The Software You’ve Likely Never Heard About That Could Have Saved Soldiers’ Lives — So Why Did the Army Stop It From Being Used?

When the 5th Stryker Brigade Tomahawk Battalion arrived at a remote area of southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province in 2009, they would not just be fighting enemy insurgents — they would be part of a brigade-wide battle against senior Army officials who denied their battalion potentially life-saving software technology.

Staff Sgt. Nathan Abkemeier, 402nd Brigade Support Battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, stabilizes Sgt. Kathryn Burke's head and neck after she was hit with a stone thrown from a crowd of onlookers.  Burke was manning a gunner's hatch during a resupply convoy that went through the the crowded streets of Kandahar City when the incident occured. (Army photo by Sgt. Chris Florence)
Staff Sgt. Nathan Abkemeier, 402nd Brigade Support Battalion, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, stabilizes Sgt. Kathryn Burke’s head and neck after she was hit with a stone thrown from a crowd of onlookers. (Army photo by Sgt. Chris Florence)

During their deployment, the 5th Stryker Brigade would encounter some of the worst fighting conditions in Afghanistan. The brigade was stationed in the Arghandab river valley, aired regions of Kandahar and Zabul’s high desert terrain for the first half of their deployment. The deceivingly beautiful landscape, however, was laden with improvised explosive devices and the brigade would suffer the majority of their casualties in the first half of their deployment. Enemy bomb-makers were working overtime and U.S. troops were encountering the deadly weapons at almost every turn. For intelligence analysts, it was a race against time.

If only the soldiers had had a tool to help protect them against the threat. There was one available. Two, in fact, to be specific. But they were discouraged from using the one they felt was better.

Wednesday’s new episode of TheBlaze TV’s For the Record, “Armed and Unaccountable,” (8 p.m. ET) will expose how the Army’s top brass failed to provide the necessary technology to troops on the battlefield, choosing to promote their own failing software instead.

It Shouldn’t Have Been So Difficult 

The Army’s intelligence command, known as the G-2, had already spent roughly $4 billion on a software system, called the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, or DCGS-A (referred to as “D-sigs A”), which was originally part of a military-wide program to provide better capabilities of disseminating collected intelligence within the five military branches. The actual lifecycle cost of the system is more than $28 billion, according to an internal 2011 Army report obtained by TheBlaze.

The Army’s software was intended to find bomb-making patterns, mine intelligence, input surveillance data, build dossiers on the enemy and to provide tools that help analysts determine the enemies next move.

Soldiers on the battlefield were not impressed with the Army’s system, which they reported had numerous glitches and failures.

In California’s Silicon Valley, a software company called Palantir Technologies had already developed similar software. In fact, the 5th Stryker had trained on the system prior to deployment. The software technology, also used by U.S. Special Forces and the Marine Corps, was considered more user-friendly. Dozens of emails, internal military reports and internal Army memos obtained by TheBlaze overwhelmingly indicated that Palantir’s software, link analysis and mapping tools were far easier to use and more reliable than DCGS-A.

It was the Army’s software, however, on which soldiers were forced to rely. Senior Army officials were struggling to push their system to the forefront and buy time to fix the bugs in their software. Talk of using Palantir was discouraged and many times forbidden outright.

Things didn’t seem to change.  Several years later after 5th Stryker’s deployment to Afghanistan, another urgent request for Palantir was denied. In 2012, the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Afghanistan, emailed the Pentagon requesting “assistance with the acquisition, fielding and implementation of the Palantir System.”

“Our mission in Afghanistan is complex and challenging and the area of operation that we control continues to expand … we feel that Palantir will provide the capability to reach across numerous data sources and systems to quickly fuse intelligence to maintain situational awareness,” the email obtained by TheBlaze said. The message revealed that requests for Palantir were being shot down by Army command. It would be one of many.

The response: “While I don’t disagree with your need, I cannot buy Palantir anymore without involving the Senior Leadership of the Army and they are very resistant.”

“Operational Opportunities Missed and Lives Lost”

Capt. Ed Graham, company commander in the Tomahawk battalion, described the difficulties his troops encountered in a 2010 after-action report he submitted at the request of his Army commanders. He said his troops — who were the first to arrive in the remote area of Zabul in 2009 — had to build all their intelligence from scratch and “Microsoft PowerPoint was their only real tool.”

Not having the software proved difficult and dangerous, he said.

A soldier assigned to 3rd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division overlooks the village of Kushak in the Arghandab region of Afghanistan. 3rd Plt. soldiers provided overwatch for other A Co. elements patrolling Kushak Nov. 22.
A soldier assigned to 3rd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division overlooks the village of Kushak in the Arghandab region of Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of the 5th Stryker Brigade)

Just four months after they arrived in Zabul, a special forces detachment that was leaving the area had left his unit with “a wealth of data and sources that they had not previously shared with us,” Graham stated in the report. “When they left they turned everything over to us. We had no system to tag or organize our files. We had no way of organizing enemy cells.”

