In January, members of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team trained to track enemy combatants and bombs were inputing data into a $4 billion software system developed by the Army.
The software was intended to give military analysts the life-saving tools they needed to be one step ahead of the enemy.
Instead, it shut down, losing all of the valuable data the unit members had uploaded, according to an after-action report obtained exclusively by TheBlaze.
The analysts did what they normally do under such circumstances: They went back to using their reliable $80 Microsoft PowerPoint program.
The subsequent “lessons learned” report from the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., revealed a laundry list of problems with the Distributed Common Ground System – Army, known as DCSG-A. The report stated that even after numerous complaints and revisions to the software, it was still not functioning properly for troops on the battlefield, and sometimes is not working at all.
“Soldiers … reported working for over 10 hours on a network analysis product … only to have it disappear after a system failure or reset,” wrote Shawn Kyle, a civilian with the Army’s “Lessons Learned” team who interviewed soldiers for the report. “Thereafter, analysts used PowerPoint to conduct link analysis.”
The report noted that the server’s inability to “communicate across networks” hindered soldiers’ “ability to keep real-time situational awareness of battlefield information.”
The problems with DCGS-A were not new to the 82nd Airborne Division.
While deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, the 1st Brigade had to fight Army officials at the Pentagon for access to a more superior software known as Palantir. Their requests were denied multiple times. The brigade had suffered severe casualties and lost six men in a two-week period between April and May from roadside bombs. Palantir Technologies, a firm in California’s Silicon Valley, had produced software the troops could use to track enemy movements and try to predict where the next explosives might be placed.
Eventually, with congressional help, the 82nd finally received Palantir toward the end of their deployment in the summer of 2012.
It wasn’t just the 82nd. On June 2, 2012 the Army also denied the 4th Brigade 1st Infantry Division’s urgent request for Palantir, according to an internal Army email obtained by TheBlaze.
“These software failures can be deadly on the battlefield,” a U.S. military intelligence analyst not authorized to speak publicly told TheBlaze. “In Afghanistan, [improvised explosive devices] are the number one killer and being able to track them is vital for survival. We shouldn’t have to fight with the Army to get the job done and in the process save soldiers’ lives. When we had the right software, like Palantir, I know we saved lives.”
The 17-page report after the January incident, designated “for official use only,” contained 14 separate observations gathered during interviews with soldiers and leaders. According to the January findings, the Army software’s shortfalls included:
• A browser application that was disorganized and difficult to navigate.
• A lack of folder structure, naming conventions and the ability to locate documents within the program.
• Preventing the unit from effectively sharing documents and products throughout all levels.
Army spokesman Matthew Bourke told TheBlaze in an email that the Army “takes user feedback seriously and has implemented that feedback into the current version of DCGS-A that is in use in Afghanistan.”
“In fact, in response to feedback, Army officials directed an ease of use campaign to specifically address user concerns which has resulted in a number of improvements included in the latest version of the DCGS-A software,” Bourke said. “The changes have been well received by our soldiers. We will continue to leverage our soldier’s feedback to improve all aspects of the DCGS-A system, including software, hardware, ground stations, topographic support, etc.”
‘Architects of Failure’
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said he wasn’t surprised by the January report about the Army’s failing software system, but what did surprise him was the Army’s refusal to give troops alternative tools to fight the enemy, he said.
“In the end, when you’re at war, it’s about protecting the men and women on the ground and killing the enemy,” Hunter told TheBlaze. “And Palantir enables our men and women to do just that. DCGS does not. DCGS is a paperweight, as they told me in Afghanistan and Palantir actually works.”
Hunter, a former Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the government “shouldn’t be in the software business, particularly if the same software is already available and better,” likening it to the botched rollout of Obamacare.
The Pentagon’s success with implementing information technology projects verges on almost complete failure, according to multiple congressional investigations.
A 2010 House Armed Services Committee acquisition panel report noted that only 16 percent of IT projects were completed on time and on budget, and 31 percent of approved projects were canceled before completion. Another 53 percent of Defense Department projects were late or over budget with costs exceeding 89 percent, according to the report. Additionally, less than one-third of the 16 percent completed projects actually had the specified features that were part of the original plans.
Pentagon projects involve many players and “sometimes too many chefs in the kitchen make a mess because in software, everyone writes in their own language and that’s where the glitches come in,” the military analyst said.
A total of 60 companies were involved in the Army’s DCGS-A program. The four largest were defense weapons developers, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamic, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
“They have no play in the global commercial IT market, no standing at all,” said an IT specialist who works with both the government and private sector and is familiar with Defense programs. The specialist spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. “The cost to the taxpayer is extraordinary for products that already exist.”
These are the exact kinds of costly failures the 1996 Clinger–Cohen Act was meant to deter. The act was designed to encourage the Defense Department and other government agencies to take advantage of commercial efforts and is written to prevent the government from competing with industry or investing in capabilities that already exist.
Bourke, the Army spokesman, challenged accusations that the Army is driven by bureaucracy and not inclusive of private sector technology.
“[The] DCGS-A program participates with approximately 60 small and large commercial industry partners across the country that support DCGS-A,” Bourke said. “Each partner must be compliant with intelligence community data and standards and willing to build an open architecture.”
The IT specialist called that “just a great way to take a partial truth and turn it into a complete lie. It’s about revolving doors and padding friends and companies pockets.”
“Large commercial enterprises like Citigroup, Bank of America, Federal Express … they don’t pay companies to write their software code — especially weapons systems developers to build their software — not if you can buy the same capability right off the shelves with minimal integration,” the specialist said. “No one’s been fired at [the secretary of defense’s] staff ever for these failures. They are the architects of failure.”
An analysis of Palantir and DCGS-A software ordered by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in 2012 was favorable to Palantir and noted, by contrast, that troops found DCGS-A “overcomplicated,” requiring “lengthy classroom instruction” and demanding an “easily perishable skill set if not used constantly.”
Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence and a strong proponent of DCGS-A system, ordered the report be rescinded and destroyed, according to a memo obtained by TheBlaze. It was replaced with a report a month later that removed the unflattering comments regarding the Army’s software.
The Army, which investigated the changed report at Odierno’s behest, did not find anyone culpable of wrongdoing.
Hunter says the Army has failed its own soldiers by continuing to push its own flawed program over proven outside software.
“The entire program of theirs is defended by very high-ranking officers that have a vested interest in this program succeeding come hell or high water, no matter how many billions and billions of dollars it’s going to cost,” he said. “It’s about men that I served with, guys that are still in the Marine Corps. My little brother who was in the Army, they expect that the Army’s going to give them the very best. They don’t expect that the Army’s going to give them a substandard product because some three-star general back in Washington, D.C., tells them that they have to.
“And that’s scariest thing about this entire system.”
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