Sharing intel between echelons key challenge for Army Geospatial Center

Joseph Fontanella is a member of the Senior Executive Service and serves as the director of the U.S. Army Geospatial Center in Alexandria, Va., which is the Army’s knowledge center for geospatial expertise. He was formerly the center’s deputy director. Fontanella also serves as the Army’s geospatial information officer, with responsibility for collecting and validating geospatial requirements, formulating geospatial policy, and setting priorities and securing resources supporting the Army Geospatial Enterprise. He spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about the challenge of sharing geospatial intelligence between echelons.

DS: Sharing geospatial intelligence among services, and even within the Army, is still a challenge. Tell me about that.

Fontanella: We are working to provide the Army acquisition community with guidance that ensures that Army mission command networks and systems can seamlessly move geospatial information from echelon to echelon, peer to peer and tactical to national levels… vertical and horizontal dissemination. In this era we have got to be prepared to operate with fewer resources while being able to provide the same level of support to our nation’s defense.

So one of the things that we are working on, and I believe we can achieve, is to gain efficiencies through the elimination of duplicative efforts, and by ensuring that geospatial information is readily available and connected to a larger, broader national system for geospatial intelligence enterprise architecture. And what that does is it, in turn, facilitates this rather seamless transfer of data from the national and tactical levels. As a part of that we are working on building effective partnerships and efficient business processes in conjunction with NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) to pass evaluated geospatial information and imagery back to national data stores. We would like to see that data created, built and collected by soldiers [to] be accessible to all users, certainly at the federal level.

DS: What is it that will facilitate that sharing of the geospatial intelligence between echelons?

Fontanella: It’s really through the enterprise, and the enterprise is really not a single thing; it is many things. It’s systems, technologies, people, concepts of operations, standards, formats and protocols. It’s all these things that come together to deliver what we call the standard and sharable geospatial foundation. And the idea behind the standard foundation is we’re hewing to nationally established formats, which brings down the stovepipes. But there is really more to that.

So what does the Army have to be able to do? It’s got to be able to rapidly collect and exploit both terrain and intel data from multiple computing environments—from mobile and handheld devices, to command posts, data centers, and to mobile on the move and sensors—across all these different computing environments within what the Army is calling its common operating environment.

What this allows us to do is to not only get our information at different stages, but also collect various fidelities of data to support all warfighting functions. So GEOINT really is three things. It’s the foundation, and that’s my focus. It’s the imagery, and then it’s the imagery intelligence. That all supports intel warfighting functions, but the foundation piece of it supports all the warfighting functions. So to fully realize the benefits, what we need to do is to improve our ability to receive, seamlessly integrate and manage soldier-generated data into an ops-intel enterprise architecture that allows the sharing of information.

DS: Is any of that happening now?

Fontanella: Yes, we are in the process of making that happen. There are a couple specific concerns with that. One is to provide a consistent, synchronized and high-resolution-where-required three-dimensional framework that is a standard and sharable geospatial foundation, or SSGF, to support the common operating picture, and then to support correct correlation registration of situational awareness. And the second is turning data and information into knowledge that supports the commander’s decision, and this should include human, social and cultural components.

DS: Is this something that stretches from commanders making decisions down to soldiers wanting to view a piece of imagery on a handheld device?

Fontanella: It absolutely could, and that’s what we would expect it to do. So within computing environments we are working to ensure that there is continuity in the way that geospatial information is created, consumed, analyzed and shared. And we also have to work this between computing environments, so what you see on a mobile handheld is similar to what you would see in the command post or in a tactical vehicle on a different display system.

Although different people may be looking at different scales [of imagery], and there may be some human factors issues with what you can see on a handheld versus what you can see on a projected display in a command post, the information is the same. The visualization is the same, or at least compatible. Where we are right now with geospatial information in the way we exploit it is really undergoing some revolutionary change. Hard-copy mapping products still remain critical to current ops, but at the same time more detailed, interactive, digital geospatial data enterprise technology is essential to what we are doing.

DS: And that’s what the BuckEye program is about, using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and other sensors to collect unclassified geospatial intelligence that can be shared with coalition partners, for example.

Fontanella: When you print out a BuckEye image, it really doesn’t do justice to what you are able to do with that when you view it on a display because of the ability to zoom in with super-high resolution…. So given the complexity and sensitivity of the current operating environment we are in, which is a counter-insurgency, wide-area surveillance environment, our ability to exploit timely, accurate high-resolution and actionable information is more important now.

So if you take a look at all these mission-command platforms and information systems that a brigade combat team commander has, he still has his database stovepipes that hinder information sharing and analysis. So even with geospatial engineer teams and GEOINT cells at the tactical levels, we still don’t quite have the capacity to rapidly build and systematically collect current, new geospatial information to build new geospatial data sets and share that. There is still a lot of workarounds that are happening.

We are making a lot of good progress, and one of the things we have been able to demonstrate is using the Distributed Common Ground System-Army, to serve as the foundation to a system like Command Post of the Future, which in the past relied on field service reps to handle the data because it really is kind of proprietary.

So we are moving toward the enterprise. The important part of it is we have to have this governing policy and standards so that we can coordinate the requirements of all echelons. One of the challenges the Army also has is we have a lot of disadvantaged users. Bandwidth is always a challenge; connectivity is also a challenge. So a unit’s inability to access the standard sharable foundation clouds its operating picture, which translates into a lack of operational unity.

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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