Growing Up With DCGS-A
Growing up with DCGS-A (Distributed Common Ground System-Army) has been both painful and insightful. This paper is written from the viewpoint of a military intelligence officer with seven years on active duty. While it may not cover issues from echelons above the tactical level, it accurately reflects my experience. Many of these ideas have been collaborated through discussions with peers, leaders, and subordinates. Throughout my time as a junior officer, a principle that was emphasized was that “You should not propose a problem without also suggesting ways of improvement.” That is what I purport to do with this paper. It would be an injustice to the many talented soldiers that I have worked with in the Intelligence field to not voice the issues with DCGS-A and suggest a way forward. Despite these growing pains, my hope is that DCGS-A becomes a valuable and sustainable intelligence system that provides our soldiers with the technological advantage to win our nations wars.
The Intelligence community likes to compare maneuver and intelligence to apples and oranges, especially when referencing the complications of implementing DCGS-A at the tactical level. Many systems assigned to intelligence units are sensitive and require extensive connectivity. However, I would argue that the processes used to train on and sustain these systems can draw from models already in place. During my entire career thus far, I have been informed that DCGS-A is the primary weapon system of Intelligence Analysts. Although, in most cases I have seen it sidelined for other programs, or simply used as a paperweight during exercises and deployments. How is it possible that in every unit I have been a part of, less than 10% of MI soldiers knew how to operate their primary weapon system? If this was the case in other branches, the Army would not succeed as a whole. How much more capable would our Army be if the Intelligence soldiers were proficient and enabled to use their primary weapon system instead of supplementing it with other methods? The issues I have identified as to why this problem persists fall under the topics of Leadership Emphasis, Training, Compatibility and Sustainment/Integration.
As a young LT, I was informed that I did not need to be a proficient operator of each system, but rather that I should understand all the capabilities that intelligence brought to the fight. While I learned that getting to know each system as intricately as possible was in my best interest, I realized that I could not be an expert in each. I was instructed to rely on my fully trained and capable soldiers to work their equipment. This was not the case with DCGS-A. Many of the intelligent and motivated soldiers that I worked with were not able to use this system because of training or equipment shortfalls. I quickly got a distaste for it, and pushed DCGS-A to the side. Despite all the briefings leaders had received on this all-encompassing intelligence tool, the reality was that they saw firsthand that it was nonfunctional. Over the last decade this has produced a top down drive to implement the DCGS-A Program of Record, while simultaneously producing a bottom up push back from leaders voicing the lack of functionality. This lack of leader emphasis at the tactical level has produced an environment where soldiers are forced to use valuable time training on this system, only to quickly find a replacement. The only way to change the tune of MI leaders and the commanders they work for, is to address the issues that have plagued the system since its inception.
Two weeks of training is all it takes to become a certified DCGS-A operator. Having sat in this class over 5 years ago, I can attest to the fact that this skill atrophies rapidly. Training must be sustained at the unit level, and held to a standard. The first issue in accomplishing this is infrastructure, which I will address when discussing sustainment/integration. Without the proper system infrastructure, the system will not even be operable. Once infrastructure is in place and soldiers can log on to the system, how do they maintain the skills they have learned in the 2 week course? Frankly, there is no current structure in place to address this. I propose that a way to fix this would be to create a database on ATN where DCGS-A operations could be broken down into individual and collective tasks that support the Intelligence Sections, and units METL. The steps taught in the 2 week comprehensive course could be videotaped and posted. Units could train their soldiers in house on each task needed to create their desired IPB products, using the searchable videos. Additionally, units need their own SME. Whether this takes the form of an identifier or just a slotted position, this soldier needs to be proficient in the DCGS-A system as his primary task. He/She will be able to assist in the sustainment and progression of the other soldiers’ DCGS-A skills. As MI leaders, we are advised to speak in infantry terms to our commanders. Therefore, I would assimilate this position to a weapons Squad Leader in an infantry platoon. This training would need to be tracked within the section for each soldier as they progress. This progression would potentially tie in well with the new Intelligence gunnery concept that is being proposed. Each intelligence MOS within the unit would need to follow this training concept, which could be validated at collective training events. Training is the biggest downfall in the implementation of DCGS-A. Even if all the infrastructure and connectivity works flawlessly, without trained soldiers, intelligence unit’s primary weapons system will again be marginalized.
The compatibility issues with DCGS-A is a common complaint amongst commanders and consumers of intelligence. Products created in DCGS-A are advertised to be able to be shared onto CPOF for a common operational picture. I have yet to interact with a unit who has accomplished this. Most of the incompatibility lies in the lack of functioning of the DDS (converter that shares graphics to other systems). In addition, most signals experts are either not trained on it, or do not see it as a priority in the field. If kinks in the DDS were worked out, commanders would be less likely to push intelligence personal to work on other systems in order to maintain a common operating picture in the TOC.
The last but equally important problem that must be addressed is the sustainment and integration of DCGS-A. With software updates every 6 months, the training that was given to a soldier a year ago has now become obsolete. However, as with any other weapon, when a new version comes out, operators must be trained on its functionality. Although units are scheduled to be trained on new versions, the turnaround time is not quick enough. Each Division should be trained on the updates within a year of the new version being released. New training videos on ATN should be uploaded to ensure soldiers are able to train on the most up to date version at home station. Also, if the infrastructure is not maintained or set up correctly, DCGS-A will not function. Those responsible for maintaining the system are 35Ts (Intel system maintainers) and FSR’s (field service reps). However, there are no 35Ts in functional Brigades. I believe the maintenance of these systems should be tracked at the Division level to ensure 35Ts are covering down on all units. Without oversight, the entire reason for DCGS-A’s existence, to be able to share intelligence reporting across echelons, will not take place. FSR’s at the Division level would need to track unit training events as submitted by the subordinate S2s. They could then set up a testing session a week prior to any BN/BDE level training event to ensure systems are talking across all echelons.
This multifaceted problem can seem overwhelming, but it boils down to leaders putting an emphasis on tackling the issues before overinflating the capabilities of DCGS-A. The system is capable of taking our intelligence units to the next level and streamlining products to support commanders’ decision making. However, this will not happen if the primary weapon system of MI soldiers is pushed to the side and replaced at every opportunity. I believe these growing pains can amount to a more successful intelligence branch within the Army if the right focus is put on it. We owe it to our talented and motivated soldiers to implement a solution to the DCGS-A problem.
The views presented here are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Army or U.S. Department of Defense.