Agencies put geospatial intell under one roof
More than 30 defense and civilian agencies contribute to system that supports ground troops
It’s often said that too much unsifted intelligence can be as worthless as too little information. With several dozen government and military organizations in the U.S. collecting geospatial intelligence — including the CIA, National Security Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the desire to share images and reduce duplicative efforts can often fall victim to the sheer immensity of the challenge.
Earlier this decade, the recognition of that problem led to the establishment of the National System for Geospatial Intelligence. NSG is closely aligned with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — so closely aligned, in fact, that NGA has chosen to use the NSG Statement of Strategic Intent as its own.
According to the statement: “Through strong collaboration and our understanding of the mission, we will focus outwardly and build enduring partnerships. [We will] strive to set the collaboration example for the broader community in a multi-intelligence environment; promote group collaboration through multidisciplinary teams and integrated operations centers; implement a [Geospatial Intelligence] Unified Operations Strategy through a formal framework to facilitate integrated [geospatial intelligence] operations; capitalize on the value-added collection and exploitation from [geospatial intelligence] users in the field; [and] enhance our existing, and initiate new, international, academic, and private sector partnerships that strengthen" our geospatial intelligence capabilities.
“It is a misnomer that NGA is the sole source of geospatial intelligence in the community,” said Paul Weise, director of NSG's Office of Geospatial Intelligence Management. “There are at least 30 different sources of geospatial intelligence. We looked across the community to find effective business models and saw how the NSA handled [signals intelligence] for the community.”
NSA functioned as a neutral broker for the extended enterprise of providers and consumers of signals intelligence. Now, NSG is doing the same for geospatial intelligence and is working through the process of managing all the stakeholders, which includes the intelligence community, Joint Staff, military services, combatant commands, international partners, industry and academia.
NSG is more than an advisory body, though. It has authority under an Intelligence Community Directive and a presidential order that assigns functional managers for all the intelligence disciplines: signals, geospatial, human, and measurement and signature.
“NGA is the functional manager for [geospatial intelligence] in the DOD, and we have the authority to call this group together,” Weise said.
That includes the combatant commands, which typically did not participate in discussing geospatial intelligence.
“When we stood up NSG, the commonwealth partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) and the combatant commands weren’t included,” Weise said. The Defense Intelligence Agency "was representing the [combatant commands] back then. We heard a lot of heat from the commands that they wanted to voice their own concerns and didn’t need to be heard through [the DIA]. It’s a more rich discussion by having them there.”
Driven by war demands
Although NSG has been in existence for more than five years, when the National Imaging and Mapping Agency was rechartered as NGA, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have galvanized the organization’s activities of late.
“Clearly the war efforts are something the entire community has rallied around in order to provide the best situation awareness,” Weise said. “The NSG involvement is looking at the world in a teaming fashion that has allowed us to invest more resources in Afghanistan while keeping an eye on the rest of the world.”
NSG is focusing particularly on collecting geospatial intelligence that provides real-time indications and warnings that warfighters can immediately use in the field. That intelligence also is useful for transportation analysis to determine the safest routes for convoys that travel through war zones.
During the first few NSG meetings, Weise said some members were reluctant discuss their internal geospatial intelligence capabilities, resources and data. But that changed as the representatives from the 30-plus agencies began to develop personal relationships.
“In the first meeting, people weren’t willing to brainstorm, but with each passing meeting, the conversation has become more free flowing,” Weise said. “It’s about relationship building. Now when we have a [videoconference], it is much easier for everyone to talk with each other.”
NSG hosts three meetings per year with participants at the two- and three-star level. One meeting is in person, and the other two are by videoconference, and the discussions address broad issues such as dissemination architecture and “how to deal with all the data we’re pulling in.”
Most of the heavy lifting occurs at the Senior Executive Service level, which is typically equivalent to a one-star general or flag officer. “That’s where the brainstorming and problem-solving occurs,” Weise said.
He offered an example of how strategic sessions of the Geospatial Intelligence Committee resulted in better collection and dissemination of intelligence, or, in this example, savings in acquiring geospatial intelligence.
“Unbeknownst to us, the Air Force developed an effective commercial off-the-shelf tool for disseminating and archiving of commercial imagery. The Air Force brought that forward, and NGA didn’t have to go into its own development effort, saving several million dollars.”
NSG also is working on the functional management of its organization, something that Weise and a panel will discuss at an upcoming geospatial intelligence symposium in San Antonio in mid-October.
“We’ll be discussing how to drive forward things like R&D and enterprise operations and expand the reach" of geospatial intelligence, Weise said, referring to the spread of such intelligence through online services such as Google Earth. “We operate at 150 locations around the world. How is the industry growing? What is NGA doing to proliferate its capabilities to friendly nations of the world?”
Another important discussion will relate to the standards in development that will help different agencies ensure that “everyone flying an imaging system does so in a compatible and interoperable fashion.”