Army eyes DCGS reforms on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers are pushing the Army to adopt more commercial products for its intelligence-sharing platform. Can DCGS-A shake its reputation of being beholden to an unwieldy acquisition system that favors incumbent contractors?

Col. Robert Collins

Col. Robert Collins is the program manager for the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

Defense policy bills in the House and Senate are trying to get the Army to incorporate more commercial-off-the-shelf components into a controversial intelligence-sharing platform, the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

While the manager of the program, Col. Robert Collins, says the majority of products already deployed through DCGS are commercial-off-the-shelf, critics say the system is still beholden to an unwieldy acquisition system that favors incumbent contractors.

The multibillion-dollar DCGS-A program has long been plagued by delays and criticism of its utility. In August 2012, about four months before DCGS-A was approved for full deployment, the Army Test and Evaluation Command deemed the system effective only "with significant limitations, not suitable and not survivable." According to an Associated Press report, special operations units have voiced a strong preference for a different system made by Palantir, but Pentagon officials have resisted such requests and pushed DCGS-A.

The controversy is not going away. The Government Accountability Office earlier this month denied Palantir's protest challenging the terms of an Army request for proposals for the second iteration of the program (DCGS-A 2). Palantir had argued that the Army had "failed to implement the statutory and regulatory preference for the acquisition of commercial items, resulting in a solicitation that unduly restricts competition," as GAO put it.

Palantir is considering suing the Army over the DCGS-A 2 solicitation, according to a Politico report. The Army has said it expects to award a $206 million contract for DCGS-A 2 later this year.

Collins would not comment on whether there is a possible lawsuit coming, and instead expressed confidence in the RFP the Army released in December. A Palantir spokesperson declined to comment.

The House version of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act addresses the DCGS-A build-or-buy controversy by requiring the Army to cease in-house development of any DCGS-A 2 component for which there is commercial software capable of meeting 80 percent of requirements. The Obama administration has objected to that provision, arguing that it "mandates a commercial solution without regard for price, ability to support a modular open system architecture, or cost associated with proprietary software maintenance."

The Senate bill, meanwhile, would require the Army to field an intelligence system based on commercial technology that "is substantially easier for personnel in tactical units to use than" the current version of DCGS-A.

DCGS-A's critics wonder what has to happen to shake up the program.

"I don't know anything about [the possible Palantir lawsuit], but I do know that the Army appears to be doubling down on the same process that led to failure in the first iteration of DCGS-A and it's not obvious to me why they are so reluctant to try a different approach," retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told FCW.

The Army is "sticking to the same campaign plan that practically forces units to use a capability that might work in a nice clean headquarters environment but has proved practically useless on the difficult battlefields we are operating on," he added.

Collins has argued that DCGS-A provides soldiers with robust datasets through multiple types of intelligence tools.

Capitol Hill's most acerbic critic of DCGS-A has been Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a young veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to buying commercial for DCGS-A, "we have every expectation that the Army is going to try to walk back what Congress imposes," Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff, told FCW. Kasper said Hunter wanted Palantir to "stand by their product" because the congressman believes in the software's effectiveness.

Hunter does not object to the concept of DCGS as an intelligence-sharing platform, said Kasper, who praised the Marine Corps for doing a better job than the Army of incorporating commercial technologies into its version of the platform.

Kasper expressed confidence the reconciliation of the House and Senate defense bills would produce strong language encouraging commercial products in DCGS-A. 

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