Heaven help them: Army intelligence needs a good ‘cloud’ to save lives

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The U.S. military’s main battlefield intelligence processor, so crucial to the war in Afghanistan, still lacks an element common to civilian computer networks — a cloud.

A cloud computing architecture would give intelligence analysts at different locations simultaneous and wider access to all sorts of data, be it satellite imagery or reports on Taliban informants.

In theory, faster, more thorough intelligence products lead to success on the battlefield, such as identifying and disrupting insurgents planting improvised explosive devices — the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Army’s $28 billion “cloudless” processor — the Distributed Common Ground System, commonly called D-Sigs — has prompted congressional criticism. Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a Marine Corps war veteran, has pressed the Army to turn to commercially available computing products to address the deficiency and, in his words, “save lives.”

The Army tested a cloud system dubbed “UX,” then stopped it last month and is focused on a program called Red Disk. The Army says its goal is to have D-Sigs matched with a cloud in its third iteration, or “release 3,” sometime after 2014, when most U.S. troops are set to be out of Afghanistan.

Mr. Hunter viewed the UX in Afghanistan and was not impressed.

Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, deputy for acquisition and systems management at Army headquarters, preaches patience.

“D-Sigs is an extremely complex program,” Gen. Greene told The Washington Times. “It is exactly the right thing to do. It’s trying to move from a number of single intelligence stovepipe systems into an enterprise solution. In the course of doing that, it is a highly complex and technical effort to make that migration. We have had some challenges. But we’ve overcome those challenges. I’m sure we will also have more work to do, but we are on a positive glide slope right now. And we have it in use across the Army.”

Responding to Mr. Hunter’s criticism, Gen. Greene laid out the future.

“The cloud for D-Sigs he is referring to was an earlier effort that we did also as a quick-reaction capability,” he said. “And we used it as a learning tool in preparation for the eventual migration of D-Sigs to a cloud architecture in release 3. We have stopped that effort for the time being. We did learn a lot of lessons, and eventually in release 3 — we’re on release 1 now in use in the field — two releases down the road we will go to a cloud architecture.”

Joe Kasper, Mr. Hunter’s deputy chief of staff, said the congressman has been right all along.

“So after all this time, all the taxpayer dollars, all the attempts at convincing, there is still no working cloud in Afghanistan and D-Sigs is in no better shape than it was months or years ago,” Mr. Kasper said. “We have always known that to be the case, and the congressman even saw the nonfunctioning cloud in theater. Soon after, the Army top brass told him that he was misinformed, even though he saw it with his own eyes.”

Cloud computing refers to a collection of computers that are linked via a communication network that allows them to run programs and share data in real time. The term also refers to a host of services that can be provided by a network of computers and servers that share computing and storage functions.

Web-based email services such as Gmail and Hotmail operate using cloud computing. Emails are not contained on a user’s computer but in the email service’s cloud network.

In the works for more than a decade, D-Sigs has been plagued by poor test results and anonymous complaints from users who tell of computer “crashes” and slow processing.

Another hiccup arose last month when the Army discovered it may have violated the U.S. Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits spending on programs without a specific line-item appropriation by Congress.

“What this reveals is that the Army could very well be funding the development of D-Sigs from outside its authorized appropriation, most likely to hide the true cost of the program,” Mr. Kasper said.

The Army has launched an investigation into whether $93.5 million in the 2012 budget was taken from operations and maintenance accounts, and war funding, and diverted to Red Disk, which is a research-and-development program designed to augment D-Sigs and other intelligence computing systems.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Gen. Greene said. “We went to the Hill and told them exactly what was going on, what we were investigating.”

On other issues, Gen. Greene said the Army made corrections to D-Sigs in reaction to the Pentagon’s top weapons tester deeming it not operationally effective. He also said fixes were made after the command in Afghanistan gave a failing grade on D-Sigs’ cybersecurity.

“It’s important for us that D-Sigs work to provide the intelligence community and the Army with an enterprise solution that brings together the tasking processing, exploitation and dissemination capabilities in one coherent infrastructure,” Gen. Greene said.

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