Congress gives an order to Army on battlefield processor

Budget bill urges look at alternative

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Congress is set to intervene for the first time in how the Army is developing its prized battlefield intelligence processor, which soldiers and the Pentagon’s top operational tester have deemed ineffective.

The House Armed Services Committee meets Wednesday to vote on a defense budget for fiscal 2014; the bill includes language from Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and committee chairman, that would order the Pentagon to look at ready-made alternative systems.

The committee is expected to approve the bill, involving Congress more deeply in the Distributed Common Ground System. It is the Army’s decade-old solution for collecting, storing and dispersing millions of pieces of intelligence data crucial to understanding and identifying the enemy — in this case, Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican who saw service with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, says the system at this stage simply does not work well enough to serve troops being battered by roadside bombs and a cunning enemy that can hide in plain sight.

Mr. Hunter has criticized the Army for making it difficult for commanders to obtain an off-the-shelf analyzer called Palantir. Soldiers have praised Palantir for its ability to find links between bad actors and thus help disrupt Taliban bomb-emplacement rings.

Mr. McKeon’s bill would direct the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition — not the Army — to assess the ability of commercial link-analysis tools. If the undersecretary finds they meet the requirements, the Army secretary then would be directed to request industry specialists show how they would develop such tools.

This could force the Army to integrate off-the-shelf items — something Mr. Hunter says the service is resisting to protect congressional funding for its homegrown system.

The defense bill also would require the Army to break out the common-ground system’s budget into individual lines for each component so Congress can monitor its cost growth.

The Washington Times first reported last year that units in Afghanistan had to fight Army bureaucracy at the Pentagon for permission to buy Palantir via emergency funding.

The Times also first reported on an Army memo that said tests showed the common-ground system is not operationally effective.

Politico reported May 29 on Army intelligence analysts who are contacting members of Congress as whistleblowers.

“It is a huge, bloated, excessively expensive money pit,” an unnamed Army reservist who recently finished a deployment told the newspaper.

Mr. Hunter, who has made defeating roadside bombs one of his legislative priorities, repeatedly has chastised the Army. The dispute boiled over in public at an April 25 committee hearing.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff and a leader of the Iraq troop surge, exploded in anger when he translated Mr. Hunter’s criticism as a personal insult.

“I’m tired of somebody telling me I don’t care about our soldiers,” Gen. Odierno barked.

“You have a very powerful personality,” Mr. Hunter said. “But that doesn’t refute the facts you have gaps in the capability.”

The Times has obtained a chain of Army emails about the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., setting up a major communications exercise last month for the common-ground defense system.

In the emails, the colonel in charge tells units, which include the 82nd Airborne Division, that the exercise is an “opportunity to again work through the complexities of the [common-ground system’s] architecture and connectivity,” and a chance to “identify/resolve the challenges we are seeing with [the system] at the user level.”

After seeing the emails, Mr. Hunter’s spokesman Joe Kasper said, “It’s absolutely amazing to see just how much muscle it takes to organize an exercise with [the common-ground system]. If it takes that much to organize something on a scale smaller than a full operational setting, then what does that say about the use and effectiveness of [the system in] Afghanistan?”

Army spokesman George Wright said Tuesday that the system “is the Army’s program of record and currently being used in every operational theater the Army is deployed to a great deal of success. It enables decision-makers at all levels to save lives every day. Units train to maintain proficiencies and increase their collective skill sets, and exercises like these are a vital part of the process.”

“When systems come back from any theater of operations, they need to be re-calibrated and that’s what was being done in this instance,” Mr. Wright said. “There are numerous successes from this same exercise, and the 18th [Airborne Corps] is building upon that. The identification of challenges are part of any training and are key to improving upon the system and unit processes.

“The 18th [Airborne Corps] has a global responsibility, and what they were doing was practicing their worldwide response capabilities. [The common ground system] is stable and working in Afghanistan right now, every day, and enables decision-makers to save lives. Soldiers are not having problems with the system there or anywhere.”

At April’s hearing, Gen. Odierno vigorously defended the network, saying many soldiers praise it for each one who criticizes it.

With some members of Congress urging a funding cutoff, the Army has gone into overdrive to sell the program on Capitol Hill. It put on a demonstration of the system for the press and lawmakers at Fort Belvoir.

The Army is requesting $270 million next year for the system, which will bring its total cost to $3 billion.

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