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Confidential memo: Army intelligence software has ‘poor reliability’

Updates planned, but not Palantir

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Army's intelligence-processing software that was developed to help soldiers in Afghanistan understand the enemy and predict actions suffers from "poor reliability" and is "not survivable" against cyberattacks, the service's top tester said in a confidential memo to the Army chief of staff.

The highly critical Aug. 1 report on the Distributed Common Ground System was submitted as the Army was under fire for making it difficult for commanders in Afghanistan to buy a competing software platform called Palantir, which soldiers say helps them find roadside bombs, the top killer of U.S. troops.

Click here to view the report (PDF file)

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week announced that it was investigating the Army's decision to kill an April evaluation that favored Palantir. The Army ordered the assessment destroyed and replaced it with a second report less favorable to Palantir.

The Aug. 1 memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, was written by Maj. Gen. Genaro Dellarocco, who heads the Army Test and Evaluation Command — the same command that conducted the in-country survey of Palantir users, then killed it.

Gen. Dellarocco's memo to Gen. Raymond T. Odierno reports on the results of operational tests on the Distributed Common Ground System software in May and June.

The memo uses terms such as "not suitable," "not survivable" and "effective with significant limitations" to describe the system of databases and analytical processors designed to help soldiers understand and predict enemy tactics.

George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service is working to improve the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS.

"The report provides an initial review of DCGS software, which identified specific limitations in its performance," Mr. Wright said. "Many of these limitations were already identified by the Army, and software updates have been implemented to address the concerns.

"Military software applications and tools today are similar to our smartphones: Applications are constantly updated to meet user needs. The version of DCGS-A identified in this test is undergoing improvement in a constantly evolving process."

The Dellarocco report is sure to bolster the case of Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Hunter accuses the Army of protecting its homegrown system, for which it has spent more than $2 billion, at the expense of several commanders who have urged the Pentagon over the past year to let them buy the cheaper Palantir system.

Developed by Palantir Technologies Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., the software platform is used by special operations units, Air Force personnel and some Army units that are able to win Pentagon approval to buy it.

The Dellarocco report said that, under low-tempo operational tests that were much less strenuous than actual battle, the common ground system was cumbersome and prone to crashes.

"Poor reliability was observed," Gen. Dellarocco wrote. "Server failures that resulted in reboots/restarts were recorded every 5.5 hours of test. … Workstation operators experienced a failure every 10.8 hours of active usage.

"Based on observations across many programs, we expect that high [operational tempo] conditions will decrease reliability further still."

Gen. Dellarocco said the common ground software was so difficult to use that it "impacted operator confidence and increased their frustration."

His memo points out that "multiple open screens are required to complete a single task" and that computers tend to freeze because so many screens are open. In addition, users must convert data into different formats, a process that adds many steps and allows for errors to be introduced.

The general urged that the Distributed Common Ground System program manager issue a "tech bulletin" warning units in Afghanistan that the system is vulnerable to hacking. The program manger is developing a plan for the common defense system "to address many of the shortcomings we have identified," he said.

Gen. Dellarocco ended his report by saying that Pentagon civilian testers likely will find the software "not effective, not suitable and not survivable."

Mr. Wright said the Army is using tests to upgrade the common defense system.

"The Army is currently working to further improve DCGS-A capabilities as we receive feedback from soldiers and units in combat," the Army spokesman told The Times. "The Army's approach, which focuses on effective capabilities delivered to soldiers, not specific commercial products, is designed to field the latest technologies as we continuously strive for improvement. Based upon this feedback, areas of planned improvement include enhanced ease of use for soldiers in combat."

The Army has provided little response to charges about the April evaluation and efforts to nix requests for Palantir.

But in internal documents obtained by The Times, Army officials imply that the requests were "ghost written" by contractors.

Several senior officers have praised Palantir in memos to the Pentagon.

In July 2011, Brig. Gen. Christopher K. Haas, then a senior special operations commander in Afghanistan, requested $2.5 million to buy Palantir, calling it "mission critical."

Two months ago, Army Col. Mark Stock, a brigade commander, asked the Pentagon for Palantir, saying that "mission essential requirements for force protection and targeting IED threats … are not met by current intelligence systems."

Meanwhile, Army Brig. Gen. Harold J. Greene, deputy for acquisition and systems management, expressed concern that reports about the Distributed Common Ground System and Palantir have suggested that there is a choice or competition between the two software platforms. He said the common ground system "does much more than Palantir does."

"DCGS does tasking, processing, exploitation and dissemination, while Palantir does a small subset of the mission of DCGS," Gen. Greene told The Times. "It does a portion of the exploitation focused on link analysis. DCGS does have a link analysis tool, but it does so much more than that. … It's really not a competition between DCGS, as a whole, and Palantir."

Asked about problems found in just-completed testing, Gen. Greene said: "There are some parts of it working very well, both in the theater and the continental United States. As we are finding out, we did a test. You do tests to see how well things work, and there are some things in the emerging reports we are hearing that we need to correct and we have corrected many of them already."

Asked why soldiers in Afghanistan have praised Palantir and have sought special permission to buy it, the general said: "The Palantir system does some things very well. It has an ease of use and an ease of training that we would like to leverage."

The Army is looking at adding those features to the common ground system.

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