Intel System Failed During Afghan Hospital Strike: US Lawmaker

Caption: Fires burn in part of the MSF hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 (Photo MSF / AFP)Caption: Fires burn in part of the MSF hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz after it was hit by an air strike on October 3, 2015 (Photo MSF / AFP)

A U.S. congressman said key parts of the Army’s battlefield intelligence system failed during the Oct. 3 airstrike on a civilian hospital in Afghanistan.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a former Marine who served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, raised the criticism in a letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary Ashton Carton, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by Military.com.

“My office has learned from multiple service members and officers that in the months leading up to, and during the tragic events of October 3, when a U.S. airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, the primary components of the Pentagon’s flagship Intelligence system, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), were not operational in Afghanistan,” the letter states.

“The non-operational components included the DCGS-Army (DCGS-A) Cloud, DCGS-A intelligence fusion servers, and the DCGS-SOF variant of the system,” it adds.

Responding to a request for air support from Afghan forces on the ground, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship attacked the Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city of Kunduz, killing at least 22 people and injuring more than 30, according to press reports.

President Barack Obama later apologized for the incident and Army Gen. John Campbell, the top commander in the country, called it “a mistake.”

Troops have long complained about the reliability and effectiveness of the Army’s battlefield intelligence system.

The 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team in 2013 submitted a report criticizing the system to the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence. “DCGS-A does not provide the functionality needed by deployed intelligence Soldiers,” according to the document, a copy of which was obtained last year by Military​.com.

Less than four months later, Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, defended the intelligence system during a demonstration of the technology at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

During the presentation, Army officials said the program 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.

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 program have persisted, according to the Army units in Afghanistan. Perhaps most notably, troops couldn’t pass information from servers on the battlefield to those on stateside bases — a seemingly basic network functionality long standard on commercial websites, from Facebook to Google.

In the letter, the congressman, who got into a debate with former Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno over the issue, wrote, “Senior Army leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths in recent years to deny evidence of failures of the DCGS program, and I am asking for your help to prevent them from doing so following this tragic incident.”

Hunter added, “The purpose of DCGS is to enable commanders and service members to ‘see and know’ the battlefield and prevent incidents like the airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz. As you know, DCGS has been in development for nearly two decades and has been plagued by failures in testing, training and combat. More than 28 Army Briagde Commanders have stated in writing that DCGS-A fails to provide the capabilities necessary to accomplish their mission in combat. over time, many of my colleagues have also expressed deep concerns about failures of the program.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Conradswims

    Is this DCGS a substitute for a paper map, eyes on the ground and common sense?

  • duker

    I see now , its blame the computers/top brass. The information so far has US Special forces calling in a major sustained attack, in spite of the rules about Afghan air strikes.
    This is the shooting down of an airliner by USS Vincennes all over again. The eyes see what they see and the brain fills in with what the mind wants to see.

    • blight_

      Well, now we can see why McChrystal emphasized less air strikes…

  • Patriot on a String

    LOL… IBM Notebooks??? IBM sold their personal computer division to the same company in the People’s Republic of China that manufacturers their Military’s hardware… In 2005… Glitches or hijack Firmware… No wonder the PRC can hack the DOD as those rebadge notebooks are not in-house IBM securely made in the U.S.of A… But PRC made Lenovo who is already in trouble for embedded spyware. Like ZTE and Huawia manufacturing components that are used to control our power distribution infrastructure until they got caught hacking it. Our government even let them buy up Motorola giving them access to encrypted digital multi-frequency and secure ad-hoc network system developed jointly over the years with Johnson and GE Erricson… Typical…. Someone going to Levinworth for disobeying a direct order of the Commander in Chief??? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2300518/O… Or sub part 225.7…..?

  • robertabbott

    Doesn’t speak well for the human element or the technology. The missiles and bombs don’t have minds of their own. Certainly can’t program themselves.

    • blight_

      Neither do the 40mm shells or the 105’s sent by human eyes that aim at a building on the ground and then send rounds downround. Nothing to do with the tech, but the a priori knowledge that appears to have been lost.

      This does not cast blame on MSF (or absolve the Americans), but there are no Red Cross/Red Crescent on those buildings?

  • JJMurray

    The one question that no one has answered yet is - Was there enemy fire coming from the hospital or not?
    If there was then it became a legitimate target and the oh so concerned doctors inside should have been either trying to stop these terrorists from using their hospital as a strong point or moving their patients out at a rapid pace. If there was not then why would anyone call a strike in on a building that posed no threat or danger?

    • blight_

      That is indeed the million dollar question.

      If the Taliban sets up a mortar position just outside the perimeter of the MSF hospital (but not in it), is the hospital targeted? Also if the enemy shoots through the hospital (plunging fire above the hospital), might the hospital be targeted in turn?

      There’s not a lot of open database annotation of Kunduz. Google Maps doesn’t mention this as a MSF facility. (https://www.google.com/maps/place/36%C2%B043'04.8%22N+68%C2%B051'44.3%22E/@36.7174915,68.861826,397m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x0?hl=en)

      Perhaps if they were naive teenagers using google maps as their primary source of targeting info, I might understand, but this is not likely to be the case.

    • blight_asdf

      The government hasn’t released guncam footage from the AC-130 yet, which is somewhat suggestive.

      Another possibility is that the MSF guards were observed running around outside with weapons, and after going into the building someone simply assumed that all people who bear arms are dangerous Taliban, then destroyed the building. Or a convoy of Taliban vehicles pulled up, people came out or people came in, and then the vehicles left. Something that innocuous may have motivated the strike.

      When a full mission picture is unavailable these kinds of terrible things happen.

  • Wulf145

    If there were US forces on the ground calling in the strike, surely they must have known what was in their area. I somehow find it hard to believe that the Soldiers on the ground didn’t have this Hospital marked on their maps - it’s not like that it was just set up, it had been there for years.

  • Redeye

    Unfortunately, mistakes happen in war. We bombed the Chinese embassy by mistake during that war with Yugoslavia. It wasn’t the fault of the aircrew and not faulty weapon systems (F15 LANTIRN) but was poor GPS maps.

  • stephen russell

    Take into account those errors & go back to the Vietnam era Air support model to verify targets until system fixed. Hear out the troops using the system & FIX.

  • blight_asdf

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/15/us-t…

    Guardian hashes an unusual claim that there was a target ISI/Taliban operative in the hospital that was killed. Considering extensive experience with snatch-and-grab operations, I am surprised they didn’t simply grab the target (if this target really existed) outside of the hospital.

    What a hot mess.

  • galloglas

    Intel was good, it showed exactly where the Taliban HQ, ASP and 3C were, in that hospital.

  • nmi

    nuke the region and let allah / god / whoever sort it all out.

  • wpnexp

    Yeah, blame the computer. I don’t think the computer gave the recommendation to attack the compound. If the commander (not even the intel guy) decides to attack a target he needs to be sure as to what the target is first. I doubt DCGS-A was telling the commander the hospital was a Taliban command post. I want to know who was informed by the Doctor’s Without Borders of the hospital’s location. Seems like that is info DWB would want to keep on hand. That was the weak link unless DWB lied and never told anyone.