U.S. soldiers preparing to fight in Afghanistan have encountered some of the same flaws with the Army’s vaunted intelligence computer network that they endured two years ago in their efforts to identify terrorists and locate roadside bombs in the war zone.
An internal Army “lessons learned” document obtained by The Washington Times shows that the Distributed Common Ground System could not print documents, locate files, maintain a functioning server or browse consistently, as 82nd Airborne Division analysts tried to make it work.
In one case, intelligence officers worked 10 hours on a targeting analysis, only to see the entire product disappear permanently.
The analysts then discarded the common ground system and switched to Microsoft PowerPoint to perform “link analysis,” which identifies alliances among Afghans, the Taliban and al Qaeda and, in the process, can reveal the location of a bomb-making site or safe house.
The confidential report was written Jan. 28 by staff at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. The 82nd’s 1st Combat Brigade Team spent a month there preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, where it is stationed today as a theater response team.
The common ground system’s poor showing is sure to be discouraging to the division’s analysts because they had the same problems two years ago.
“It’s absolutely absurd that two years after complaints were registered by a ground combat unit, those same complaints have re-emerged among the exact same war-fighting element,” said Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican.
Mr. Hunter, who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer, is the common ground system’s most persistent critic in Congress. He has criticized the Army for a lack of candor in acknowledging its flaws and for denying unit requests for commercially available analytical tools.
“There are lessons learned, personal experiences and a long list of formal complaints to pull from, and all of it continues to be thrown out the window because ignoring the true problems with DCGS is obviously easier than fixing them,” Mr. Kasper said.
The Army has steadfastly defended the common ground system as a program that is ambitious and is overcoming challenges. It has said that for every soldier who pans its performance, there is one who praises it.
In response to the Fort Polk report, Matthew Bourke, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the glitches found in January “have been subsequently addressed through DCGS-A software upgrades.”
“It is standard practice for the Army to document all positive and negative observations following training exercises and various testing scenarios,” Mr. Bourke said. “This feedback is necessary in order to improve unit procedures and execution ahead of future deployments.”
In noting the system’s many functions, he said: “It’s a family of capabilities consisting of downlinks, data storage, workstations, and software and enables soldiers to conduct common analysis, manage data, task sensors, share information across echelons, and reach back to [the continental U.S.] through a common platform, with shared data.”
The Fort Polk report lists 10 problems, including:
• Lack of burning and print capabilities severely hindered the fusion cell’s ability to share products with infantry leaders.
• Soldiers at the battalion and the brigade level reported an inability to connect to the DCGS-A interoperability server. If the server was connected, the connection was intermittent.
• The browser application “was unorganized and difficult to navigate.”
• An inability to locate documents via the browser “prevented the unit from effectively sharing documents and products throughout all echelons.”
• Using the browser to add intelligence to the database was too complex.
• The browser link to the server was often down, preventing units from accessing information.
The problems seem to be a haunting replay. Two years ago, while in intense fighting against the Taliban and in a desperate hunt for deadly improvised explosive devices, the 82nd’s 1st Brigade Combat Team sent a plea for help from Forward Operating Base Warrior.
The commander, in a May 12, 2012, memo, wrote that his unit “currently has mission essential requirements for force protection and targeting of IED threats that are not met by current intelligence systems. These technical shortfalls impact our ability to rapidly develop and understand the brigade’s intelligence picture in highly volatile Ghazni Province.”
The brigade’s commander said analysts were unable to share their intelligence data with other echelons — the same problem encountered by the same unit just a few months ago at Fort Polk.
The commander asked higher-ups at the Pentagon for approval to purchase an off-the-shelf server called Palantir, manufactured in Northern California. The memo said other units, including special operations, reported great success using the software to identify the enemy and links to other terrorist cells. Some unit commanders said Palantir saved lives.
The commander wrote: “Solving very hard analytical problems takes several days when using existing tools against these data sources.”
The memo does not mention the distributed common ground system by name, but it was, and is, the architecture in use in Afghanistan.
Army intelligence chieftains at the Pentagon have resisted approval of some Palantir purchases.
Mr. Hunter has said the Army is trying to protect its own system, on which it has spent a decade developing at a long-term cost of $28 billion.
In late 2011 while in Afghanistan, the 82nd made a push to buy Palantir but met resistance from senior Army civilians who worried that it was not compatible with the common ground system.
In January 2012, an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division emailed those civilians, saying: “Bottom line is there are some people in and out of uniform who really want to see DCGS-A work but very few who think it is effective enough for field use right now.”
Congress slashed spending for the common ground system this year by 60 percent. But the Army is sticking by the network and met with congressional defense staffers Monday to defend its progress.