The U.S. Army plans to hold a competition in fiscal 2016 to develop the next phase of its controversial battlefield intelligence system.
The service on Wednesday released the first of what is expected to be several requests for information, or RfIs, from companies for assessments on how to build the so-called Distributed Common Ground System Increment 2, according to a press release.
"This RFI -- in conjunction with a series of planned industry days -- will solicit vendor feedback on ways to improve and replace the software-based tools soldiers use to analyze and integrate data and visualize intelligence information," it states. "Today's announcement builds upon ongoing efforts to address well-publicized soldiers concerns regarding the existing DCGS-A system's 'ease of use' in the field."
Army units in Afghanistan have repeatedly complained that the multi-billion-dollar, military-wide system is complicated, unreliable and difficult to use, prompting many of them to rely on commercial software instead. Last year, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, and Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno debated the issue after the lawmaker asked why troops weren't getting a commercial product called Palantir as requested.
During a presentation last year at Fort Belvoir, Va., Army officials said DCGS draws on more than 600 sources of information, from Global Hawk drones and GPS satellites to ground sensors and biometric scanners. It uses a mix of military and commercial software applications, including Google Earth made by Google Inc. and i2 Analyst's Notebook made by IBM Corp.
But units in Afghanistan have said they only use a fraction of the system's applications in part because soldiers in the field prefer other, more intuitive software for various missions.
For example, the 101st Air Assault Division in Regional Command - East relied mostly on ArcGIS, a mapping product made by Esri, and rarely touched such DCGS tools as QueryTree, Link Analysis and the Tactical Entity Database, or TED. The unit turned to Palantir for some of its intelligence needs because it was more intuitive and other soldiers were already using it for targeting purposes.
Meanwhile, Marines and Special Operations forces have also embraced the software made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir Technologies Inc. The company was founded in 2004 with seed money from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The firm, which has done demonstrations for the Army but isn't a contractor on the DCGS program, is expected to reply to the Army's RfI and eventually compete to upgrade the system.
Across the military, the Distributed Common Ground System is estimated to cost at least $10.6 billion. More than half of that, or about $6 billion, has been spent, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Yet glitches in the technology persist.
The Army reportedly withdrew the system from a major network test this fall because of "continued significant software incident reports," and "overall network operational readiness issues," according to an Associated Press article that cited a July 15 memo signed by Gen. John Campbell, the Army vice chief of staff who will take over as the top commander in Afghanistan later this month.
The Army is considering a shift in acquisition strategy in which a contractor rather than the service acts as the prime integrator of the system's components, according to the solicitation. A so-called industry day, in which the service discusses with potential bidders the planned competition in more detail, is planned for early next year.