WASHINGTON — After a federal judge put a stop to the Army's current plan to develop its intelligence analysis framework internally, requiring it to look again at commercially available products, a provision in the conference report of the 2017 defense policy bill further pushes the Army toward buying commercial capability.
The provision would require the Army secretary to "rapidly identify and field a commercially available capability that meets tactical requirements, can integrate at the tactical unit level, is substantially easier for personnel to use and requires less training," according to the National Defense Authorization Act report language released Wednesday.
The controversy over whether the Army should scrap its Distributed Common Ground System-Army program after spending more than a decade and $3 billion to develop it or go with a commercial off-the-shelf solution had been simmering for years. But it came to a head earlier this year when Palantir, a Palo Alto, California-based company, sued the Army in the US Court of Federal Claims in June after losing a protest with the Government Accountability Office.
Soldiers, in Afghanistan particularly, have repeatedly requested permission to use Palantir instead of using DCGS-A, as the service continues to work out glitches and problems with its own system. Palantir argued the Army blocked or delayed access to its technology.
When the Army announced it would develop the second iteration of DCGS-A by selecting a lead integrator through a competition, Palantir interpreted the plan as a way to shut out Silicon Valley companies that provide commercially available products that do the same thing as what the Army proposed to build. It argued the Army was in violation of a law that requires government agencies to fully consider commercially available products that could fulfill requirements before spending money and time developing something that already exists.
The court’s 104-page opinion in the lawsuit against the Army sends the service back to do a more thorough analysis of commercially available options for its intelligence analysis framework, but it did not define exactly how the Army should conduct the analysis or what would be considered a satisfactory level of market research.
The question remained as to whether the service would seek true commercial partnership or do a bare minimum of due diligence to satisfy the court before moving forward down the same path.
The 2017 NDAA conference language further eliminates wiggle room the Army may have to sidestep the consideration of commercial items for DCGS-A. It calls for a rapid fielding of capability for "fixed and deployable multi-source ground processing systems for covered units," and these should be "commercially available off-the-shelf technologies" that meet tactical requirements, "can integrate and communicate with covered units at the tactical unit level and at higher unit levels," are "substantially easier to use" and require less training.
Additionally, the language states the Army may not establish a contract to design, develop or procure data architecture, data integration or cloud capability as well as other data analysis and visualization tools for DCGS-A's first increment unless procurement and integration can be done rapidly and is a fixed-priced contract.
To ensure DCGS-A doesn’t end up wasting money and time while reinventing the wheel, as Palantir claimed in its legal argument, the conference report adopted a House amendment that requires the Army to restructure versions of the first iteration of DCGS-A. This would include stopping the development of new software code or any system component where commercial, open source or government software is capable of fulfilling "at least 80 percent" of the requirements, according to the report.
The Army would also be required to review the acquisition strategy of the DCGS-A program "to ensure that procurement of commercial software is the preferred method of meeting program requirements," the report states.
And "the Army shall not award any contract for the development of a new component software capability if such a capability is already a commercial item," it adds.
The report states Congress expects the Army to "quickly improve the field performance of the existing [DCGS-A] system for the Army, which we do not believe is adequately serving the needs of the units at division, brigade and battalion levels."
These provisions will likely force the Army to get serious about considering commercial products within the program. The service’s track record in defining commercial products and conducting analysis of such items has been criticized in the past, such as delivering reports Congress deemed incomplete.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.