WASHINGTON — Software company Palantir boldly stated in paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission last year that it wants to be the “central operating system for all U.S. defense programs.”
That’s an ambitious goal, to say the least. But with the Pentagon squarely focused on implementing its future war-fighting vision of Joint All-Domain Command and Control — which includes connecting sensors to any shooter with integrated data and artificial intelligence processing — Palantir feels perfectly positioned to do just that.
In recent years, the company has won key contracts in the emerging JADC2 environment. In January, Palantir won one of two $8.5 million contracts for work on the Army’s Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, or TITAN, the mobile ground station that is the linchpin of the service’s sensor-to-shooter pipeline. More recently, the company announced it had won a $111 million contract to provide enterprise data management and more to U.S. Special Operations Command.
Palantir global defense lead Doug Philippone recently spoke to C4ISRNET about the company’s newer Defense Department contracts, and how with JADC2, the Pentagon is finally on the same page on the importance of data integration for military operations.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the work you’re providing in your contract with Special Operations Command. That’s a continuation of a contract from 2016, right?
The SOCOM example shows how we’re moving from the intel space to the mission command space. We’re doing that at SOCOM while also doing that at a lot of other places, but if you focus on the contract vehicle, it sort of doesn’t play into what Palantir actually does. And so that goes back to the idea that what we do is make an operating system of sorts that brings legacy systems, legacy sensors and data all over the place to help people make decisions. A lot of people thought that was an intel thing in the past, but it turns out that over time we mostly find this in really exigent situations — war being one of them — where it really matters and you have to make decisions.
To get to your specific question with SOCOM, it’s somewhat of a continuation of the program but under a different program office. I would argue that it’s actually more exciting because it’s more expansive. The capability is somewhat different. We offer the core architecture — the core differentiator, or the change in what they do, is helping them move and synchronize data around the world and make decisions. On the mission command side, that helps them conduct what’s called the military decision-making process, where you have the entire staff put information into the mix so that commanders can build a plan and command the forces beforehand, and then see to it during the thing. You see a proliferation of sensors and new systems coming online in a way that’s multiplying almost daily, and Palantir offers a system that can integrate all these things seamlessly.
We’re giving them new capabilities. They’re going to see [Palantir’s latest data platform] Foundry for the first time.
The Department of Defense has shifted toward the JADC2 concept. How does Palantir fit into this space?
A lot of this is just education. If you rewound the clock 10 years ago, we were talking about data integration in a way where we understood it, and everyone would just kind of look at you funny and be like: “What are you saying?” On the JADC2 front, it’s like the customer is sort of coming back to you in this really great way. We’ve spent billions of dollars developing this operating system that helps for this exact problem. The neat thing is we invested deeply, our platform works and we’re at the right place at the right time to really help the department modernize.
JADC2 is an overarching concept where you want to command and control systems and make consistent decisions across the joint forces around the world in real time, and you simply can’t do that without a functioning operating system that will work anywhere. That’s something that we’ve been literally working on for well over a decade. Long story short: This is an exciting time.
The JADC2 effort involves multiple services and different lines of programming. Looking at the Navy’s Project Overmatch, the Army’s Project Convergence, the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System and combatant command efforts, how do you figure out where your product will work best and where to focus your resources?
You’ve described the quandary that is government contracting. The big thing here is that we’ve shifted our focus over the years. We have multiple platforms that serve a really important purpose. We’re focusing on how can we be the best modernization partner for the Department of Defense, and each service needs something slightly different.
I think with Project Convergence, the Army is our best partner, and we’re partnered with them across a whole bunch of different landscapes, across the old [Distributed Common Ground System-Army] DCGS-A enterprise stuff, on the mission command side with Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical, on the Army Vantage [decision-making tool]. With Project Convergence and the new exercise coming up in the fall, we’re definitely very focused on delivering outcomes for them there. We’ve developed a really good relationship with [PEO C3T leader] Gen. [Robert] Collins over the years, which is funny because he was the old DCGS-A guy back in the day. Now we have a very, very good relationship, and it’s based on the results.
With the Air Force and the Space Force, that’s fairly new territory for us. Those partnerships are only about a year, 18-months old at most, and they’re really blossoming. The cool thing with Space Force is you don’t know the limits of it. It’s new, it’s exciting. We’re shipping new things every day.
On the Air Force side, it’s interesting. The services all sort of want subtly different things, but the core problem is the same. You’re trying to bring information together from myriad sensors to make a good decision, and you want to make that decision really fast, and you want to do something about it. That’s what Palantir does.
