Months before the Army’s ill-fated 5th Stryker Brigade was to leave Washington state in the summer of 2009 for the war in Afghanistan, its commander became convinced that he needed a particular type of equipment to counter cunning bomb-makers.
The buzz was spreading among combat commanders that an analytical software platform named Palantir could soak up and analyze all sorts of battlefield data on the enemy, and then provide clues as to where roadside bombs — the No. 1 killer of Americans in Afghanistan — and their makers might be located.
Soldiers liked its ease of use, while some complained that the Army’s official intelligence-analysis system, the Distributed Common Ground System, was cumbersome.
Months later, after heavy casualties, some of his soldiers told headquarters that their mission would have gone better if Palantir had been with them from the start.
This is the untold story of how the Army, according to those close to Col. Tunnell, resisted his requests and relented only when he was in actual combat. The Palantir shipment did not arrive until February 2010. By the time it showed up and soldiers became acclimated to it, the brigade was in its last months of deployment.
The Washington Times obtained a January 2009 memo addressed to Army headquarters and carrying Col. Tunnell’s name specifically requesting Palantir six months before the brigade was dispatched to Afghanistan.
The memo says that Army-issued computer gear, including the common-ground system, exhibited an “intelligence gap” in sharing data company to company.
“The Palantir system allows the [company intelligence support teams] the ability to collect and mine data from various sources to combine into an actionable report for the commander,” said the memo, which was drafted at the Stryker Brigade’s headquarters at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Army headquarters at the Pentagon told The Times a different story. A spokesman said the Army never received an official request from Col. Tunnell until July 23, 2009, when the brigade had settled into Kandahar. The spokesman said the brigade obtained Palantir before it left for Afghanistan.
The Army said in a statement: “The memorandum you’ve provided regarding an Operational Needs Statement for Palantir Analytical Software in support of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team [SBCT], 2nd Infantry Division, is inaccurate and unsigned. 5/2 SBCT deployed to Southern Afghanistan with the Army’s most advanced Network-Centric capabilities at that time, and Palantir.”
A different story
Col. Tunnell, and some of his men, tell a different version.
Col. Tunnell was interviewed last week by a staffer for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican. Mr. Hunter, a Marine Corps veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, charges that the Army resisted allowing units to buy Palantir because it sees it as a threat to the institution’s own system, the common ground system.
Staffer Joe Kasper, who conducted the interview, quoted Col. Tunnell as saying that he made formal requests to the Army’s intelligence headquarters, known as G-2, but was told to use standard-issue networks as opposed to the off-the-shelf Palantir, made by Palantir Technologies.