DCGS May Need to be Deep-Sixed | Citizens Against Government Waste

DCGS May Need to be Deep-Sixed

The WasteWatcher

The Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A), a network-based tool intended to provide real-time access to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, invokes a strong reaction from both its proponents and detractors.  According to Army brass, DCGS-A represents a breakthrough in intelligence support capability, while users have called it a “huge, bloated, excessively expensive money pit.” 

The latter description, offered by an Army reservist upon returning from a war zone, summarizes much of the growing criticism of DCGS-A.   The system has been under development for more than a decade and to date has cost taxpayers approximately $6 billion.  Over the next 20 years, DCGS-A will likely cost $28 billion when the cost of training analysts is included.

Unfortunately, the system has encountered numerous problems.  An April 2012 report by the Army Testing and Evaluation Command (ATEC) stated that DCGS-A is “overcomplicated, requires lengthy classroom instruction,” and uses an “easily perishable skill set if not used constantly.”  A memo released by the Department of Defense (DOD) Operational Test and Evaluation office on November 1, 2012 claimed DCGS-A was “not operationally effective, not operationally suitable and not operationally survivable against cyber threats.”

Most alarmingly, soldiers who have used DCGS-A while deployed have been highly critical of the system.  For example, a July 22, 2012 Washington Times article quoted an 82nd Airborne intelligence officer as saying, “Bottom line from our perspective is that [DCGS] has continuously overpromised and failed to deliver on capability that will meet the needs of the warfighter.  All the bullet points they can list on a slide sitting back in the Pentagon don’t change the reality on the ground that their system doesn’t do what they say it does, and is more of a frustration to deal with than a capability to leverage.”

A June 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) underscored the many difficulties avowed by the users of DCGS-A.  The report found the system “difficult to operate,” frequently suffering “workstation system failures,” and that DCGS-A “impeded the flow of intelligence information,” the direct opposite of its purported purpose.

The complaints about DCGS-A become even starker when it is contrasted with Palantir, a private sector alternative.  

According to the June 2013 GAO report, users of Palantir deployed in Afghanistan claimed that the system saved them time and was easy to use.  The report stated, “Users indicated [Palantir] was a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations.”

The July 22, 2012 Washington Times article refers to an 82nd Airborne intelligence officer who wrote to his superiors, “we are trying to solve some very hard problems that pose life or death issues for the soldiers under this command, and [DCGS-A] is not making our job easier, while Palantir is giving us an intelligence edge.”  The officer added, “We aren’t going to sit here and struggle with an ineffective intel system while we’re in the middle of a heavy fight taking casualties.  Palantir actually works.  When DCGS actually works, we’ll be ready to use it.”

Palantir is widely used by Armed Services personnel outside of the Army, including Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps.  The Pentagon has spent approximately $35 million on different versions of the product.  The White House also uses Palantir to identify fraud in the federal stimulus program, and the software is extensively used in the private sector, including by companies such as JP Morgan Chase.

The Army is ostensibly in favor of utilizing Palantir.  In May 2012 the Army signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the company.  In addition, Army Deputy for Acquisition and Systems Management Major General Harold Greene claimed on Fox News on June 30, 2013 that, “if they’re found to be the best value for the soldier and the taxpayer, I’m sure that we’ll adopt Palantir as part of the DCGS suite.”  However, the Army has more frequently stood in the way of soldiers requesting the platform.

A June 19, 2013 article appearing in The New Republic highlighted the story of the 82nd Airborne’s Arctic Wolves, an army combat team operating in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2011.  By late 2012, the team was suffering multiple casualties from improvised explosive devices, and analysts were struggling with DCGS-A.  One of the analysts reached out to a Palantir representative, and the results were instantaneous: “We had spent probably a day and a half trying to make a map using DCGS-A … in my three hours with Palantir, he was able to show ten times more information.”  The chief intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne put in an urgent request for Palantir, claiming that DCGS-A “translates into operational opportunities missed and unnecessary risk to the force.”  The Army denied the request.  According to an internal memo, this meant the 82nd Airborne continued to “struggle with an ineffective intel system while we’re in the middle of a heavy fight taking casualties.”                         

The Arctic Wolves’ experience reflects the Army’s wider pattern of denying requests for Palantir by soldiers operating in the field.  An 82nd Airborne intelligence officer described Army brass digging in its heels: “The chain of command believes they need to have this capability in the fight and that it will save soldiers’ lives and limbs.  Bottom line, there is a significant capability gap in DCGS … that Palantir greatly exceeds, and with extremely high stakes in a very violent environment, today we need the capability advantage that Palantir provides.”

The Army has expended much effort defending DCGS-A against such criticism.  Not only did the April 2012 ATEC report call the system overcomplicated, it also suggested that the Army should “install more Palantir servers in Afghanistan.”

Less than one month after the ATEC report was released, an Army email requested that the original report be destroyed.  It was replaced with a very similar report, minus the section recommending the increased purchase of Palantir.  The deleted section also included a paragraph stating that Palantir “…enables analysts to rapidly execute necessary data mining and create products that are requested by units for operations and missions more efficiently.”

The criticism of DCGS-A widely portrayed in the news media is reflective of CAGW’s experience meeting with several active-duty members of the Armed Services.

The soldiers reported that the amount of time necessary to train on the Palantir system pales in comparison to DCGS-A.  Getting up to speed on the private sector platform required only 2-3 hours, whereas DCGS-A requires an 80-hour training session.  After this extensive (and expensive) training, in many cases analysts were deemed insufficiently capable and ordered to return for an additional 80 hours of training.  Increased use of Palantir would likely drastically reduce the costs of training analysts.

The soldiers stated that the “official” tests of DCGS-A, most recently in May 2013 at Fort Belvoir, do not properly replicate the environment in which the system is intended to operate.  Flaws with DCGS-A, which include its large bandwidth requirements, mean that the system is unusable in remote forward operating bases.  In a counterinsurgency environment, access to intelligence at the company level is vital.  They reported that this is not something DCGS-A can achieve.

Members of Congress have begun to challenge the Army’s line on DCGS-A.  Led by House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the House version of the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the DOD to make available more detailed cost figures by listing each component of the system as a separate item within the program, with justifications for each component.  This would allow Congress to reduce funding for underperforming portions of DCGS-A in subsequent years.  The House NDAA also directs the Pentagon to look for commercial products capable of performing functions currently under the purview of DCGS-A.  The version of the NDAA released by the Senate Committee on Armed Services withholds 35 percent of the funding for DCGS-A until the completion of a new evaluation report.

Allowing the nation’s warfighters to take full advantage of existing private sector technologies such as Palantir would increase their capability and effectiveness.  It would have the added benefit of saving taxpayers money.  Thus far, DCGS-A has cost approximately $6 billion, and there is no end in sight.  The Army’s usual line is the next version of DCGS-A will address all current problems.  However, updates are unlikely to fix the significant inherent flaws in the software. 

Further, the program necessitates arduous multi-week training sessions, which often need to be repeated.  By contrast, Palantir is by all accounts easy to grasp, and training sessions can be completed in hours, not weeks.

Increased Congressional oversight is needed to ensure that everything possible is being done to address the difficulties inherent in DCGS-A, and that warfighters are equipped with the best possible tools to complete their mission.  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.  Given the poor track record of DCGS-A, members of Congress should also explore viable alternatives to the system.

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