Soldiers say leadership critical in enhancing DCGS-A capabilities
February 24, 2014
By David Vergun
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 28, 2014) -- Soldiers who have used the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, both on and off the battlefield, say that with adequate training, it's an intelligence game changer.
Sgt. Troy Thatcher is one such user and proponent.
While deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan, he was a junior analyst on a tactical intelligence ground collection team. He described how the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, or DCGS-A, helped make his unit's mission a success.
Thatcher, then a specialist, went on daily patrols with the infantry, where he gathered intelligence. He then uploaded that data into DCGS-A, a system he said he used effectively.
At the time, he said he thought he was playing just a small part in the intelligence-gathering process and he didn't see the "big-picture" view of the system.
Later, he learned that his data, when processed using the tools within DCGS-A, provided one of the many important pieces of the intelligence picture. He said, DCGS-A conveys critical battlefield snapshots to brigade, division and corps commanders to aid in their decision making.
Thatcher added that software tools within DCGS-A enable the analyst to format their information in any number of ways and that data to commanders can be presented in easily-understood formats, including tables, graphs and charts.
Today, Thatcher works on DCGS-A geospatial-intelligence integration, training and development in Melbourne, Fla. He said he now show others how valuable their inputs are to the intelligence gathering system and he thinks that helps motivate them to want to better understand and use it.
The key to being able to use DCGS-A easily and effectively, he emphasized, is to have proper training.
While proper training ensures successful use of DCGS-A, not everyone gets the same training opportunities and problems inevitably arise, he said.
Sgt. Gregory Galperine, another DCGS-A user, said when he deployed to Afghanistan as a fusion/targeting analyst with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, his unit didn't receive all the training because of the high pre-deployment operations tempo.
As a result, he said his brigade commander authorized the use of other commercial software. However, he said, DCGS-A was still the underlying architecture or framework for the intelligence gathering system used.
When Galperine returned from Afghanistan, he got the DCGS-A training that he missed out on. As a result, he was able to design a two-week field training exercise for his battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C. He said that exercise provided valuable training for his junior analysts.
Galperine said that training with DCGS-A is ongoing, however, like marksmanship training, DCGS-A requires a refresher now and then "because if you don't use it, you can lose it."
Galperine explained that training for DCGS-A can be divided in two parts. First, users learn the "buttonology" portion. That includes learning the tools and what buttons to press to make things happen. Soldiers also learn the military intelligence aspect, which includes getting DCGS-A to produce the desired result from all the intelligence data gathered.
Intelligence data ingested and processed by DCGS-A comes from multiple sources, including Soldiers on patrol, aircraft, and manned and unmanned sensors. The DCGS-A system connects and manages these intelligence-gathering resources in a networked grid that spans the globe. Soldiers use its fusions servers to process intelligence data and support multiple mission objectives.
DCGS-A manages streams of information flowing back and forth throughout the "enterprise," and additionally has access to and uses information provided by similar systems in use by sister services. When needed, DCGS-A also interacts with intelligence systems used by partner nations.
With DCGS-A, intelligence now "resides on shared servers so everyone can access the same baseline of information," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Adrian Robertson, an all-source intelligence technician at Project Manager DCGS-A, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
Robertson, who has been doing military intelligence for 19 years in the Army, said in the past, intelligence systems had their own unique data feeds and repositories. In many cases, systems couldn't communicate with each other. He termed it "stovepiping." With DCGS-A, that is no longer the case.
During a deployment to Iraq with the 25th Infantry Div., Robertson used DCGS-A and described it as a "revolution in military affairs," because of the automation DCGS-A provided compared to the previous legacy systems he had experienced in his career.
While Robertson said DCGS-A is not perfect, he said he has noticed significant improvements since he first started using it, and stated those improvements are mostly driven by feedback from Soldiers in the field.
His team of contractors -- former Soldiers who used DCGS-A while deployed themselves -- see the feedback every day, and he said they incorporate a lot of it into new software releases.
There are several ways, he said, that feedback is processed. Besides the after action review mechanisms that are in place following training, Soldiers can also access the DCGS-A User Forum, where they can ask questions, provide feedback to help other Soldiers, or share new ideas.
In effect, the forum, which stood up about a year ago and is hosted by the Ground Intelligence Support Activity, has become a community for the users where ideas can be driven from the bottom up. System engineers monitor the forum and respond to technical questions.
Robertson said he's impressed with the creativity of today's breed of analysts, who he said thrive in their outside-the-box thinking and are more technologically savvy than ever before.
Thatcher shared some other examples of innovative solutions junior analysts provided, including a creative way of getting a TV feed to interface with other systems in DCGS-A. That solution was incorporated into the system.
Innovative solutions can be shared and incorporated in a matter of hours. A junior Soldier really can make a difference, Thatcher said.
Thatcher said user feedback was responsible for an important system-wide update that is being rolled out called "Hunte." Hunte, he said, is replacing the Griffin software, which he said users complained was too complex and difficult to use.
"You can ask any analyst who worked on both systems and they'll tell you there's a huge improvement from Griffin to Hunte," he said. "And it won't stop there. The PM is constantly collecting and testing feedback to look for ways to incorporate it."
Training and education are what most concerns Thatcher. He explained that even the best system won't work unless the user has the necessary knowledge and expertise.
The Army's goal, Thatcher said, is to get everyone's training completed before they go to the national training center or joint readiness training center. He added that this is becoming more doable as the drawdown in Afghanistan continues and battle formations stabilize.
The biggest challenge now, Galperine said, is getting the word out to commanders that the training is necessary and time needs to be allotted for it.
"It comes down to command emphasis," he said. "Leaders must seize the opportunity."
He said it's also up to his own team and every analyst to get the word out to their leaders that the training is valuable. He said they must also explain how success in using DCGS-A can ensure mission success.
Galperine said that with proper training, Soldiers can develop "muscle memory" with DCGS-A, where usage becomes automatic, similar to the muscle memory a Soldier acquires with his or her rifle.
"Commanders and MI leaders also need to start incorporating DCGS-A into daily operations to mitigate training deficiencies," Robertson said, "Several units are already doing this."
Besides incorporating new software and solutions into DCGS-A -- which is still in the developmental stage -- plans are already underway to incorporate national strategic guidance into its framework, Robertson said.
The Army's strategic vision now calls for full-spectrum operations, he said. Engineers and technicians are developing new programs to meet anticipated threat characteristics like force-on-force.
One new application currently fielded with Hunte, the Threat Characteristic Workcenter, will help build order-of-battle charts and better track conventional units in the hybrid threat environment, he said.
But ultimately, Robertson said, the success or failure of DCGS-A boils down to good leadership. Leaders must give analysts the time needed to train, and commanders must take ownership of the system.
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