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Army in Flap Over Software That Helps Find IEDs

Five days after a bomb killed three of his paratroopers in Afghanistan in May, an 82nd Airborne Division colonel asked the Army to buy his soldiers a computer program used by other troops that would allow them to better predict the location of explosives hidden along the roadsides.

Bombs -- the deadliest weapon used by insurgents in the Afghan war -- killed six men in the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team in the two weeks between April 22 and May 7.

Col. Mark Stock, the brigade commander, said his men had an urgent need for the program -- called Palantir -- because the unit's existing system had shortfalls that caused unnecessary risk for soldiers.

The Marines and Air Force already use Palantir, as do some Army units. Special operators and other units operating near 1st Brigade also used the software.

Stock said the different software platforms didn't work well together, which made it difficult for those units to share intelligence and other data with his troops.

But 1st Brigade's request, and requests from other Army units eager to use the potentially life-saving tool, have been denied by the Pentagon, according to a California legislator who is calling for a congressional investigation.

Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday wrote to urge the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate. Hunter said in the letter he worries lives have been endangered because of "strong and needless bureaucratic resistance within the U.S. Army."

The Pentagon's job, Hunter said in a statement to The Fayetteville Observer on Wednesday, is to make sure troops have equipment that will save lives and help complete the mission.

"When commanders on the ground have their requests for gear negated by mid-level bureaucrats, then the system is broken," said Hunter, a former Marine who deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. "It's up to Congress and the military leadership to fix this and ensure our military has what it needs to be successful."

U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, a North Carolina Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, on Wednesday joined Hunter's call for answers.

"If our boots on the ground are saying that Palantir is a more effective way of avoiding these deadly risks, and it's been in use by other forces and shown to work, then there is absolutely no reason why it should not be made available to all units who request it," Kissell said in an email. "We've asked nearly everything of these men and women, and their families here at home, and they deserve every tool in our arsenal to keep them safe, get the job done, and get our troops home."

The investigation will likely be handled by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Emails obtained by the Observer show leaders at the highest levels of the 82nd Airborne Division considered Palantir a superior way to combat roadside bombs.

Data on the bombs, called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, is kept in different databases that Stock and other division officers said can't be combined with the existing system.

Analysis of all the data would take several days on the existing software but only a few hours with Palantir, they said.

"The chain of command believes they need to have this capability in the fight and that it will save soldiers lives and limbs," a division officer wrote in January.

The 82nd Airborne Division directed all questions to the Department of the Army.

The Army did not answer questions but replied to the Observer with a statement saying in May it signed an agreement to see if programmers can make the two software programs work together. The results, the statement said, will be demonstrated in September.

Other units that used the Palantir software -- developed in Palo Alto, Calif. -- in Afghanistan have also called it a valuable tool there.

Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, commander of Marines who used Palantir, wrote in a February memo to the director of the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office that the program was "straightforward," "intuitive" and "performed outstandingly." Toolan wrote that he hopes the Marine Corps expands its use of the software.

But the Army has apparently been reluctant to adopt the new system, relying instead on software called the Distributed Common Ground System that was developed for the military by defense contractors.

In November, the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters met resistance when it requested its own Palantir system after another unit temporarily gave division soldiers access to the software.

In an exchange with a Pentagon staff member, an 82nd Airborne Division officer argued in January that the software was a necessity because of the advantage it provides.

"I can appreciate that when you're in the thick of it, you don't want to hear about the Pentagon's cost benefit analysis of solutions and just want what you think will work," the Pentagon staffer replied.

The 82nd officer persisted, saying troops "are trying to solve some very hard problems that pose life-or-death issues for the soldiers under this command, and (the existing software) is not making our job easier, while Palantir is giving us an intelligence edge."

In January, Maj. Gen. James Huggins, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said in an email to a three-star general at the Pentagon that the rate of finding and clearing bombs safely from roadsides jumped 12 percent during the division's limited trial of the program.

But Hunter says funding was blocked until after he and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, asked Gen. Ray Odierno in February why troops were being denied access to Palantir.

Odierno, the Army chief of staff, pledged change, according to Hunter, and, after three months of waiting, the division's request was granted.

But the May request from 1st Brigade is just one of many that were later denied by the Army, according to Hunter.

Hunter also wants the investigation to probe why an Army report on the Palantir system in April was revised in May with multiple positive comments about Palantir and negative comments about the existing program removed.

The original report, for example, recommended the installation of more servers to expand the Palantir system. But the recommendation was deleted in the revised report.

An Army memo asks that all copies of the original report be "destroyed and not distributed."

The Army said it is conducting its own investigation into the changes in that report.

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