Army intell system rising from controversy into the cloud

Officials demo DCGS-A in attempt to satisfy congressional critics and showcase the system's potential.

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The Army's global IT system for collecting and disseminating critical intelligence is no stranger to controversy, but officials hope that cutting-edge updates to the system, including a transition to the cloud, will erase any remaining doubts about its capabilities.

The Distributed Common Ground System-Army, or DCGS-A, comprises a family of systems, tools, applications and people dedicated to collecting, storing and sharing information key to overseas operations. New versions of the system have, over the past few years, deployed with the aim of working better and faster, and will continue to do so at least through 2016, when the service is expected to fully transition to cloud capabilities.

"This is our Army intelligence weapons system – it keeps soldiers alive," said Col. Charles Wells, DCGS-A program manager. Wells said the program has achieved all milestones on time and has met all cost and budgetary targets.

But the Army's system still has undergone tough scrutiny, including from members of Congress, who questioned whether DCGS-A really works better than privately developed systems. Last August, leaked internal memos from Army Test and Evaluation Command declared the system "effective with significant limitations, not suitable and not survivable."

It was also alleged that the Army tried to cover up the reports, and that officials made it difficult for soldiers to obtain another system from the Silicon Valley-based Palantir, when that was their preference. In late April, a congressional hearing turned into a heated debate between Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, over access to Palantir and the effectiveness and future of DCGS-A.

The Army is responding with a full-court press of its own in the form of a three-day exhibit held May 15-18. Officials at the Army Intelligence and Security Command hosted reporters, lawmakers and other stakeholders to showcase DCGS-A's progress and prospects as they were led through a series of station set-ups that included truck-mounted servers, flat-screen TVs and air-conditioned tents where soldiers demonstrated intelligence operations using DCGS-A.

Hunter is expected to visit the demo May 17, officials said.

Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said managers behind the program responded strongly to Capitol Hill challenges regarding ease-of-use, and even accelerated the most recent iteration of the system in response to criticism.

"The Army has the most enormous footprint, so we have a responsibility to have DCGS in all theaters," providing disciplined support for all the services, Legere said during a May 16 press briefing. Each service branch has its own version of DCGS that hinges on the Army's.

Interoperability is the name of the game as the Army presses forward with DCGS-A. Originally created to share previously stovepiped data, sensors and workstations, the system now provides soldiers with data analysis and cumulative intelligence that has been crucial in Afghanistan, among other places. It also has saved the Army $300 million and achieved cost avoidance of roughly $1.2 billion, Wells said.

The system currently consists of tactical intelligence ground stations set up in trucks, as well as intelligence fusion centers, digital topographic intelligence and imagery analysis workstations, and a tactical operations center set up in tents. It pulls from more than 600 data sources, a number that could increase as the Army begins to institute standards set forth by the intelligence community. That move is critical for DCGS to further collapse existing silos and bridge intelligence gaps by moving to open – but strict – standards.

"At some point you have to have an archive of war. DCGS-A supports land [operations], so it captures daily work but also provides context," Legere said. "The enemy has persistence and changes location. This has the important function that isn't sexy...but you can go back more than five or six years and look back" across areas, operations, locations and actors.

The iterative process for building capabilities into DCGS-A is how the program has succeeded and will continue to improve, according to Wells. Currently in its second release, the system regularly receives updates. The next release of the system, slated for fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2016, will modernize the system's top-secret component. Future iterations in pilot phases, including "lite" and cloud versions of DCGS-A, will help the Army better share data across the intelligence community and help soldiers better connect to their sensors, data and each other.

As many as 60 vendors are involved in the various components of DCGS-A, ranging from major defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman to Silicon Valley staples like Google. That could eventually include Palantir, with which program officials are in talks for incorporating into the system.

Currently the program office has a cooperative research and development agreement with Palantir, involving phases of preliminary experimentation, expansion of data types, and later expansion of existing work and cooperation, expected to begin in the third or fourth quarter of fiscal 2014, Wells said.

"The partnership has been nothing but positive. The engineering has great teaming; politics are left at the door," Wells said. "It's a technical problem...that requires fundamental adjustments to the data structure" in order to be interoperable with DCGS-A.

The new intelligence community interoperability standards will underpin the eventual cloud transition – and they will be a challenge for the Army as officials simultaneously manage global systems until the "hard turn" into the cloud. There is tension in the fact that standards are continuously evolving, and that they are not the Army's to determine.

The hope is that these transitional bumps will smooth throughout the intelligence community cloud pilot initiative, which officials say at the end of this calendar year will begin generating feedback as it is fielded to intelligence brigades.

"We're seeking user feedback for iterative changes through fiscal 2014, then we'll look at what capabilities [could be] formally folded in" in the third release of DCGS-A, expected to begin in fiscal 2015, said Dr. Russell Richardson, senior science adviser for Army Intelligence and Security Command. "Release 3 will focus on the cloud transition...with operational testing in early 2015 and fielding in late 2015 to early 2016." Considered the Army's "on-ramp" to the intelligence community's information technology enterprise, the move to cloud is expected to accelerate access to data, further integrate stovepiped capabilities, save money and reduce military footprint.

"We're not going to miss this on-ramp," Legere said. "The reality is the Army has never dictated [intelligence community] interoperability standards, but as the DCGS intelligence backbone we cannot continue with the inefficiencies of the one-offs used for much of the war. This is the way we're going and we're going to get out of the quagmire soon."