Center for Strategic Communication

Soldiers utilize Distributed Common Ground System-Army, or DCGS-A, operations center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Photo: U.S. Army

It’s the backbone of the U.S. Army’s intelligence network in Afghanistan. And, according to the Army’s own internal testers, it’s a piece of junk: difficult to operate, prone to crashes, and extremely hackable.

The $2.3 billion Distributed Common Ground System-Army, or DCGS-A, is supposed to serve as the primary source for mining intelligence and surveillance data on the battlefield — everything from informants’ tips to drone camera footage to militants’ recorded phone calls. But after a limited test in May and June, the Army Test and Evaluation Command concluded that the system is “Effective with Significant Limitations, Not Suitable, and Not Survivable.”

DCGS-A was already the subject of considerable controversy in the military community. Since 2010, a network of Marines, Special Operations Forces, and intelligence officers has been waging a guerrilla operation to supplant the system with rival software from the Silicon Valley start-up Palantir. In response, bureaucrats from the Army’s planning directorate blasted those officers as Palantir stooges. A report recommending the purchase of Palantir servers was mysteriously rescinded, and all copies were ordered destroyed.

The heads of the House Oversight Committee have already begun looking into the DCGS affair. This latest damning evaluation, written in a brutally harsh August 1 email by Army Test and Evaluation Command chief Maj. Gen. Genaro Dellarocco (.pdf), isn’t exactly going to quell the controversy. The email was first obtained by the Washington Times.

“Poor reliability was observed in the low OPTEMPO [operational tempo] environment. Server failures that resulted in reboots/restarts were recorded every 5.5 hours of test,” Dellarocco writes. “Based on observations across many programs, we expect that high OPTEMPO conditions will decrease reliability further still.”

“Similarly, the hardware and software ‘ease of use’ characteristics negatively impacted operator confidence and increased their frustration,” Dellarocco adds. “For example, multiple open screens are required to complete a single task, workstation freeze-ups due to these multiple windows being open, and having to convert data into different formats added steps and may have introduced data transfer errors.”

That largely echoes the Army Test and Evaluation Command survey — issued in April and replaced in May (.pdfs) — that generally found Palantir’s software to be more stable and more intuitive to operate than the “overcomplicated” DCGS-A. Backers of the system say it’s not a fair comparison: DCGS-A accesses 473 data sources for 75 million reports, while Palantir only handles a few hundred thousand. What’s more, the Army has signed a cooperate research agreement with Palantir, to see if some of its simplicity can be brought to DCGS-A.

In the meantime, there are concerns about more than DCGS-A’s ease-of-use. ”The Threat Computer Network Operations Team was able to identify and exploit several vulnerabilities with DCGS-A,” Dellarocco writes. There’s no mention of what these potential security flaws might be. But Army testers are recommending that a warning be issued to all units using DCGS-A about “one vulnerability” and that a “timeline for mitigating the rest” be put together ASAP.

If those steps are put in place, Dellarocco adds, he’ll change his appraisal of the system from “Not Survivable” to “Survivable with Limitations.” Considering he’s talking about what is in essence the Army’s brain, that doesn’t sound like a particularly comforting evaluation.