Army Commanders: Let Us Choose Big Data Apps

The Army faces a technology control debate as some commanders ask to choose their own big data intelligence apps, looking to prevent more troop deaths from IEDs.

The Army also is experimenting with an apps-store-like approach under which local commanders can choose among a series of other intelligence apps or analysis apps to suit their particular needs. All the apps are tied in to secure Pentagon intelligence systems and are approved for use in the field but are not a core part of a long-term Army software acquisition process.

The ability of commanders to choose their own software tools is almost unprecedented in the military, but isn't nearly enough flexibility, according to some field commanders. Some commanders in Afghanistan are pressing Army brass to approve their desire to use new analysis tools that are less cumbersome than the super-enterprise-sized DGCS-A and better at deriving useful answers from locally derived intelligence.

Fifth Stryker Brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell IV, for example, blames the higher-than-expected casualties his unit suffered from IEDs during a deployment in 2009 at least partly on the denial of his request to use a big-data analytic app from Palantir Technologies, according to a story last month in the Washington Times.

Palantir's software is designed to focus on highly varied sets of data and pull from it otherwise innocuous connections between activities to identify potential terrorists. Its ability to correlate coincidences that aren't coincidental has gained it fans among the CIA and FBI, which use it to look for terrorists by correlating records of foreigners taking flying lessons using money received from overseas, for example, according to The Economist.

With Palantir, intelligence teams from local units could mine data from both local and Army sources to come up with concrete reports and recommendations on which local commanders could act, an ability Tunnell and other commanders complain is far weaker in the Army's preferred system. Using the data-sharing capability in Palantir, Tunnell told The Washington Times, the brigade caught a local Taliban commander heading to the brigade's area with a supply of IEDs after analysts were able to identify three separate reports as referring to different portions of the Taliban commander's route. The Army system would never have allowed local intelligence analysts to make that connection, Tunnell said.

Congress gets involved
Meanwhile, the debate continues between field commanders and top brass over how much flexibility local commanders should have in choosing the tools they feel they need to plan their operations, protect their troops, and accomplish their missions. Members of Congress including California Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif) also have gotten involved, demanding an investigation into the process the Army uses to consider or deter technology requests as well as the long, hard road any commander faces to get an approval.

The Army Times reported, "In an August 23 letter obtained by Defense News, Hunter wrote that, 'From the time the Army's first conventional ground force requested the [Palantir] software in 2008, there have been deliberate efforts on the part of mid-level bureaucrats to deny units this resource despite repeated urgent requests from commanders.'"

Publicity from Tunnel's story, and pressure from Duncan and other members of Congress, succeeded in launching a Pentagon investigation into the issue of how quickly to evaluate applications requested by field commanders.

DCGS-A already has been slammed for poor reliability and "significant limitations" in a July memo from Gen. Genaro J. Dellarocco, head of the Army's test and evaluation command to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, according to CNN. No concrete result or recommendation have followed, however.

When is bring-your-own too risky?
The Pentagon already is struggling with how to integrate commercial cell phones into its communications networks, as well as with more routine questions of when and how staffers can use their own technology, said Robert Carey, principal deputy CIO of the DoD, in National Defense, a publication of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Because nearly everything the modern military does is based more on information than firepower, even troops on the ground in Afghanistan need the same kind of connectivity and data access as those working in the U.S., Carey said.

The question Carey did not answer is that if something as comparatively simple as a cell phone creates "catalytic confusion" within the DoD, how much more danger could result from efforts to insert a bring-your-own-app policy?

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