WASHINGTON — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley's assessment of the US Army's continuously troubled intelligence analysis framework's tactical capability was lukewarm at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
"I have taken a hard look at [the Distributed Common Ground System-Army] DCGS-A and I am keenly aware of all the various controversies," Milley said. "My rough assessment is that DCGS is performing reasonably well at, kind of, echelons above brigade. When we we get into the tactical level, we have to move it around, jump from place to place, ease of use for young soldiers, there is a very high density of training requirements, etc."
Milley said because of those issues, "there may be some other options out there. I'm not sure. I'm taking a hard look at that whole piece on the DCGS."
The chief added that his own personal experience with the system at the strategic, operational level was "very, very good."
Even so, "When it gets down to the tactical level, it's more difficult to work with, not quite as fast, and difficult to jump from location to location on the whole battlefield," Milley said.
The DCGS-A system was initially deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a quick-reaction capability and used commonly to track insurgents' improvised explosive device (IED) networks. It's gone through several iterations with incremental improvements, but complaints of various aspects of the system continue to bubble to the surface.
Milley is singing a different tune than his predecessor as Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, did amid major controversy associated with the DCGS-A system beginning in 2012.
Odierno was a steadfast defender of the system's capabilities, even sparring with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, a Marine veteran, in a heated exchange during a 2013 House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Hunter has consistently expressed concern over DCGS-A capabilities over the years, questioning whether the service should consider a commercial off-the-shelf alternative. He Hunter has argued that other readily available systems would better serve soldiers in the field, particularly Palantir, an off-the-shelf software program that is able to track the positions of roadside improvised explosive devices. Army units requested the software instead of DCGS on several occasions but the Army denied the requests. Palantir has been praised for its ease of use when compared to DCGS.
Milley's testimony indicated a willingness to consider other solutions for soldiers that need intelligence analysis capabilities at the tactical level.
DCGS-A has struggled to push through controversy and criticism for many years now, but "Increment 2," as the project office calls it, attempts to answer critics and improve on a system that is already fielded across the Army today with six sites around the globe at the corps, division, brigade and battalion levels.
The Army is still defending its progress on DCGS and is moving forward with its Increment 2 version with a goal of awarding a contract valued at $206 million to a single vendor in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2016, but anticipate a number of subcontractor arrangements.
Yet new controversy has emerged, brought to light again by Hunter as he works to include new legislation addressing the future of DCGS in the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill. The legislation would, in a nutshell, restructure the DCGS program and would require stopping any internal development efforts for components where commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software is available.
Earlier this month, Hunter wrote a letter to the Pentagon's acting inspector general, Glenn Fine, taking issue with a recent memo circulated by someone within the Army National Guard's Intelligence Programs Divisions requesting officers to take to Capitol Hill to argue against the proposed legislation and defend the current DCGS strategy.
Hunter argueds in his April 5 letter that what is urged in the memo amounts to illegal lobbying, especially since members of Congress are not soliciting input on the legislation.
The National Guard intelligence directorate’s memo, obtained by Defense News, takes took particular issue with the COTS requirement in Hunter’s proposed legislation. "As an example, delivering the same capability of DCGS-A with COTS creates compatibility and lifecycle/software update conflicts," so its argument goes.
Hunter’s letter acknowledgeds the Office of General Counsel in the IG’s office has received the National Guard memo and he askeds the IG to personally examine the document "to the proper authority for review and determination."
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.