The U.S. lawmaker who accused Army officials of not acting on a commander’s request for commercial software to gather battlefield intelligence “was not correct,” the service’s top civilian said.
“The example that was used was not correct,” Army Secretary John McHugh said during an April 30 breakfast with reporters. “The Army did not reject the operational needs statement that was referenced in the congressman’s comment. In fact, the commanding general ultimately withdrew it.”
McHugh was referring to an argument last week on Capitol Hill between Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.
Hunter, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, got up to leave the April 25 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee after criticizing the Army’s intelligence-gathering program called the Distributed Common Ground System for what he said was its increasing cost and lackluster performance. A commander who requested a commercial product made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir Technologies Inc. never received it, he said.
After a short back-and-forth between Hunter and McHugh, Odierno interjected, “I object to this. I’m tired of somebody telling me I don’t care about our soldiers, that we don’t respond. Everybody on my staff cares about it, and they do all they can to help.” Hunter later replied, “You have a very powerful personality, but that doesn’t refute the facts that you have gaps in the capability and the structure that the Army’s using right now.”
A YouTube video of the exchange has been viewed more than 70,000 times and images from the hearing have been shared on social-networking sites such as Facebook.
“If the gentleman wanted a response, I wanted to be able to comment,” McHugh said during the breakfast. “The chief spoke for himself and I think that’s fair.”
The software request came from the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., which is now serving in Afghanistan, according to Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Hunter. During the hearing, the congressman waved an e-mail from March 20 that indicated the Army placed a “hold” on the unit’s request to use the software after returning to the U.S., he said. Three days later, the request was withdrawn, he said.
“The congressman was already aware of the withdrawal when he made his statement,” Kasper said in an telephone interview. “What has still gone unanswered is the year-long obstruction 3ID faced in its attempt to acquire the off-the-shelf commercial software.”
The product is used by various military branches and commands, including the Marine Corps., Kasper said.
Lt. Gen. John Toolan, former commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Afghanistan, wrote in a February 2012 letter that it “has performed outstandingly” in combat, reduced the time needed for analytical tasks and improved data sharing with allies such as the United Kingdom, according to a copy of the document provided by Kasper. The general concluded that he hoped the Corps “will eventually integrate Palantir into its program of record.”
McHugh drew a distinction between the two systems. The Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS (pronounced “dee-sigs”), is a strategic-level intelligence gathering and analytical system that draws from 600 sources, he said. The Palantir software is a link-analysis system that uses far fewer sources, he said. The two aren’t necessarily incompatible, he said.
“Somehow, in too may people’s eyes, this has become a discussion of Palantir versus our Distributed Common Ground System, as either-or, and that’s just simply operationally wrong,” McHugh said.
The Army last year entered into a research and development agreement with the manufacturer of Palantir and is working with the company to integrate the software into the Distributed Common Ground System, he said.
“What Palantir does it does very well,” McHugh said. “It has an ease of use, its graphic clarity, its link analysis capabilities are excellent, and they’re valued particularly for their simplicity by many, many soldiers in the field,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to provide those assets and those capabilities to the soldier.”
The Distributed Common Ground System, meanwhile, is an integrated database designed to collect and share intelligence data from a variety of sources, including geospatial, human, signals, airborne and ground sensors, among others. The Army plans to spend $10.2 billion over the next three decades on the system, according to Odierno.
“I think all of us, and certainly Congressman Hunter, I mean this is a man, a war veteran, a man with whom I served and I have great respect for him, wants what we want, and that’s the best for our soldiers,” McHugh said.