Army says intelligence system is getting easier to use

The Army’s evolving global intelligence systems has come in for a lot of criticism in the last couple of years, with users complaining it is difficult to use and unreliable. Army leaders have taken those criticisms to heart, however, and are promising that future versions will be much more user-friendly.

The Distributed Common Ground System - Army, or DCGS-A, is used to collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence to soldiers around the world. But since it was first approved for deployment in December 2012, the system has suffered from glitches and resistance from users.

At a hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Airland, a top Army leader admitted the difficulties soldiers have had with the system and said the service is working to correct the problem.

"'We have acknowledged that the complexity associated with the buttonology … has been difficult,” Lt. Gen. Michael E. Williamson, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, told lawmakers. "So we have tried to invest a lot of time, and we have also engaged with over 150 vendors through a series of industry days, to find out how we can improve the existing system."

DCGS-A is a complex system, drawing information from more than 600 sources, including GPS satellites, surveillance drones, ground and biometric sensors and other systems. It combines a number of commercial and military software tools as well including Google Earth and Query Tree. The combination of so much disparate software resulted, perhaps inevitably, in some usability problems.

“Buttonology” was one of the terms used in a memo from late 2013 in which members of five units in Afghanistan were cited as saying DCGS-A was “unstable, slow, not friendly and a major hindrance to operations,” with upgrades that wipe out users’ data. Several also said that, while they could see the system’s potential value, they had not received enough training to manage its complexity. As a result, they often opted to use commercial tools instead. Last summer, the Army scrapped DCGS-A from a major exercise because of software glitches.

Since then, the Army has been working to smooth out the system’s rough edges and improve training. To go with the industry days Williamson mentioned, the service has issued a series of solicitations seeking input on the next iteration, DCGS-A Increment 2, for which the Army is planning to hold a competition in 2016. It also is forming tactical engagement teams of subject matter experts to train users in making the most of the system.

Meanwhile, work on the current increment has improved its usability, which the Army plans to demonstrate during evaluations scheduled for May, Williamson said. "I think you will see a completely different perception of how that tool is provided," he said.

About the Author

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

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