“This took hours if not days just to target certain IED cells operating in the area,” the battalion commander wrote. “Palantir would have cut the research time down to just a few minutes. It would have also been an incredible tool to gather all that data from the ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha, Special Forces) and given us possible links to help increase our lethality in targeting. If only ODA and ourselves both had Palantir, the whole process would have been seamless. It is a shame that the Army had not allowed us to use Palantir from the beginning, I think we would have had a more successful deployment.”

[sharequote align=”right”]”Operational opportunities missed and lives lost.”[/sharequote]

It wasn’t just the 5th Stryker requesting the private industry software: 16 other Army combat brigades also requested to use Palantir’s product. All the brigades were denied their initial request, and many were denied at least four times before some of the requests were approved. Before the 5th Stryker brigade deployed from Washington state to Afghanistan, they requested Palantir twice from their state-side chain of command and were denied, according to a brigade tracking sheet.

The Marine Corps, Air Force and special forces, through their own procurement process, had implemented Palantir as an additional war-fighting tool to be utilized with their own DCGS platform. U.S. special forces, including the Navy SEALs and other elite teams, along with the Marine Corps noted in a June 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that their troops thought Palantir was “easy to use” and “effective” on their recent missions in Afghanistan.

[sharequote align=”left”]”This took hours, if not days, just to target certain IED cells operating in the area…” [/sharequote]

“Users indicated it was a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations,” the GAO report said. “The software had gained a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, while also providing effective tools to link and visualize data.”

But for the Army ,”Palantir was like a thorn in their side — they didn’t want to cut into their own research and funding — if they added the software program to their DCGS platform, it would eliminate their ability to keep lining their own pockets,” a military intelligence analyst with knowledge of the program told TheBlaze.

In 2010, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was then the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, made it clear that Army personnel were lacking the right tools to do their job.

In Flynn’s Joint Urgent Operations Needs Statement report, he asserted that the Army lacked the right intelligence tools to track bomb-makers. Flynn, who now heads the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote that “intelligence analysts in theater currently do not have the tools required to fully analyze the tremendous amounts of information currently available.”

The major general went on to warn that lack of sufficient intelligence tools translated into “operational opportunities missed and lives lost.”

“Rife With Waste, Fraud and Abuse”

The Army first implemented DCGS-A in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003.  According to Thomas Schatz, president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, the Army’s revolving door was putting soldiers lives at risk and senior leadership’s failure to purchase quality products already on the market was a waste of tax-payer dollars.

Schatz testified on the matter in January to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform.

“Although it is viewed by many as sacrosanct, the DOD is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse,” Schatz told lawmakers. “One glaring example of DOD’s mismanagement of resources is the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System.”

“According to Army brass, DCGS-A represents a breakthrough in intelligence support capability, while users have called it a huge, bloated, excessively expensive money pit,” he said.

Worse, it was failing soldiers on the battlefield, commanders said.

Troops found the software unreliable, cumbersome, technically unpredictable and difficult for even trained troops to operate, according to dozens of interviews, emails and official documents obtained by TheBlaze.

For the Record‘s  investigation revealed how the Army’s intelligence command abused taxpayer dollars to develop their own software, despite the fact that the private sector offered a superior alternative. Lawmakers and military officials familiar with the military industrial complex contend this is merely a symptom of a corrupt bureaucratic culture that rarely hold officials accountable for their failures and misdeeds.

Army officials denied numerous requests from For the Record and TheBlaze for an on-camera interview. In an email, Army spokesman Matthew Bourke asserted that the Army “strongly endorses the best intelligence capabilities for our warfighter, regardless of the industrial partner who is providing that capability. The service has been a very open advocate of innovation and increased industry outreach opportunities with all industry partners.”

Army officials declined to explain why they refused to allow brigades to use Palantir.

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who previously served in the Marine Corps in both the Iraq and Afghanistan, has become the voice of opposition over the past two years against DCGS-A. Hunter has challenged Army officials in numerous hearings on Capitol Hill and said it shocks him that to this day, the Army “still will not say their system is bad.”

“In the end, this isn’t so much about money, even though it is,” said Hunter, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

“It’s not so much about software, even though it is,” he told TheBlaze. “What it’s about, is guys on the ground. It’s about keeping them alive and allowing them to execute their mission and, and basically kill bad guys while staying alive.”

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Programming note: For more on this story, watch TheBlaze TV’s all-new For the Record episode, “Armed and Unaccountable,” Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.