An internal memo from the U.S. command in Afghanistan says soldiers are voicing strong complaints about the Army’s battlefield intelligence network, for which Congress just slashed spending by 60 percent.
The $28 billion Distributed Common Ground System is too slow and unstable and hurts operations in some cases, say intelligence officers who rely on the computer network to collect and quickly dispense data on hard-to-find insurgents and the homemade bombs they plant.
The “official use only” memo issued in November was in the form of a survey of four combat and support units in Afghanistan.
Soldiers with the 130th Engineer Brigade said that, after training, “the system is still too complex and overwhelming for most to use.”
“DCGS continues to be unstable, slow, not friendly and a major hindrance to operations at the [battalion] level and lower,” the brigade said.
The 101st Airborne Division found DCGS’ workstation “very complex and tiresome to figure out,” says the memo from the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command to U.S. Army Forces Command, which prepares soldiers for deployment.
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The seven-page memo says that 4th Infantry Division soldiers “arrived to their first duty assignment with almost no exposure to the DCGS-A.”
The firsthand complaints were documented despite Army pledges that the catch-all intelligence processor is working out its bugs during a more than decadelong development.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said the survey is part of an Army-wide process to “ensure constant improvement” and to fix problems.
“The issues identified in this training readiness assessment conducted last year provided the Army with the feedback required to evaluate and refine our soldiers’ pre-deployment training as well as to enhance DCGS-A workflow concerns,” the spokesman said.
“As a result of this survey, theater leaders took immediate steps to address the training gaps of survey respondents, while the Army incorporated the soldiers’ feedback to enhance pre-deployment training and DCGS-A capabilities for the next rotations.”
Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division said Army training on the Distributed Common Ground System “is outdated and [requires] a complete overhaul to capture the complex environment we work in.”
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The division, which officially returned Friday to Fort Campbell, Ky., said its targeting cell uses an off-the-shelf computer server, Palantir, for “ease of use” in carrying out what is called link analysis — trying to find connections among suspected insurgents.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, has urged the Army over the past two years to let more units use Palantir in their hunt for improvised explosive devices, the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Mr. Hunter said top brass often made it difficult to buy Palantir because the Army wanted to protect the Distributed Common Ground System, for which it has spent much money and development time.
In the survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, the 101s Division said it used the system in a limited way to present updates to the division’s commanding general. Outside the division’s fusion center, all other sections relied on Microsoft PowerPoint.
The 4th Infantry Division, which has been in charge of Regional Command South since July, said its intelligence officers received 80 hours of training on the Distributed Common Ground System but still “lack an overall understanding of how it fits into building a common intelligence picture.”
The division said a network feature enabling soldiers to “reach back” to stateside analysts to help process intelligence “is currently not working.”
Meanwhile, the 130th Engineer Brigade talked of “lost man hours” on “systems that would not remain stable and a host of computer issues.”
It said the Distributed Common Ground System, though it boasts multiple capabilities, was confined to searching the military’s file of classified material and its workstation “was never utilized.” The unit instead turned to Palantir and Google Earth.
The 130th said Distributed Common Ground System received upgrades that “erase or lose all of the user’s data” and is handicapped by “woefully inadequate computing power.”
The one-star general who signed the memo wrote a summary that said, “DCGS-A is a very powerful tool that can be useful in supporting analysts ability to perform in-depth analysis of the operational environment.”
He added: “It is lacking in some areas, such as reach back capability, system processing speed, system stability and network compliance in garrison and in theater.”
Pre-deployment training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., “is only adequate for teaching ‘buttonology,’” he said.
The general called for revamping the entire training system because what is learned in the states “is not tailored to the units’ needs.”
In the 2014 defense budget, Congress cut the Army’s $267 million request for the Digital Common Ground System to $110 million.