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Rep. Duncan Hunter takes Army to task over requests for IED finder

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2013

A group of senior Army officers in December appeared before reporters at the Pentagon to rebut charges from a congressman that the bureaucracy was sabotaging requests from war fighters for an off-the-shelf intelligence processor.

The generals and colonels defended the Army's own battlefield system, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), while talking about the limits of Palantir. The latter is a commercially produced platform and software lauded by soldiers for its ability to link and identify terrorists and thus defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the No. 1 killer of Americans in Afghanistan.

This week, the complaining congressman — Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican — accused the Army brass of maintaining a bureaucratic sabotage on Palantir requests.

In a March 27 letter to Army Secretary John McHugh, Mr. Hunter said that three years after an Army combat unit made the first request for Palantir, "Army units continue to have to fight to get the resources and equipment they need."

A Hunter aide said the congressman's office has continued to receive "a stream of complaints" from inside the Army that repeated, urgent requests to the service's Rapid Equipping Force get tied up in red tape — essentially a denial.

Internal memos from Army and Marine Corps units in Afghanistan, first reported by The Washington Times last summer, told of how Palantir saved lives because it increased the rate of finding unexploded IEDs.

Mr. Hunter's letter listed three brigade combat teams — the 4th of the 82nd Airborne, the 4th of the 2nd Infantry Division and the 3rd of the 25 Infantry Division — that had made formal bids for Palantir.

"As of today, the Army has taken no action on those requests, in effect denying a critical capability to those in harm's way," he said in his letter to Mr. McHugh. "I would appreciate your personal assurance that Army leaders are acting to fulfill these urgent requests."

A Hunter aide said one of the three brigades is fighting in Afghanistan; the other two are training to deploy.

In response to Mr. Hunter's letter, Army spokesman George Wright released a statement to The Times saying that the two brigades in training did not receive Palantir because their deployment schedules were canceled.

The Hunter aide said that even if the brigades do not deploy as scheduled, they still should receive the software for training purposes.

Mr. Wright said the brigade in Afghanistan has "access" to Palantir.

But the Hunter aide said that brigade also wants Palantir at is home base, where analysts can help deployed soldiers via the so-called "reach-back" capability.

Said Mr. Wright: "The bottom line is that we are filling operational needs statements from units requiring Palantir, and will continue to do so."

Mr. Wright said the Army has approved nine of 13 previous requests for Palantir.

Of the three units that did not receive Palantir, one was diverted to the war in Iraq, another received a new version of the Distributed Common Ground System, and the third did not have enough remaining time in Afghanistan.

Palantir has a limited role — linking bits of intelligence — while the Distributed Common Ground System is a multidimensional design for bringing enormous amounts of intelligence into one spot where analysts can find and assess it.

In May, officials with the Army and Palantir Technologies Inc. signed an agreement to explore whether the commercial software can be integrated into the Army system. That test now has reached Afghanistan, where the 3rd Infantry Division is using Palantir.

Mr. Wright said Palantir presents problems integrating with the Distributed Common Ground System.

"Palantir is a 'stand-alone' commercial product that we currently use to supplement, but not supplant, DCGS-A's capabilities," Mr. Wright said. "It uses a proprietary system that currently imposes significant limitations in our ability to exchange and modify information processed through Palantir."

A Hunter aide said that while nine units received Palantir, in some cases they had to work around the Army bureaucracy, and in other cases the platforms arrived too late to help.

The Times reported in July about an internal battle within the Army, as commanders requested Palantir, then got the cold shoulder from Army headquarters at the Pentagon.

A November 2011 memo from the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan is an example of praise heaped on Palantir and criticism of the Distributed Common Ground System as too slow.

"Solving very hard analytical problems takes several days when using existing tools against these data sources," the message states. "In our experience in using the Palantir platform against the same problems, we were able to reduce this time to a few hours. This shortfall translates into operational opportunities missed and unnecessary risk to force."

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