U.S. commanders increasingly are turning to a relatively obscure battlefield detective to find buried bombs, a major killer of Americans in Afghanistan.
But getting permission to buy the detection system has not been easy, a congressman says.
The detective is not a sniffer dog, surveillance gear or metal detector. It is a software platform called Palantir that allows intelligence analysts to quickly mine streams of war-fighting data and calculate likely spots where the Taliban are hiding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack allied convoys.
The Washington Times has obtained internal military documents that show commanders praising Palantir as a roadside-bomb buster. At the same time, they had to urge higher-ups to let them buy the system because the software platform is not standard issue or a separate budgeted item.
“The problem with the military is they have big programs for billions and billions of dollars, and Palantir is a semi-off-the-shelf, awesome product — software that’s written by geniuses not working at the Defense Department,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Army told The Times that it has invested in a broad-based intelligence collection system — the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, which it can update as needed. The Army said soldiers are using the ground system and Palantir concurrently.
The Common Ground System “is the Army’s program of record, and has been built deliberately to support current and future requirements of the intelligence community and government agency framework so the Army can save time and money leveraging existing tools and resources,” said Col. Charles Wells, the system’s project manager. “We combine government and commercial software to integrate best-of-breed applications and solutions to our soldiers.”
“Program of record” designation means it is included as a separate item in the Army’s annual budget submission to Congress.
According to Mr. Hunter’s office, the Pentagon has spent about $222 million in the past two years on the Common Ground System and $20 million on the Palantir system, which comprises computer servers, laptops and other support equipment.
Palantir is best known inside government circles as software that can track terrorist financing and uncover fraud. At some point during the war, Palantir Technologies Inc., the company that developed the software, adapted it to do detective work on IEDs as it was fed volumes of information — open-sourced and classified — on battlefield trends.
Internal military documents show commanders pressing their superiors to make Palantir more available.
One such document was written Feb. 13 by Maj. Gen. John Toolan, then the top Marine Corps commander in southwestern Afghanistan, to the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. The office had provided Gen. Toolan with funds to buy three Palantir servers and other components for a yearlong deployment.