• The Defense Intelligence Agency is prepared to release a new module for its Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System (MARS) that will automatically track foreign military forces. By HaseHoch2/Shutterstock
     The Defense Intelligence Agency is prepared to release a new module for its Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System (MARS) that will automatically track foreign military forces. By HaseHoch2/Shutterstock
  • Van Hendrey manages the DIA's MARS program.
     Van Hendrey manages the DIA's MARS program.

DIA Poised to Release Next MARS Program Product

March 30, 2021
By George I. Seffers
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The Order of Battle module assesses foreign troops.


The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is responsible for providing intelligence on foreign militaries, is prepared in the coming weeks to release a new capability for the Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System (MARS). The new module, known as Order of Battle, will provide insights into foreign military forces.

MARS is a cloud computing-based system that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically sift through reams of data, performing mundane analysis and freeing up intelligence analysts to perform more complex analysis. The system includes three products, the MARS Infrastructure module, the Order of Battle module and the data environment that makes existing data ready for artificial intelligence and machine learning and provides a foundation for additional modules.

Last June, the agency announced the availability of a minimum viable product for the MARS foreign infrastructure data. It ingests and applies analytics to multiple sources of infrastructure information in a database that underpins every aspect of global military operations, giving planners, operators and decision-makers direct access to critical insight and 50 times more data in an easy-to-use design. The process of updating related records now takes minutes, not hours. In addition, continued system development will further boost confidence in the information provided to analysts and warfighters, the announcement explains.

The MARS team built the initial architecture using agile software development processes and has continued to improve the system based on user feedback. “We’ve been able to do a number of updated releases to it. The first one was just six working days after the May release, which just really shows you the power and speed of this agile, incremental software development process. We’re on track to release the fifth update to that initial capability later this spring, and all of the updates have been in direct response to user feedback that we’ve received,” says Van Hendrey, DIA's MARS program manager.

The agency is preparing to deliver the second minimal viable product for the Order of Battle module. “Our next minimum viable product is Order of Battle, and that’s going to be released this spring. We’ll use the same incremental development process with that once released,” Hendrey reports. “Our Order of Battle capability will provide us information on troops and their associated equipment and how they fit in the larger hierarchy of a foreign military organization.”

Unlike the current system known as the Modernized Integrated Database, MARS is intended to follow the order of battle dynamically—such as tracking the positions of forces as they are on the move—in part by incorporating larger volumes of data that provide real-time updates and higher levels of automation to make data usable for analysts.

MARS officials also plan to include types of data, such as emergent sources and publicly available information, that are not contained in Modernized Integrated Database, which MARS is intended to replace beginning in 2025.

The data environment is being built in parallel with the Infrastructure and the Order of Battle modules.

DIA officials initially envisioned five modules, each focused on analytic functions and capabilities for specific mission areas. Other than the infrastructure and Order of Battle, officials planned to build Intelligence Mission Data, Cyberspace and Space and Counterspace modules. However, in December MARS became an official program of record supported by both the Defense Department and intelligence community but with only two modules included for now.

In addition to automating many of the tasks for intelligence analysts, MARS will present data in new ways. “People are getting data in a way that they’re used to seeing in Google Maps, and they’re consuming it in a way that they’re used to navigating on a web browser,” Hendrey states. “The power of that is that it really allows a typical user who may not have used the legacy system to collaborate with an analyst on their mission set in an environment that is easy to consume and easy to use by both.”

The system also offers a greater ability to share information. In the future, that will includ partners and allies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Along with the United States, these four countries are referred to as the Five Eye nations because they work closely on intelligence matters. “One of our goals is greater information sharing, especially with our partners. As we have transitioned from a rapid prototyping phase to a program of record, we’ve been able to expand the involvement of our Five Eye partners in our key discussions.”

The partner nations are included in a working group that meets monthly. “With MARS being a cloud-native service, we’re able to think differently about how we might serve up this capability to partners in the future. It’s not a stand-alone product,” Hendrey adds.

Remaining challenges include the ability to send and receive data across security domains in near-real time, as well as providing data to locations with limited or intermittent connectivity. Hendrey notes, however, that these are problems the entire Defense Department and intelligence community face, so the MARS program can work with others on potential solutions.

DIA is currently working with Peraton, Smartronix and Amazon Web Services and will continue to recruit additional contractors as the program progresses.

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