U.S. Army units in Afghanistan say the service’s multi-billion-dollar battlefield intelligence system is so complicated and unreliable that they continue to use commercial software instead, from Microsoft PowerPoint to Palantir.
That’s according to a Nov. 3 internal assessment of the service’s so-called Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS (pronounced “dee-sigs”). Military.com obtained a copy of the previously undisclosed memo, which includes feedback on the technology from several units serving in the country.
The 130th Engineer Brigade arguably had the harshest criticism:
“DCGS continues to be; unstable, slow, not friendly and a major hindrance to operations at the [battalion] level and lower, organic [joint staff communications-electronics directorates] being unable to work on them, requiring an entire set of private IP addresses that do not ‘work’ with the rest of the domain structure, unstable [tactical entity databases], system ‘upgrades’ that erase or lose all of the user’s data, woefully inadequate computing power, and the loss of ~3-5 calender days per month due to systems issues.”
The brigade, which deployed to Afghanistan in September and is responsible for construction projects across the country, was one of five units that met in October to discuss the system with Brig. Gen. Christopher Ballard, then deputy chief of staff for intelligence at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul, according to the memo from Ballard to a counterpart at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The other units that gathered for the first-ever board meeting to review the program included the 101st Air Assault Division in Regional Command – East, 4th Infantry Division in Regional Command – South, the so-called Fusion Center in Regional Command – West and the Theater Intelligence Group, according to the document.
Together, the five units operate three versions of the intelligence system totaling some 613 work stations, according to information in the memo. The 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Air Assault Division alone run almost 80 percent of the stations.
In their feedback, the units made clear that the system is too cumbersome to adequately train soldiers on before deploying — even after 80-hour blocks of instruction at places like Fort Huachuca, Ariz., during Advanced Individual Training or Officer Basic Course.
“Soldiers arrive at a new assignment with little support and understanding of how DCGS-A fits into the intelligence process,” the 101st stated. “Rather, we spend our time working on physical/person security and using Microsoft PowerPoint.”
Of the thousands of soldiers in RC – West, only one received additional training beyond what was provided during Advanced Individual Training, the center stated.
The system’s so-called multi-function work station, or MFWS, “incorporates too many sub-programs to ensure even basic competency with the level of training currently given at the school house,” the 130th stated. “Even after 1 week of foundry training the system it still too complex and overwhelming for most to use.”
During a presentation last year at Fort Belvoir, Va., Army officials said the program draws on more than 600 sources of information, from Global Hawk drones and GPS satellites to ground sensors and biometric scanners. It uses a mix of military and commercial software applications, including Google Earth made by Google Inc. and i2 Analyst’s Notebook made by IBM Corp.
But units said they only use a fraction of the system’s applications in part because soldiers in the field use other software for various missions.
For example, the 101st relied mostly on ArcGIS, a mapping product made by Esri, and rarely touched such tools as QueryTree, Link Analysis and the Tactical Entity Database, or TED. The unit turned to a separate commercial product called Palantir for some of its intelligence needs because it was more intuitive and other soldiers were already using it for targeting purposes.
“Our targeting cell uses Palantir, because the Brigades use Palantir for ease of use,” it stated.
The product, made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir Technologies Inc., was the subject of a debate last year between Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine who has criticized the cost and effectiveness of the Army system.
Across the military, the Distributed Common Ground System is estimated to cost at least $10.6 billion. More than half of that, or about $6 billion, has been spent, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Yet glitches in the program persist, according to the Army units in Afghanistan. Perhaps most notably, troops can’t pass information from servers on the battlefield to those on stateside bases — a seemingly basic network functionality that’s now standard on commercial websites, from Facebook to Google.
“Transferring information back to the reach back using data mover is not possible, as it is currently not working,” the 4th Infantry Division stated. The program manager “is aware of it and they are trying to fix the issue,” it stated.
Ballard’s summary of the meeting was more optimistic. He repeatedly described the system as a “very powerful tool,” while acknowledging its shortcomings “in some areas,” and recommended for the service to implement additional pre-deployment training.