,” the company says.

Palantir already this year tried and failed to block the Army’s upgrade by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office, or GAO. In May, GAO denied it. Susan Poling, GAO’s general counsel, said that “significant portions” of the Army’s desired upgrade were not available on current commercially-available alternatives (like Palantir’s.)

In the GAO’s report, Poling quotes an unnamed executive from Aberdeen Proving Grounds who says that the Army officials can’t use the Palantir system because they’ve already paid for a bunch of code so they need a contractor who can “ensure that the code associated with [DCGS-A2] was made available to the government, because it would have been developed at the government expense.” In other words, DCGS may be junk, but it’s our junk.

There is also serious concern that a Palantir product would not be able to read all of the data that the military already has, or pull from all of the data sources that Army wants... A lot of DCGS files are formatted in ANB, which is short for Analysts Notebook file format, and importing them into Palantir might be difficult, according to information security researcher Stephen Arnold.

IBM makes the i2 Analysts Notebook, which is the data analysis and visualization system behind DCGS. Even Palantir officials, in their lawsuit, quote an Army paper that says that IBM would be essential for any commercial solution that the Army pursued.

IBM claims that i2 allows DCGS to incorporate much more data and many more data sources into intelligence work than does Palantir’s solution. IBM’s i2 is built on an open architecture, which is something the Army wants. But getting lots of programs and files to interact seamlessly in an open architecture environment is hard, which is, perhaps, why DCGS feels hard to use for some, requires a lot more training, and seems to fail more often.

Regardless of who makes it, the next IT solution for the military will look like the best of both DCGS and Palantir. The Army wants it to have the ability to pull in hundreds of data sources across a variety of file formats but in a way that’s reliable and simple to use, and doesn’t crash when soldiers need it.

Todd Probert, Raytheon’s vice president for mission support and modernization, discussed in March how the future of military information management would break from the past. He described a solution that sounded like a stark contrast from the DCGS outlined in Palantir’s suit. Rather, it sounds like the way DCGS was supposed to work all along, with lots of components and hundreds of data sources actually working well together in a seamless and reliable environment. It would function like the app ecosystem on modern smartphones. It would feel very Palantir but be as big as DCGS.

“There’s a big sea shift coming to move toward more open architectures, more open source, and more layered development, so the day of building a big, brand-new control system, brand-new ISR environment, is waning. The new model has got to be something like an iPhone where you’ve got a simple system and an [application program interface] framework to hang a bunch of applications to that, to where anyone can bring those applications in. The data that gets into that can be shared across those applications in a very quick sense. We’re seeing the DCGS architecture go that way.”

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