02 August 2012

US Army Software Wars

You want a compelling asymetric warfare game? Put together a wargame about the Army's software acquisition strategies, which are under fire again.

Palantir has certainly been an aggressive presence around the nation’s capitol. Its advertisements cover the walls of metro stations in D.C. and northern Virginia. The company spent more than half a million dollars on lobbying last year. Its “Palantir Night Live” speakers’ series in Washington has attracted luminaries from former CIA chief George Tenet to Craig Newmark, of Craigslist fame. In 2010 — perhaps as an attempt to curry favor in D.C. — the company agreed to participate in a cockamamie (and unsuccessful) scheme to bring down WikiLeaks. In 2012, Palantir started its own political action committee to hand out campaign donations.

Still, the reports from the field about Palantir were so positive that the Army’s top officer asked the independent Army Test and Evaluation Command to survey troops, and make recommendations about how to proceed. On April 25, the Command rendered its decision: “DCGS is overcomplicated, requires lengthy classroom instruction, and is easily perishable skill set is not used constantly.” (.pdf) Instead, the Army should “install more Palantir servers in Afghanistan” and “incorporate a one-week training class on Palantir” for all new intelligence analysts.

The report, signed by Brig. Gen. Laura Richardson and obtained by Danger Room, was a bombshell, shattering the DCGS-A monopoly. Less than a month later, the Army took it back. “Please ensure that any and all copies of the 25 April report are destroyed and not distributed,” (.pdf) read an email from the command. The report was replaced with a nearly-identical document (.pdf). All that was missing was the recommendation to buy Palantir.

These sorts of software wars have been going on for several years... CIDNE vs TIGR vs FusionNet, then CIDNE vs MapHT, then DCGS was supposed to make all those other systems (and their data) play nice together. Except that it doesn't matter how much data is in the system if it's too hard for the users to use it (shades of ASAS-L).

Palantir might have an easier UI, react more quickly, etc, but what should *not* be happening is that ATEC should be advocating for a specific *product*. ATEC should talk in terms of capabilities, functions, etc, but they shouldn't be advocating for one product over another, especially since it sounds like the only real comparisons here were Palantir vs DCGS-A (don't know if that was the case, since the article isn't totally clear on that point).

If the issue is that someone is acting as a uniformed extension of a commercial company's marketing department, then that's a very valid problem to be addressed.
If the issue is that the DoD hasn't figured out yet how to converge the tangled web of "requirements" vs capabilities vs ownership of systems vs ownership of data into a single, coherent data management strategy without weighing it down with an excess of administrative baggage, then that's tilting at 20-year-old windmills and not likely to improve any time soon.

By: Brant

1 comment:

DomS said...

Playing devil's advocate you could look at this the other way - if ATEC talks in terms of capabilities, then the respective companies' marketing depts will spin relentlessly about how they meet those capabilities, and deliver 'solutions' regardless of how useful their product actually is. If it's simply reported that the guys on the ground find product A genuinely useful and product B a waste of space then it rather cuts through the marketing hype.
I agree that it's a slippery issue though.