The Army’s legacy battlefield intelligence-sharing system hasn’t been without its controversies.

The system, known as the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, faced criticism for its ability to effectively disseminate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data quickly and it faced significant debate over the many years and billions of dollars that went into developing and defending the system instead of choosing a commercial option.

The system has been in development for more than a decade and could cost as much as $28 billion over the next 20 years, lawmakers said in a 2013 letter to high ranking officials on the House Armed Services and House Appropriations committees.

But after years of public acrimony and legal wrangling, Army leaders now say they hope to move forward by better incorporating commercial off-the-shelf capability, user feedback and smaller “capability drops” that eschew the incremental approach of the past.

This new era of DCGS-A involves an emphasis on troop feedback, improved market research and better cooperation with industry, all of which directly contribute to getting more cutting-edge capabilities into the hands of soldiers faster, according to DCGS-A Project Manager Col. Rob Collins.

“As we’ve taken a more agile approach to how we improve our DCGS system, those things we’re focusing on – tactical, data, leveraging commercial – have been a core aspect of our strategy,” Collins told C4ISRNET. “How can we use the best of what industry can bring to us? We’ve been doing that by market research…what commercial capabilities are out there? Which ones can be modified? That tells us where we can tailor our requirements to take advantage of those commercial aspects…and we’ve already seen where we can speed up the improvements to the program.”

While DCGS-A previously was developed and fielded in increments, the Army now is delivering capability drops that are smaller, discrete and more agile, focused on specific needs and uses, Collins said.

“That allows us to do a couple things: We’re allowed to do more targeted market research into what’s available today, to be able to deliver more quickly,” he said. “It allows us to really hone in and ensure we’ve got our requirements right from an operational and a user’s perspective, so that once we establish those everything else from there falls into place. Once you have the requirements right, once you do market research accurately and identify products available, naturally you can move at a much quicker pace to acquire those things without lengthy development timeframes.”

The first capability drop, which Collins said was aimed at the tactical echelons and for which the Army released a request for proposals in August, now is in source selection as Army leaders look to reduce the system’s footprint at the lower echelons. The Army recently held an industry day for drop 2, which is focused on big data analytics that improve how intelligence is collected, prepared and disseminated in the battlefield, Collins said. He added that he expects advanced analytics to be a major part of the future of DCGS-A.

Besides the shift to capability drops, another major shift has been increased focus on user feedback from soldiers. The feedback comes from a range of sources, including in the theater as well as from training exercises across the country and Network Integration Evaluations. The feedback is resulting in moves to simplify the IT systems that underpin DCGS-A, enhance the user interface, inject feedback into the acquisition process, optimize training on the system and even improve the engineering behind human-systems integration.

“We’re looking at more of a collective approach that teaches them how to employ these capabilities as part of overall maneuver, the commander’s perspective,” Collins said. “We spend a fair amount time looking not just at how capabilities can provide intelligence products, but how it can interface with and feed the larger military decision-making cycle. A lot of the feedback is to reduce that complexity, make it easier to use…and make it more useful and accelerate the times required to produce the intel products.”

Army leaders also are looking to the other services, all of which have their own DCGS systems, and the intelligence community to better partner on moving the program and the system forward amid a changing threat landscape.

“DCGS is not just an Army system…we’re part of a larger, enterprise portfolio across the DoD. We have the DCGS systems of the Air Force, Navy, Marines and even [Special Operations Command]. It’s really about how we get the larger intelligence community, intelligence enterprise, to work and share data across that enterprise,” Collins said. “We’ve made several adjustments to make this program more agile, more open, more adaptable, and we certainly understand the future landscape is making sure we can address the unknowns and the unknowable.”

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