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Army demonstrates disputed intelligence system

May. 21, 2013 - 06:59PM   |  
A demonstration of the Distributed Common Ground System - Army was held at Fort Belvoir, Va.
A demonstration of the Distributed Common Ground System - Army was held at Fort Belvoir, Va. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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The Army defended its intelligence gathering and dissemination software as a lifesaving tool for the Army’s intelligence corps that places a vast wealth of information in the hands of battlefield commanders worldwide.

The service invited lawmakers, reporters and military personnel to a three-day demonstration at Fort Belvoir, Va., which began May 15.

“It is globally deployed, this is not a system that is in the lab, this is a system that is supporting and has supported nine corps, 38 divisions, 138 brigades,” said Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, the the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence. “It supports today our operations in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East, Africa, the Pacific, Korea and anywhere you have soldiers who are deployed.”

The open house comes after an April 25 congressional hearing in which Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Army Chief of Staff Gen.Raymond Odierno had a tense exchange of words over Hunter’s insistence the Army is denying soldiers in Afghanistan a lifesaving commercial-off-the-shelf alternative to the Army’s system.

The Army’s cloud-based system — called the Distributed Common Ground System-Army — collects raw intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data from 600 sources, including battlefield reports, biometrics databases, unmanned aerial systems and manned reconnaissance aircraft, as well as joint, national and strategic sources. From there, analysts can connect the dots using a variety of software tools, putting actionable intelligence in the hands of battlefield commanders.

In a demonstration, soldiers determined a mock target, “Mohammed,” was connected to a known Taliban leader through surveillance and biometric data, then created a plan to assault his compound, “Objective Denali.” Soldiers used geospatial mapping data to create a three-dimensional image of the objective, with the safest helicopter landing zone, ingress and egress routes, and lines-of-sight for ground troops. They could also re-task unmanned aerial systems to get a better picture of the objective.

Within DCGS-A, soldiers can access more than 40 applications to analyze the intelligence data, but the system Hunter supports, made by Palantir of Palo Alto, Calif., is not one of them.

Soldiers at the demonstration said Palantir’s link-analysis and pattern-visualization capabilities were a small part of what DCGS-A does. And because Palantir’s proprietary data cannot be shared within DCGS-A, users must go back and forth between two systems on separate computers.

“I spent time doing both, and it was more labor-intensive,” said Sgt. Clancey Henderson, an intelligence analyst with the 1st Infantry Division, who received a course on Palantir in Afghanistan. “I decided to stop using it.”

Army officials noted that DCGS, a program of record in 2007, is meant to replace “stovepiped” or proprietary systems by employing common standards for hardware, software and data handling, which saves a projected $1.2 billion.

“Anything that takes us back to the separate intelligence stovepipes would not support that strategy that’s been so efficient to this point,” said Col. Charles Wells, the DCGS-A program manager.

Hunter, a former Marine who deployed overseas three times, has argued that the soldiers in the war zone are avoiding DCGS-A while the Army is denying requests from the battlefield for Palantir. After Hunter’s visit to Fort Belvoir, he told Army Times the Army’s demonstration was “conceptually impressive,” but he asked, “If that is DCGS, and it’s that awesome, why don’t the war fighters want to use it?”

Hunter said he plans to bring legislation that would require the Army to assess the different modules within DCGS-A and recompete the ones that are not working.

The Army plans to hold a competition this fall for new link-analysis application as part of its efforts to upgrade the system every year to 18 months, based on soldier feedback. Future versions of the DCGS-A will connect to the intelligence community cloud computing environment, necessitating even stricter adherence to interoperability standards.

“At the end of the day, this is not a discussion about the Army’s inflexibility around standards, this is the [intelligence community] standard,” Legere said. “Quite frankly, we responded quite strongly to [Hunter’s] challenge to make things easier for our soldiers.”■

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