Truman National Security Project

Why did Gen. Odierno Slam a Congressman, and What’s the Impact on Army Intelligence?

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“First off, I object to this. I’m tired of somebody telling me I don’t care about our soldiers, that we don’t respond.”  Those are the words Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno had for California Representative Duncan Hunter during a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing.  For about a year and a half, Rep. Hunter has repeatedly brought up the issue of why the Army continues to spend a significant chunk of change – 10 billion over a thirty-year period – on an Army intelligence system that, in his view, has not produced proportional results.

Now that the Army has withdrawn forces from Iraq and continues to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, this is precisely the time when the Army needs to re-evaluate its intelligence technology.  This article outlines some the major arguments surrounding the debate between Gen. Odierno and Rep. Hunter, and it highlights three things the Army should focus on moving forward. While I only speak for myself in writing this article, my observations are based on my observations as a junior Army intelligence officer; during which time, I had the opportunity to discuss these intelligence programs with over 700 Soldiers during sensing sessions in Afghanistan, Germany, and 14 bases across the U.S.

What is DCGS?

The Army’s current “flagship” intelligence system is DCGS-A (pronounced “D-Sigs-A”).  To some, DCGS-A is a four-letter word, but it actually stands for the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.  It’s not one system; it’s the umbrella name for a compilation of various systems. There’s a standard DCGS-A laptop for intelligence generalists. Then, there are systems for geospatial analysts, systems for signals analysts, database repositories for storing information, and the like.  The newest addition to this “family of systems” is the DCGS-A Cloud, which is supposed to help consolidate all these disparate systems into one platform.  For the past decade, the goal has been to get the various intelligence specialties to have a common platform where information can be shared from the national level to the tactical level. This is what Gen. Odierno referred to when he said a Company Commander (with 150 Soldiers) in 2013 now has more intelligence capability than he had as a Division Commander (with 17 thousand Soldiers) in 2003.

Defining the Problem

Although DCGS-A has made significant strides over the past decade, Soldiers have been frustrated because it simply has not kept pace with the rapid changes in technology. Since DCGS-A has so many components, it is important to be clear about the problem. The main frustration stems from the standard DCGS-A laptop, not some of the specialty equipment like the intelligence systems used by geospatial analysts.  The DCGS-A laptop has faced criticism primarily because it is challenging to learn how to use—requiring eighty hours of training—and it is prone to crashes due to how its software was designed.

Rep. Hunter referenced technology from Silicon Valley and commercial software several times, but he never actually referred to Palantir by name. It is widely known that Rep. Hunter has been pushing the Army to purchase analytical software from Palantir, and it is no coincidence that this company is based in California – his home state. Palantir is not perfect, but Soldiers like how they can learn how to use it with less than four hours of training. The other attraction is that Palantir’s cloud computing software allows Soldiers to share information in real-time without interfering with an intelligence product someone else is working on.

Framing a Solution

So why doesn’t the Army just combine Palantir software with DCGS-A systems?  To some extent, the Army already has.  Both Palantir and DCGS-A are used in Afghanistan.  However, Rep. Hunter was referring to getting Soldiers stationed in the U.S. the same capabilities as the Soldiers who are deployed.  Army intelligence has been evolving for several years, and the current intelligence model calls for units in the U.S. to actively support real-world operations overseas.  This has been done for years at the strategic level, but now it’s happening at the tactical level as well. In Afghanistan, Soldiers don’t really combine DCGS-A with Palantir software though.  They use one system for certain intelligence functions, and use the second system for other tasks.  Going forward, the Army should consolidate and combine these capabilities.  However, getting the two systems to work together is akin to the old compatibility issues between the Mac and PC.  I won’t bore you with the technical details, so imagine two females (or males) are standing in front of you.  One has a great face, but a terrible body.  The other has a great body, but not a great face.  You wish you could combine to two in order to form a supermodel (i.e., a supercomputer), but up until this point, it hasn’t happened.

Second, the Army should start cutting the parts of the DCGS-A program that have outlived their usefulness. Based on the urgent needs of two wars, the Army purchased a number of commercial products over the past decade.  There is a tremendous amount of redundancy in what was purchased, and now the Army should try to eliminate the unnecessary expenditures.  This will also make it easier to train only the parts of the system that are still relevant.

Third, the Army should focus more attention and resources on intelligence systems that can be adapted to a high-intensity, fast-moving battle.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly all operation centers were stationary, but now the Army is shifting towards mobile operations and the ability to fight state actors. In order for tactical intelligence to remain relevant, units will need to take their intelligence systems on the road.  Anything that can’t fit into a rucksack, anything that is dependent on a vast communication network, and anything that can’t help analyze a conventional military (in addition to an insurgent network), is not well suited for this mission.

Gen. Odierno’s final remarks to Rep. Hunter alluded to the fact that the Army is already working hard on this problem. There is no silver bullet that will immediately resolve the issue, but revamping the intelligence systems can be done in a matter of months – not years or decades – if the Army can maintain a sense of urgency.

Pierre Hines is a Truman Defense Council Member.