Army defends intel system ahead of House hearing

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Soldiers hate it. Critics say it costs lives on the battlefield. Even its name is clunky. But Army officials say it’s the future backbone of Army intelligence operations and want to explain why. 

The Army will spend about $8 billion over the next 20 years to develop, operate and maintain an intelligence processing system, called the Distributed Common Ground System-Army but known as DCGS-A and pronounced “D-Cigs A.”

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The system, which the Army has already spent $2.3 billion on, is designed to take intelligence from multiple sources such as drones, satellites and radars, and then process and analyze that data for users across the entire intelligence community. 

In Afghanistan, it is used by soldiers to predict and avoid future threats, such as where roadside bombs are likely to be buried. 

However, the program’s been bashed by both soldiers and critics in the media who say the program is slow and difficult to use, and that a competing program, Palantir, developed by a California software company, is much faster and easier to use. 

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the program’s biggest critic in Congress, and last year, he and the Army’s Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno got into a heated exchange that went viral on the web. 

Ahead of another hearing at the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the Army is trying to explain exactly what DCGS-A is, and why it’s been misunderstood. 

In an interview with The Hill and Politico, the Army’s acquisition chief Heidi Shyu readily acknowledged that the first version of DCGS-A was not user-friendly and that Palantir was much easier to use in the battlefield. 

“[Palantir] has great user interface. I saw it in theater 14 months ago. I mean, I call it a sexy GUI,” Shyu said, referring to the term for “graphical user interface.” 

But Shyu says the function that Palantir plays for soldiers before they go out on patrol is only one small part of what DCGS is designed to do. 

“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job articulating what is DCGS. It’s a complicated system of systems.” Shyu said. “So we get attacked on one piece of it, which is the interface. But the totality of the system is far broader.”

While Palantir is a software that helps to analyze data, DCGS-A is a whole system that not only takes in and analyzes data from different assets simultaneously, but it actually controls and tasks those assets, Shyu said. 

“It actually tells the radar ‘Go look over there. Full motion video, you go look over there.’” Shyu said. 

In addition, DCGS-A ingests video in real time into a central repository that can be manipulated, Shyu said. For instance, if a user sees a suspicious person, he or she can tag the person, and send that tag to other people, she said. 

Shyu said that as the war in Afghanistan winds down, and as Afghans take on more of the missions themselves, DCGS-A's interface will be less of a concern. 

“Afghans are taking the lead, conducting their own missions, and the bulk of it, the U.S. is not even supporting the mission,” she said.

But those in the field now have access to both Palantir and an update to DCGS-A called "HUNTE," which has remedied most of the problems users have run into with DCGS's first increment, Shyu said.

Meanwhile, the Army is looking ahead to the future, and currently conducting market research on technologies to incorporate into the next increment of the DCGS-A, which Shyu said could even include Palantir.  

“They do have a good product. There’s no doubt about it,” said Shyu, who took a team out to Palantir Technologies’ headquarters in Palo Alto, California in recent weeks. 

“[But] part of the acquisition [process] is, anybody can come…You could be IBM, you could be a little tiny company with some super software geniuses…You want that the best product, the best innovation in there. We’re not barring anyone from competing,” she said.  

“We want the best capability for the best value,” she said.