Army units give thumbs-down to battlefield intelligence system

Software complexity, unreliability and user training that extends no further than “buttonology” continue to plague the Army’s multibillion Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A), prompting soldiers to turn to commercial software, according to feedback from several units in Afghanistan.

That feedback was included in a memo from November, obtained by Military.com and reported by DOD Buzz. The memo resulted from an October meeting five units had with Brig. Gen. Christopher Ballard, at the time deputy chief of staff for intelligence at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command.

Among the complaints are that DCGS-A is “unstable, slow, not friendly and a major hindrance to operations,” with upgrades that wipe out users’ data, according to comments from the 130th Engineer Brigade, which reported losing three to five calendar days a month because of system issues.

Comments from the 4th Infantry Division recognized the system’s potential, but said complexity and a lack of training undercuts its usefulness:

“DCGS-A is a very powerful tool that can be useful in supporting analysts ability to perform in-depth analysis of the operational environment; however, this also requires extensive training … Training provided at Fort Huachuca is only adequate for teaching ‘buttonology’ and a rudimentary understanding of the systems capability.”

Several other units also mentioned arriving in Afghanistan with little knowledge DCGS-A or the Army Multi-Functional Workstation (MFWS) used to access it, and said training focused on “button use” rather than integration and interoperability. “MFWS is a very complex tool to use,” read one comment, but soldiers received only the most basic training and had little understanding of how the data could be integrated or shared.

Soldiers reported turning to commercial software, including, in at least one case, PowerPoint. Another unit reported using ArcGIS rather than DCGS’ similar tools, as well as using Palantir, a commercial intelligence software that has supporters within the military (including the Marine Corps and special forces and Congress, but which the Army has resisted incorporating into its system.

DCGS, initiated in 1998, is envisioned as an integrated, interoperable suite of systems for collecting and sharing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data from many sources. It contains tools such as QueryTree, Link Analysis and the Tactical Entity Database (TED). The Army, Air Force and Navy each operate their own versions of DCGS, which across the military is estimated to eventually cost more than $10 billion.

The program has faced criticism before, from sources as varied as the Army Test and Evaluation Command, and nonprofit watchdog groups. In addition to complaints of complexity and unreliability, the system was found last year to be vulnerable to hackers.

In his summary of the November memo, Ballard acknowledges DCGS-A’s failings, including the lack of “reach back capability, system processing speed, system stability and network compliance in garrison and in theater.” But he called the system a powerful tool that, with technical improvements and better training, could still be valuable in the field.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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