The Army has hired private firms to help improve a $2.5 billion intelligence analytical processor used in Afghanistan by troops who have given it poor reviews in identifying the enemy and deadly buried explosives.
One of the firms involved is BRTRC of Fairfax, which lists strategic communications among its technological specialties.
An internal company email obtained by The Washington Times states that BRTRC will try to improve the image of the intelligence processor, the Distributed Common Ground System. The analytical processor has run into criticism in Congress and performed poorly in an operational test in May.
The Times asked the Army whether BRTRC was being brought in to “promote” the system.
An Army statement said it recently awarded a contract to the technology company DSCI for the Common Ground System. BRTRC is a subcontractor in the DSCI team, “which calls for a range of mission-support functions to include administrative support, engineering, logistics, strategic communications and knowledge management,” the statement said.
“It would be incorrect to say the purpose of the contract is to ‘promote’ DCGS,” the Army statement said.
The Army says strategic communications is just one mission of the private corporate team that will assist the Common Ground System’s program office.
The internal BRTRC email mentions assigning a strategic communications specialist to support the Common Ground System.
BRTRC boasts a communications operation that can deliver “media such as trade shows, exhibits, collateral material, videos, websites, briefings, public relations, giveaway materials, presentations, image libraries, posters and more.”
BRTRC representatives did not respond to questions from The Times.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has charged that the Army has tried to keep commercially available software processors from the troops in order to protect the Common Ground System’s continued funding.
“The decision to hire a strategic communications professional to manage a single program because it’s receiving unwanted attention is a serious misuse of tax dollars,” said Mr. Hunter. “And it shows that there isn’t any real interest in fixing the problem of why soldiers in Afghanistan aren’t getting resources they are urgently requesting.
“A communications adviser won’t solve the problem,” said Mr. Hunter, who served as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. “If the Army thinks this is a good use of funds or this will help deliver resources faster, they are seriously mistaken.”
The system’s reputation is not only suffering from a poor operational test report. It also is facing competition from systems developed by high-tech firms. The private-sector systems are sold directly to combat units that petition for emergency funds outside the fixed defense budget.
One such non-Army system is Palantir, a server-based intelligence-analysis platform.
The Times has reported exclusively about a series of internal memos written by special-operations personnel, Marines and Army commanders who praise Palantir’s ability to perform “link-analysis” — that is, identify terrorists through their associations. This feat, in turn, has helped troops find and clear the mostly deadly enemy weapon in Afghanistan, the roadside bomb.
But some at Army headquarters have sought to block commanders’ requests for the Palantir system, internal memos show.
Computers that can perform link analysis quickly have grown in importance in Afghanistan and in global counterterrorism to locate enemies who do not wear uniforms and are able to blend in with the general population.
The importance of these computers has not gone unnoticed by technology firms that are producing a variety of commercial systems that can compete with the Pentagon’s own technologies — for which the Defense Department has invested billions of dollars.
Special operations’ request
In August, The Times reported about an internal memo from the intelligence director for U.S. Special Operations Command, the point of the spear in global counterterrorism operations.
The memo to the Pentagon requested money to buy a system called Lighthouse, which can process battlefield data sent from mobile devices, and pair it with Palantir.
Lighthouse was developed by officers at the Common Operational Research Environment (CORE) laboratory at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
A defense source said that shortly after the article was published, Distributed Common Ground System program officials and an Army intelligence professional traveled to the postgraduate school to persuade Lighthouse developers to consider including the Army system in any integration plan — and even offered to provide the ground system platforms free of charge.
A congressional staffer who monitors the issue said the Army’s aim was to compete with Palantir’s special place in the eyes of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Postgraduate school spokesman Alan Richmond told The Times: “Representatives from the DCGS program manager’s office were on campus recently and were provided a tour of our CORE Lab. The DCGS team identified analytic software that they believed would be useful to our [Defense Department] students. The CORE Lab explained its interest in all analytical systems, including hardware or software that provides tools to students to conduct their research.”
The Army’s statement to The Times said: “Because of the sensitivity and classification level of what was discussed, we cannot comment.”
The Distributed Common Ground System has received congressional criticism in addition to Mr. Hunter’s complaints.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s budget report for fiscal 2013 expressed frustration with the Army’s refusal to integrate any commercial off-the-shelf technology, such as Palantir, into the Common Ground System.
The report said that by the end of 2011, only 115 analysts in Afghanistan were using the Common Ground System’s network “despite years of development and considerable expense.”
“The committee lacks confidence that the three groups trying to jointly manage the Army’s DCGS modernization are going to deliver a fully capable, end-to-end system to support the war fighter on an acceptable schedule and cost,” the June 4 report said.
The Times reported that the Army’s top tester in May reported to the Pentagon that the Common Ground System had “significant limitations” and “poor reliability.”
An Army spokesman said then that program managers were aware of the problems and were installing software fixes. The spokesman said the Army was conducting tests to see if Palantir’s link-analysis feature can be compatible with the Common Ground System, which performs other computing functions.
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