The US Army is a lethal force that can target and kill America's enemies anywhere in the world. The capability harnessed by the Army is a testament to fearless leadership, tough training and a strong working relationship with innovative industry partners.
In so many areas where new technology meshes with the warfighter, the Army has gotten things right. The basic soldier has weapon systems that are in a class by themselves and the gadgetry only gets better for most elite operators.
The Army understands the wants and needs of its soldiers, but its own acquisition system has its limitations. Nowhere is this more evident than in in the area of enterprise software development and procurement.
Software is not a vehicle, tank or helicopter, and requires a special level of talent and adaptability that is unique in places like Silicon Valley—not the Pentagon. It's not all the fault of the Army, but more an indictment on an acquisition system that is incapable of keeping pace with the outside world.
The Army's Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is proof of this fact. For the better part of the last decade, the Army has struggled to build DCGS from the ground up as the primary intelligence tool for soldiers on the battlefield. As an overarching enterprise, DCGS is a legitimate and worthwhile endeavor, intended to compute and store massive amounts of data and deliver information in real time.
What the Army has created, although well-intentioned, is a sluggish system that is difficult to use, layered with complications and unable to sustain the constant demands of intelligence analysts and soldiers in combat. The cost to taxpayers has been approximated at $4 billion. But for soldiers that depend on reliable intelligence and information sharing, the cost of system with such significant deficiencies is incalculable.
Because of these shortcomings, various commands and soldiers have requested alternative off-the-shelf commercial products to fill existing gaps in capability. The most sought-after technology to fill those gaps is provided by Palantir Technologies—a Silicon Valley company at the leading edge of software development. One thing Palantir's technology does especially well is roadside detection and prediction, making it a platform in high demand for soldiers in Afghanistan.
Since the introduction of DCGS, the Army has resisted incorporating Palantir into its intelligence enterprise. So when the Army issued its proposal for the next installment of DCGS, attempting to build on the lessons learned, Palantir took the Army to task in federal court, as any contractor with a reasonable complaint would, and what's been revealed so far—as fact—is absolutely astounding.
In legal testimony, an Army official acknowledged giving a reporter a "negative" and "not scientific" document about Palantir's capabilities that was written by a staff member but formatted to appear like a report from the International Security Assistance Force. That same official stated that the document was not based on scientific data. That same document was also circulated on Capitol Hill along with other false and misleading information used to perpetuate a negative perception of Palantir.
Also circulated was a memorable Venn diagram, claiming that Palantir could not match DCGS in performance. Army testimony stated this information presented to Congress was "dated."
Further, the Army stated emphatically that Palantir could only perform eight to ten percent of functions compared to DCGS. The evaluations needed to make that determination never occurred.
These incidents represent only a snapshot of misleading statements and information that originated within the Army to solidify opposition to an emergent company with technology that was preferred by soldiers on the battlefield. Congress, soldiers and the public were consistently misinformed and the high degree of dysfunction within the Army was allowed to continue for too long. At least now there is verification—through Army admittance—of the true dysfunction within the program.
How the lawsuit concludes is uncertain, but at the very least these revelations and other facts likely to be revealed must be taken seriously by Congress and Army leaders committed to understanding software acquisition and the necessity for honest and open leadership. Thankfully, the Army now has the right leaders in Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary Eric Fanning, and they recognize the shortcomings of DCGS at the tactical level and the need to make system-wide improvements. They are quality leaders and if there's anybody that can get things right, it's these two.
But through the course of the ongoing lawsuit, the Army and the rest of government should take note of the fact that the military acquisition system is incapable of conforming to the lightening pace and development targets that are necessary for software. This should be an important lesson learned and cause the Army—especially in light of repeated misleading statements and falsehoods—to rethink its entire approach on DCGS and how it incorporates software for the Army of the future.
The Army has quality leaders in Milley and Fanning, who finally understand the problem. Now the Army needs a software acquisition system and strategy to match.
Duncan Hunter is a Republican congressman representing California's 52nd district.