How troops in Afghanistan get a clear view of intell

The Army’s 1st Armored Division needed to locate and secure the release of a kidnapped contractor in Afghanistan. The  2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team wanted to find and dispose of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around an Afghan village. And C Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry, sought to connect IED planters killed in action with high-level Taliban members. 

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In each of these cases, soldiers turned to the Army’s cornerstone tactical intelligence network known as the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) for valuable intelligence data and tools. Using DCGS-A, they were able to, respectively, negotiate the kidnapped contractor’s release, take out dozens of IEDs and remove high-level Taliban members who posed a threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s combat environment. 

Although the initial elements of DCGS-A were deployed in Afghanistan in 2006, it was five years later that the Army made the system dramatically more robust by adding a cloud computing capability. That capability, known as DCGS-A Standard Cloud, or DSC, ramped up the network’s processing power, allowing storage of every written intelligence report filed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.  

Traditional tactical intelligence systems might have given a soldier data for only the past 12 months, or only for the region in which he or she was deployed, said Col. Charles Wells, DCGS-A’s project manager.  But the cloud takes away those limitations, Wells said. “You might have been missing a piece of the puzzle before. Maybe there was a piece of intelligence that was out of your sector in Afghanistan or that happened three years ago and you just didn’t go back that far,” he said. “Cloud eliminates those traditional boundaries, and you are just able to look at everything with a very powerful tool.” 

In the first years of Operation Enduring Freedom, before DCGS-A was deployed, soldiers had to jockey back and forth among 13 stand-alone, program-of-record systems to get intelligence that units could act on, according to Army officials. 

And today, the rapid evolution of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan produces a staggering amount of data. Even after DCGS-A program was fielded, it was not unusual for the system to take a few minutes to produce the data soldiers were after.

The Army deployed DSC in Afghanistan in spring 2011. The hardware and software, housed at Bagram Air Base in northeastern Afghanistan, had to be able to meet three metrics: consume 10 gigabytes of raw data per hour, possess a total storage capacity of 10 terabytes and process queries in an average of 1.3 seconds. 

In its present state, DSC indexes and stores text and visual information on upwards of 75 million intelligence records from as many as 600 hundred source feeds, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, satellite imagery and ground sensors, Army officials said. The information is routinely used to plan route-clearing operations, track and engage prominent al-Qaida and Taliban operatives and conduct information warfare operations. 

By creating an intelligence cloud, the Army has been able to establish “a whole new generation of analytics” that it could not have created with the stand-alone systems of the past, said Gregory Wenzel, senior vice president for Booz Allen’s Strategic Innovations Group. Booz Allen is the prime contractor to the Army’s Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate (I2WD), which serves as Army’s in-house systems integrator for the government-owned, open architecture program.

DSC is the first tactical cloud deployment the Defense Department has made in a war zone, Wells said. “This is the first time where [the military] took a cloud capability and sent it downrange into an environment like that where it ended up operational,” he said.  

Since it was first shipped for the operational test and pilot program in 2011, DSC has evolved to the point that it fits into one cargo container that can be transported on a C-141 Starlifter, Wells said. 

“Our first pilot pod deployment was a little larger than we would have liked, and it had a separate chiller package, but now we’ve basically consolidated that all into a single container that we can put onto a military aircraft and deploy anywhere,” Wells said. 

The consolidation of the hardware components is significant both for transport and for deployment at Bagram. “When you get to a forward operating base, literally every square inch of space is going to be spoken for,” Wells said. “We also are minimizing the power that DSC requires because every watt of power down range is spoken for,” he said. 

DSC functions through integrated cloud computing technology, a specialized data ingestion system and an open computing framework for hosting widgets known as the Ozone Widget Framework Synapse.

The data ingestion system is capable of loading and indexing multiple data formats to the cloud at a rate that keeps pace with the flood of incoming data from the hundreds of source feeds. 

DCGS-A drew heavily on the experience of the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies to design, build and deploy cloud technology in its standard cloud build out, Wells said. “We were able to take some of these initiatives from the three-letter agencies and actually deploy them to a tactical environment — and they worked well in that environment,” he said. 

DCGS-A also leveraged the experience and resources of the open-source community for the Ozone Widget Framework Synapse. “In order to be really effective in an open-source community you need to participate,” Wells said. “We found that participation in the Forge.mil development community was really important to determine where cloud [technology] was headed and how we could use it effectively.”

Because of the highly sensitive data stored in DCS, extremely high standards for physical and virtual security were met, Wells said. The DCS node at Bagram is housed in a secure area on the compound separated from the rest of the base by a fence, and access is gained only with the proper I.D. badge. 

Since DCS runs on the Defense Department’s Secret IP Router Network (SIPRNet) and on the CENTRIXS International Security Assistance Force (CX-I), it had to pass not only penetration testing but also rigorous accreditation before going live, meeting security requirements established by the DOD, Army Network Command and the combat theater, Wells said.

“We had to meet all three of those security gates before we could plug into the feeder network,” Wells said, adding that patches are diligently applied by an IT staff on duty around the clock. 

The Army’s goals were to make querying through DCGS-A similar to searching on the Internet and also, in building the system’s standard cloud enhancement, to give soldiers an intuitive, iPad-like interface. 

“You can do some remarkable things with your iPad, and you don’t have to go to a three-week course to learn to use it,” Wells said. “It’s the same analogy with cloud technology and what we did with the DSC. We have an interface with widgets and icons where you can click on a widget, and it gives you a powerful tool that is an important piece of doing your job.” 

Recognizing that DSC is an evolving system, the DCGS-A project manager continues to solicit feedback and monitor soldiers’ needs through an online users group, which has 500 active members, Wells said. Soldiers “can make comments on the interface, and we can take those comments and incorporate them in the next update to the interface,” Wells said. It’s important to have the  “communication between the project manager and the soldier to make sure that as we evolve this capability we’re in line with where the soldier needs it to go.”

Wells is adamant that the strength of DSC lies not in the technology, even though he acknowledges it is the best technology available on the market today. 

“What’s really key to DCGS-A is the data. It doesn’t matter how great the tool is; if we don’t have the data behind it, then it’s really meaningless,” Wells said. “A lot of the power of the cloud is the data behind the answer.” 

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