Army greenlights controversial intelligence system
The Army's Distributed Common Ground System in action at a command center. (Army photo)
A critical intelligence-sharing system used in combat recently received a green light for full deployment, marking a turning point for a program that earlier this year was embroiled in controversy over its effectiveness versus a competing system.
The Army’s Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS-A, is a tool the military uses for processing, exploiting and disseminating intelligence between troops and their mission partners, including intelligence community organizations. It is part of the service’s broader modernization strategy, according to Army officials.
“An infantry man has a rifle or a machine gun; for analysts, this is our weapons system,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, commanding general of the Army Intelligence and Security Command. “It’s hardware, software and communications systems that allow the Army to effectively interoperate with joint, inter-agency and multi-national [partners].”
The system, which has been used as a quick-reaction capability in combat, on Dec. 14 was approved for full deployment. Army officials, speaking with reporters Dec. 20, said the approval will allow DCGS-A to be used more widely across the Army-intelligence enterprise and become more standardized.
It will continue to undergo development and testing, according to Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, deputy for acquisition and system management in the Army acquisition, technology and logistics office.
In August DCGS-A came under scrutiny after leaked memos from Army Test and Evaluation Command deemed the system to be “effective with significant limitations, not suitable and not survivable.” It was alleged that the Army made it difficult for commanders to obtain a competing, off-the-shelf product, Palantir, and that there were attempts to cover up the critical internal reviews.
Greene said that the Army received 13 requests for Palantir “over the last few years,” and in nine of those cases, the system was fielded. Four were not fielded due to a redirection of the requesting unit from Afghanistan to Iraq; the request was filled with DCGS-A instead. Two of those requests came too late in the deployment cycle, Greene said.
Reportedly, soldiers and commanders in the field requested Palantir because the system was easier to work with than DCGS-A. The officials on Dec. 20 acknowledged the system’s shortcomings, and outlined some the measures that have been taken to address problems.
“We recognized there was a probably a reason they were requesting Palantir. There were comments lauding ease of use,” Greene said, noting that there were documented glitches with the top-secret sensitive compartmented information (TS-SCI) data. “There were challenges with workflows, particularly between TS-SCI and SIPR/coalition domains. We also found reliability challenges, again primarily with the TS-SCI portion.”
Greene said the full deployment included updated components related to other levels of security classification, but will be using existing TS-SCI systems until the next release, which he said is expected late next year and will include an improved version of the TS-SCI component. He also stressed there was “no loss of capability in transition.”
According to Fogarty, another part of the issue with the Palantir-versus-DCGS debate was a matter of personal preferences on the battle field.
“Every intelligence officer wants the best capability. People have preferences – some people buy Apple products, some people buy an Android phone,” Fogarty said. “It’s a personal preference on the way they process information.” Some officers and soldiers are using both systems simultaneously, downplaying the idea of competition between the two softwares, he added.
Greene, who said Palantir is one industry partner among several whose technologies are being considered for incorporation by the Army, suggested there were interoperability issues and that Palantir does not offer the same capabilities as DCGS-A.
“The red line for me is a system that is not interoperable. When I have to take a product from a unit operating in that area or I have to look into that area…my confidence level is diminished greatly,” Greene said. “I have to have the ability, with my analytic team, to understand exactly what their assessment or analysis [means]. I can’t do that if your product is in a proprietary format, and I think that diminishes the effectiveness of the intelligence enterprise, period.”
Despite the rockiness DCGS-A has encountered along the way, Army officials are confident about the system’s future – which could include the use of Palantir. Although it is a battlefield system, DCGS-A also is being used in other parts of the world for intelligence purposes, and the program’s leaders say that will continue even as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
“DCGS is in use around the world by the Army – it is our intelligence enterprise. Whether it’s a unit operating in Korea or somewhere else in the Pacific, south or central America, or Europe, that is the platform they will use to conduct intelligence planning and execution of operations,” Fogarty said.
Greene agreed, and said that work will continue to improve the system. He also added that it is not just the Army relying on DCGS-A moving forward.
“Tasking, processing, exploiting, disseminating – if we’re going to do intelligence now and in the future, it’s going to go through DCGS. It’s our future intelligence architecture for the entire Army enterprise and is tied to the entire intelligence community,” he said. “We are trying to get the best of breed and are setting up our processes to do that. We understand we have to go back on TS-SCI, and we will do that ... this really sets the standard for our Army intelligence enterprise going into the future.”