An Army general who reached the pinnacle of military intelligence says his service’s war-deployed data analytical network is a flop and needs to be stopped, rebuilt and renamed.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who headed the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency until 2014 and held a number of terrorist-hunting jobs, is the most senior officer to publicly chastise the Army for how it has clung to the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS.
In doing so, Mr. Flynn sides with a number of field commanders who have written blistering internal criticisms of DCGS. Intelligence officers found it slow and susceptible to crashes. During the height of the Afghanistan War, some soldiers parked the hardware off to the side and relied on commercially available Web-linked computers.
When commanders made emergency requests to buy off the shelf, Army headquarters sometimes delayed decisions or simply said “no,” according to internal memos.
“Here we are in 2016 and we are still forcing a capability down the throats of our military units, special and conventional forces, that requires way, way too much training and basically contract support,” Mr. Flynn told The Washington Times. “The Army needs to move to a DCGS 2.0 quickly. Frankly, I would even change the name because it just has such a bad monicker right now.
“DCGS is hard to learn,” said Mr. Flynn, a hard-charging officer who has bluntly criticized President Obama’s approach to fighting radical Islam. “It takes a long time. You have to use it all the time, which means it’s not a simple technology that people are used to and can buy off the shelf today. And frankly, it doesn’t do what it’s touted to do. That’s why you see units out on the battlefield asking for very similar things.”
An in-battle computing system may not carry the star quality of sleek jet fighters or supersonic missiles. But in the painstaking war on terrorism, there are few battlefield tools more important than an intelligence network of server and software. The system can produce the information that helps warriors locate buried bombs, identify terrorists and plan the next raid.
DCGS too often failed in being able to store and produce retrievable classified data, Mr. Flynn said.
“I can’t sit here today and say in my nearly five years in combat over the last decade that I ever saw it applied on the battlefield the way it was touted,” he said. “We found other, more capable technologies that were essentially off the shelf that performed far better for the needs for the soldiers. I saw other technologies that were wildly successful that our forces definitely used quite a bit more than what they can get out of DCGS.”
He offered advice to the Army’s top intelligence directorate (G-2) at the Pentagon.
“If I was going in as the G-2 of the Army today, what I would do is take a big step back, and I would analyze whether the system is doing what it’s sold to do, and I would consider taking the best parts of it and sort of retooling given the new technology we have available to us today because the system was originally considered well over a decade ago,” he said.
“The point is technology and innovation have advanced far past what DCGS is capable of doing. It’s not an agile enough tool to be able to incorporate and integrate the most advanced technology that is on the shelf today that can be bought by our forces that frankly our war-fighting units want.”
Army headquarters steadfastly has defended DCGS and its projected $4 billion cost to buy and maintain over its life cycle.
Told of Mr. Flynn’s criticisms, the Army released a statement to The Times: “The Army continues to make improvements to DCGS-A, as a result of lessons learned throughout the development of the program. DCGS-A systems continue to support worldwide operations on a daily basis by providing our soldiers with the best intelligence available to conduct and win wars.”
From Afghanistan to Iraq
In December, the Army released requirements to the industry for an improved version called Increment 2. The project manager told reporters, “It really allows us to be able to tap into about 700 sources that range from human intelligence, signals intelligence, geospatial data and even allows us to target into things like weather and also tapping into [open source] and cyber,” according to Defense News.
At a 2013 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who was Army chief of staff, clashed with Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and former Marine Corps officer who is Congress’ most persistent DCGS critic.
Mr. Hunter cited the latest internal memo that showed the Army was denying the 3rd Infantry Division permission to buy a commercial server and analytical system called Palantir.
Gen. Odierno said he was tired of hearing that he didn’t care about his soldiers.
“You have a very powerful personality,” Mr. Hunter said. “But that doesn’t refute the facts you have gaps in the capability.”
“We have more capability today in our intelligence than we’ve ever had,” the general said. “I can go to 30 places that tell me [DCGS] is working tremendously. Is it perfect? No.”
Mr. Hunter said he feels vindicated by Mr. Flynn’s remarks, given that the general saw the system fail firsthand.
“Gen. Flynn’s assessment of DCGS is spot on, and it should signal to the Army that it’s time to change course,” the congressman told The Times. “There’s technology out there that actually works, but it’s being overlooked intentionally, and soldiers are still being forced to use a less than subpar system. DCGS has been great for providing soldiers with really expensive laptops and not much else. There are accounts of servers that have stayed unplugged or boxed up through entire deployments, which says something about the quality of DCGS and its effectiveness.”
Mr. Flynn confirmed this point by saying of his time in Afghanistan: “Units were coming to combat with DCGS because it was their tool kit, so to speak, but they basically had it boxed up and parked in a corner. They were using off-the-shelf stuff they were having to buy prior to coming into the theater.”
As deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, Mr. Flynn sounded the alarm in a July 2, 2010, memo to the command.
“Intelligence analysts in theater do not have the tools required to fully analyze the tremendous amounts of information currently available in theater,” he wrote in a memo to force the Army to introduce better intelligence computing systems into Afghanistan. “The impact of this shortfall is felt in almost every activity that intelligence supports.”
His memo spelled out the exact hardware-software architecture the war demanded — a network he says the military still lacks nearly six years later. He did not mention DCGS in the memo, but in fact it was the shortfall he was talking about.
He told The Times that word reached him later that Army generals at the Pentagon, whom he declined to name, dismissed his concerns.
He quoted them as saying, “Flynn doesn’t really know what he wants. We know what’s best for him, and that’s what we will provide.”
The intelligence gap has persisted from the Afghanistan War to the renewed conflict in Iraq, where special operations forces began in 2014 advising and training government troops to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
In December 2014, 1st Special Forces Group wrote to Army headquarters at the Pentagon that it lacked a database from the first war and desperately needed 160 sets of a rugged Palantir computer to do their job.
“With no enterprise-level knowledge management capability, [special operations forces] are attempting to track” all its intelligence needs on “individual service-member laptops and share-drives,” the internal memo said. “The lack of an enterprise-level intelligence infrastructure degrades [special operations forces’] ability to collaborate across formations and echelons, and reduces our ability to target ISIL.”
Joe Kasper, chief of staff to Mr. Hunter, said the DCGS Increment 2 locks out Palantir as an integrated component.
Said Mr. Flynn, the former DIA director, “Basically, nothing has changed. Nothing’s changed.”