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Watchdog Group Slams Army’s Battlefield Intel System

by Brendan McGarry on May 9, 2013

DCGS-A_2

A government watchdog group has come out against the U.S. Army’s system for collecting battlefield intelligence and recommended that lawmakers consider funding alternatives.

Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., criticized the service’s Distributed Common Ground System, known as DCGS-A, for having “numerous problems,” including poor reliability, according to a May 9 letter from the group’s president, Thomas Schatz, to the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

“Members of Congress must use their authority to ensure that any additional funding is being used to address existing problems in DCGS-A as opposed to further procurement of a flawed system,” he wrote. “Given the poor track record of DCGS-A, members of Congress should also explore viable alternatives to the system.”

Developed by a team of contractors led by Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman Corp., the Army system is a network-based tool designed to provide real-time access to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. It was the subject of a spat last month on Capitol Hill between Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

Hunter, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticized what he described as the system’s poor performance and rising cost, and questioned why a commander who requested a commercial product made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir Technologies Inc. never received it.

A YouTube video of the exchange has been viewed more than 162,000 times and images from the hearing were shared on social-networking sites such as Facebook.

The Army in the past decade has spent more than $2.3 billion on the system, Schatz wrote. The service is estimated to spend $28 billion on the product over the next two decades, he wrote.

The letter references an April 2012 report by the Army Test and Evaluation Command that found the system “overcomplicated” and requiring “lengthy classroom instruction.” It also references an August 2012 report by the command that indicated the system has “poor reliability” and was “effective with significant limitations, not suitable, and not survivable.”

The Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS (pronounced “dee-sigs”), is an intelligence database that draws from some 600 sources, from humans to airborne and ground sensors. The Palantir software is a link-analysis program.

Odierno during a May 7 breakfast with reporters drew a distinction between the two systems by holding up an attendee’s iPhone.

“DCGS-A is this iPhone,” he said, referring to the service’s acronym for the intelligence-gathering system. “Palantir is an app,” he said, referring to the commercial software application. “The argument is, he thinks Palantir should be considered to take over for all of DCGS-A,” he said, referring to the congressman. “We want it to be an app. He wants it to be the whole system.”

Odierno said he has discussed the issue with Hunter “numerous times” over the past year and a half and invited him to a demonstration of the system.

“The Army’s account is literally stranger than fiction,” Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Hunter, said in a telephone interview.

The general and the lawmaker last discussed the issue in February 2012, when Hunter contacted Odierno about an urgent request from Afghanistan to fill a gap in the performance of DCGS, particularly in tracking road-side bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Kasper said.

The next conversation Hunter had with senior Army leadership was a day before the April 25 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, when Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell visited “and the takeaway from that meeting was that there’s still a lot that needs to be resolved,” Kasper said in an e-mail.

“Mr. Hunter’s point is that Army ground combat units have been asking for alternative technology to fill capability gaps in DCGS,” Kasper said. “This idea of comparing an app to an iPhone is limited.

“That’s the way the Army chooses to look at it,” he added. “It’s quite possible, and many people will tell you this, that Palantir can, in fact, replace DCGS.”

The product is used by various military branches and commands, including the Marine Corps.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, former commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Afghanistan, wrote in a February 2012 letter that it “has performed outstandingly” in combat, reduced the time needed for analytical tasks and improved data sharing with allies such as the United Kingdom, according to a copy of the document provided by Kasper.

Toolan concluded that he hoped the Corps “will eventually integrate Palantir into its program of record.”

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