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Military commanders, government officials and politicians have long argued over how military dollars should be spent, and which weapon systems are needed. But one of the biggest battles these days, is over what software programs soldiers in Afghanistan should have. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it's a defense budget dispute for the digital age.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Soldiers once went into battle armed only with a rifle. Now, they need a laptop. John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School, says victory no longer depends just on having guns.

JOHN ARQUILLA: We're now using information as well. And the more you know, the less of the older kinds of weapons you need.

GJELTEN: Information, data. And to process that data, you need computers and software. Take the biggest problem in Afghanistan: roadside bombs, or IEDs. Soldiers now deal with them by gathering and analyzing information about where bombs are being planted, by whom, using what materials. With the right software, they can actually identify the network behind a bomb-making operation.

ARQUILLA: If you have a system that a soldier can input in real time; that is, he picks up a radio intercept where a bad guy is talking about moving some pots - they call IEDs pots, over in Afghanistan - and they're able to do some geolocation; well, now you've got something that makes a big difference, and maybe is going to save lives.

GJELTEN: The need for this type of analysis is beyond dispute. The issue is which battlefield software is most useful. The Army favors a big software system built by a consortium of defense contractors, but there are other tools available. Some soldiers like a commercial, off-the-shelf program developed by Palantir, a small but successful Silicon Valley firm. And now, there's a big battle over whether the Army should buy Palantir software for the soldiers who want it. Republican congressman Duncan Hunter is leading the Palantir charge.

DUNCAN HUNTER: When the war-fighter needs a piece of gear, if the war-fighter can present an argument of why it works better than what they have - and there's other units already using it, like there were in Afghanistan - what'd make me happy is if the Army were to say: Here you go, ground commander. Here's that piece of software.

GJELTEN: Hunter says the Army has vetoed some soldier requests for the Palantir software, and he's got a pile of letters to back him up. But it's hard to gauge the real scope of demand for Palantir, from the thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan.

KATHLEEN CARLEY: First off, I'm not sure that there are a large number who have that strong a feeling. My guess is, it's more of a small, vocal minority.

GJELTEN: Professor Kathleen Carley, of Carnegie Mellon University, is the godmother of network analysis, as applied to war-fighting. She suspects Palantir is just very good at marketing its software over its competitors. It's hardly the only option.

CARLEY: We know a number of people who are using - for example - the Pajek system, which comes out of Europe. Another group is using UCINET. Another group is using Analyst Notebook, or I-2; and another group's using ORA.

GJELTEN: Rival software programs, all with battlefield applications. The Army is not commenting on its reluctance to invest more in the Palantir software. But Dean Popps, a former Army acquisition executive, says any Army purchasing decision, even for one software product over another, has to be done responsibly.

DEAN POPPS: I need to back to the Training and Doctrine Command, saying to them: Is that a legitimate requirement? It may be a very good idea; it may be a soldier or an officer's very good idea out in the field. It doesn't mean that it's necessarily a validated requirement.

GJELTEN: You know what it sounds like? It sounds like bureaucracy.

POPPS: It is. It very much is bureaucracy. But I would assert that matters which are as complex as that, require a definitive bureaucracy - and a very competent bureaucracy. Otherwise, you're going to have havoc.

GJELTEN: U.S. military has generally worked with big defense contractors familiar with operational requirements. That goes for the software business as well. But the Naval Postgraduate School's John Arquilla, an expert on the future of war, says the U.S. military is moving into an era when it'll need to be agile and creative. In the commercial world, those are traits associated with small Silicon Valley firms, like Palantir.

ARQUILLA: We're going to made of a military of a lot of little things in the future. And in order to pull that off, I think we have to have an acquisition program that is made up of a lot of little things - a lot of little vendors, a lot of little contracts. You know, the way we fight is going to influence the way we acquire things. And so I think this is an inevitable change that's occurring, and it doesn't surprise me at all that there's friction associated with it.

GJELTEN: Friction is right. Duncan Hunter, and other members of Congress on the Palantir side, are ready to confront Army leaders who want to stick with their own software, but the Army is not backing down. And this dispute over what software to buy, could soon be just as fierce as the old ones over what ships or bombers to build.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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