And so it’s a common thing across all the services. This is a hard problem. We invested deep early, and it’s giving us an advantage.
A key part of the Army’s JADC2 effort is TITAN, with Palantir being one of several companies contributing to that technology. What is Palantir doing with TITAN?
TITAN is super exciting. It’s going to be one of the largest, most complex projects that we’ll be delivering to the government. In many ways, it’s similar in the sense that we’re tying together countless sensors — and it’s kind of a joke at this point to use that phrase — from space to mud, and tie those all together in a useful way. We just haven’t been able to do that.
So we’re building a distributed mobile ground station, and so that thing can move around and integrate any type of sensor anywhere on the planet. That’s pretty cool. And then kind of a key thing about that — I was sort of hitting on it in the whole thing about synchronizing data — is that there’s sort of a term: “a dark motor.” But the idea here [can be dependent on] if the internet works or doesn’t. If it’s in isolation by itself, not connected to anything, or if it has a connected mesh, how can this thing continue to run and have the full capability at the lowest-edge level? And then when things come back online, all of that information can seamlessly synchronize back into the rest of your organization. That’s a super hard technical problem that we’ve been uniquely working on for a long time.
TITAN was different in the sense that it was focused on software as the central enabling capability of the whole project. Start with the software as the brain, as this was the focus that’s going to produce the outcome, and then build from there — that’s the shift, right? And I think it’s a smart shift. But what you’re able to do from that is you can then bring in all the different AI vendors, the sensor providers, hardware providers, etc., and then be super modular instead of having this big thing and throwing in software at the end and then none of it really works.
The other thing about this that’s cool is it will give you flexibility, in the sense that previously, because how things were designed, they were welding things in place and then wouldn’t upgrade them over the lifetime of the program. But the way that we’re approaching this thing, you’re going to literally be able to upgrade the systems on a daily or weekly basis. You’ll be able to change out new algorithms for AI on the fly. So we’ve been testing that and showing it — where we’re changing out algorithms in flight.
Palantir built momentum in securing DoD contracts and moving from the intelligence space to the tactical space. What contracts are you following, and what defense work do you hope to win?
I think there’s a bunch of work — you see it from the civilian sector — but our supply chain-management work has been very successful in terms of Operation Warp Speed [to accelerate COVID-19 vaccines and treatments]. We’re running all of the supply chain-management stuff for that. When you think about black budget or perceived down budgets in future years, understanding financial implications and auditing and supply chain stuff — we’re doing that work all over the place, and we’re just starting to do it in the Department of Defense, and we’re finding huge cost savings.
At the end of the day we’re producing results in a variety of industries and work streams that are very different, but the common theme there is you’re helping a customer move their own data around in ways that they can make better decisions.
If the framing of this conversation is “DoD catching up to what Palantir was already working on,” where do you think the department needs to go to fully take advantage of this construct?
This is what’s clear: In a flat or down budget, you have to solve this problem, and it’s actually not a technical problem. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but to the extent that we’ve spent a few billion dollars focusing on this problem, we can make it manageable for the customers. But if the DoD doesn’t solve this problem, you’re always going to have these massive inefficiencies where you can’t modernize [perform enterprise resource management] ERP. Everything takes five years, and then it’s not that great and it costs way too much money.
The whole idea of deprecating legacy systems to save money — they have to figure that out. They’re talking about it. There’s a lot of thoughtful conversations about it.
But sometimes the technical challenges are pretty difficult, and Palantir fills a very big role in maintaining that capability while you can deprecate an older system. Anyway, if you’re going to save money, you have to start talking about how do we get rid of 30-year-old systems that don’t work that well and you can’t modernize, but people are still using them. How do you solve that problem? And that’s where Palantir comes in. Whether it’s even understanding how many duplicative systems are being built, how many data links are out there, how many ERPs don’t talk to each other, how many legacy systems need to go away — there’s huge cost savings.
How does Palantir ensure it’s at the top of the list when the DoD looks for JADC2 partners?
Look, every day we make a new Palantir. I think that that’s a big misconception — that somehow we built a product and then we all went to sleep. That’s not happening. Every day we have 2,000-plus engineers building the next Palantir. And we’re doing hundreds of upgrades a week across the company, across industry, all over the world. We learn every day. We’re innovating every day. That’s actually happened. I’m not worried about that.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.