Special forces and Marines are embracing the commercial software Palantir for analyzing battlefield intelligence even as the Army seeks to downplay its effectiveness, according to a new report from government auditors.
Both U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, and the Marine Corps have opted to field the product to troops after finding it “easy to use” and “effective” on missions in Afghanistan in recent years, according to a June report from the Government Accountability Office and obtained by Military.com.
The command, which oversees operations involving Navy SEALs and other elite troops, last year added the software to its version of a military-wide intelligence system called the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS, according to the document, which is labeled “for official use only” and hasn’t been previously released. The Marine Corps next year may do the same.
“Users indicated it was a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations,” the report states. “The software had gained a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, while also providing effective tools to link and visualize data.”
The commercial software is made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir Technologies Inc. The company was founded in 2004 with seed money from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. The military has spent about $35 million on versions of the product, according to government auditors.
Palantir’s non-defense customers include civilian agencies such as the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which used the software to investigate fraud in stimulus spending, and investment banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., which installed it to analyze trends in mortgage and financial data.
While SOCOM and the Corps have pushed for wider adoption of the software, the Army has only approved limited use of the product and instead encouraged soldiers to rely on its existing system.
The service’s reluctance to adopt the commercial software has angered lawmakers such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who got into a heated exchange over the issue with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno in April during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
The congressman, a former Marine who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticized the Army system for what he said was its increasing cost and lackluster performance, and questioned why a commander who requested Palantir never received it.
Odierno defended the Army’s actions, saying his staff members are doing “all they can to help.”
The Distributed Common Ground System was conceived in the 1990s as a better way to analyze and share intelligence by shifting from “stovepipe” systems, in which data can’t be easily modified or shared, to an open architecture based on common standards set by the larger intelligence community.
The military-wide system is estimated to cost at least $10.6 billion. More than half of that, or about $6 billion, has already been spent, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
Yet troops in Afghanistan as late as 2010 were asking for better tools to sift through the torrent of digital information being captured by surveillance aircraft and other platforms, according to the GAO report.
The number of aerial drones used to collect intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan surged from 150 to 7,500 aircraft from 2002 to 2010, the document states. A single Predator made by San Diego-based General Atomics can loiter over the battlefield for hours taking photographs, capturing live video, collecting infrared and other imagery, it states.
The sheer volume of intelligence data has overwhelmed analysts, who complain of having to search multiple databases to find relevant information, according to government auditors.
The Army’s version of the system draws on more than 600 sources of information, from Global Hawk drones and GPS satellites to ground sensors and biometric scanners, officials said. It uses a mix of commercial and military software applications to link the vast amounts of data, including Google Earth made by Google Inc. and i2 Analyst’s Notebook made by IBM Corp., they said.
During a three-day demonstration of the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System in May at Fort Belvoir, Va., just south of Washington, D.C., officers and soldiers criticized Palantir for not being fully compatible with the service’s technology.
“It’s essentially a difficult problem because Palantir uses a different data anthology and data structure than we do on the DCGS side and the [intelligence community] side,” Col. Charles Wells, who manages the Army program, said at the event. “It’s not a trivial change or a trivial problem that we’re trying to work through. It actually requires some fundamental adjustments to the data structure.”
Yet Special Operations Command seems to have overcome that challenge, according to the GAO report.
“Although the two systems are not fully interoperable, SOCOM has worked out a means to integrate the systems so users can gain the benefits of both,” the document states. “Users will have to import and export data across the systems, but SOCOM has developed a user-friendly way to do this.”
Army Lt. Col. Jerome Pionk, a spokesman for the Army at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail the service entered into a cooperative research agreement with Palantir in May 2012 and that, as of now, ingestion of data from Palantir to DCGS can only be done manually.
In another e-mail, Pionk said the report makes clear that while the Army has more troops and a different mission than Special Operations Command or the Marine Corps, the services are working to support the Distributed Common Ground System to share information across the military, intelligence community and coalition forces.
The document acknowledges the Army’s gains in developing common intelligence standards, and in testing and certifying software compatibility, Pionk said.
It also cites the importance of using an open-architecture approach so the Defense Department “can make improvements to the system without having to commit to a specific product or developer,” he said.