“Geospatial is key to army inventory”

“Geospatial is key to army inventory”

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Joint Aeronautical and Geospatial Organisation (JAGO) provides geospatial support to soldiers in field, whether it is British soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, or NATO forces.

Col John Kedar
Col John Kedar
Chief of Staff
Headquarters Engineer-in-Chief (Army), UK

<< Having worked in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Col John Kedar, Chief of Staff, Headquarters Engineer-in-Chief (Army), UK, believes that present-day warfare is not only about defeating enemy but also about knowing people and winning their trust. In a tete-a-tete with GeoIntelligence, he tells us about the ongoing war in Afghanistan and how geospatial technology can help armed forces stay ahead of their adversaries >>

Q. Can you describe the activities of Joint Aeronautical and Geospatial Organisation?
Joint Aeronautical and Geospatial Organisation (JAGO) provides geospatial support to soldiers in field, whether it is British soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, or NATO forces. JAGO provides support to whoever needs it – it’s effectively using GIS to enable people to do their jobs or operations. JAGO also creates and provides aeronautical information to UK Defence.

We analyse, interpret, collect, and disseminate data– it’s the full range of activities. However, we don’t build the geospatial data, we don’t create standard maps. In UK, Defence Geographic organisation builds the data and maps.

Q. Can you tell us about the GIS work that has been implemented in Afghanistan? What are the challenges that you face in Afghanistan?
There are a number of challenges. First, we are working in a multi-national environment with soldiers from various countries from NATO and beyond – all of them working as one in Afghanistan. There are also Afghanistan’s soldiers who don’t have digital systems, and use only paper. The multi-national feature makes it very complex.

Second, armies have started moving to digital environment now. So how do you support the digital environment, how do you make sure that everyone is seeing the same version of the truth – these are the kind of questions that need constant attention.

Afghanistan’s counter insurgency operations are being fought at the lowest level, section or platoon or company. Very small number of men need detailed geospatial information at far greater resolution than we have been using before. Hence, detailed information is probably the third challenge.

We try to use GIS to tackle these challenges. We use GIS for analysis and producing products. We have introduced a number of geospatial servers onto the C2 network – on the NATO C2 network rather than a British one. It provides the same version of mapping, as a web service, to everyone. It’s, of course, beyond mapping because a lot of military information has associated position – position of medical facilities, helicopter landing site, and position of the enemy.

Somehow, you have to enable people to use that information, and through our services we ensure that anyone who is on the C2 system gets this information – it’s not just maps but about 35o different layers of information. In fact, it’s similar to using Google Earth to locate hotels, places of tourist attraction or roads and imagery. However, it is military information owned by geospatial specialists and a full range of staff branches. Users can also interrogate the information further and create their own ‘maps’ that enable them to understand the situation. All this information is there in various military databases, all we do is link everything together spatially into a single operating picture.

Q. Are troops also involved in collection of this kind of information?
Yes, absolutely, in the collection at the lowest level. When a patrol goes out and notices something, it conveys that information to us. For example, it might notice that a bridge has collapsed or has been destroyed on a particular road. It will report that to us and we will update our databases accordingly.

So the new version of maps will show the destroyed bridge. We have geospatial specialists even at low levels, that is, at battalion HQs and even rarely at company level, which means a geospatial specialist for every 100 men. At battalion level, however, it is kind of mandatory to have geospatial specialists who are responsible for properly validating any new information before passing it up the chain of command and eventually back to the Defence Geographic Centre.

Q. What about the cultural data? How do you collect that?
Culture is very important. A counterinsurgency operation does not involve fighting with another army. In these operations, you try to win the hearts and minds of people. Take the case of Afghanistan – you want people to believe that governance by the present Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai is the right answer. If people believe you, then the Taliban will not win but if Taliban convinces people that there are better options available, then it wins. It’s all about people. So, if you don’t understand the tribes, their relationships and their power brokers, then you will never be able to convince people. In Afghanistan, for example, there are tribal leaders with one son fighting for Taliban and the other for the Afghan National Army. So, no matter who wins, he is always at advantage. You need to understand these things. Cultural understanding is very important and GIS plays only a small part because it’s more than positions, it’s about relationships, and that requires all types of intelligence.

Q. In a country like Afghanistan, where armies from various countries are fighting under a common command, how do you solve the problem of providing common data to all of them?
Every international force operating in Afghanistan operates in its own area of operations, so the British take the lead in geospatial support to British forces in Helmand for example. Nations could choose not to interact at all and just focus on geospatial provision for their area of operation, but that’s not how NATO operates. NATO does its business by looking at Afghanistan as a whole. It divides the country into several parts and delegates its member countries, which are capable of producing geospatial information, the task to collect information about that region. For example, American forces may be responsible for creating geospatial databases for the north of Afghanistan and the British might take care of the South. Similarly, Germans would collect information of central Afghanistan and so on. This way, everyone in NATO would be contributing something.

The information, thus collected, is then made available to everyone. So the production is collaborative, and all the forces operating in Afghanistan, no matter which country they belong to, can use that.

Q. You said that it’s not technology that will make a difference in today’s environment, it’s how we use the technology within defence. Can you elaborate it?
My belief is that technological solutions are there but where we fail is to make information available to people who need it, and analyse information in such a manner that commanders can understand it. There is so much information; somehow we have got to make sense of it. That’s the strength of GIS. It enables you to bring different geoinformation sets together and helps you to understand it, quickly and easily.

Q. Terrorism and asymmetric warfare are major challenges facing the world. How can geospatial technology be used to counter these threats?
We stopped using the term asymmetric warfare. We have started using hybrid warfare. But I think, asymmetric is about an opponent trying to use his strengths against your weaknesses.

As armies, we have to process information and understand the environment and situation faster than the opposition. All protagonists can use the same information technology. In fact, they do use same data partly. For example good quality imagery is available on internet. So the advantage can be how to use that information faster or more effectively to win over your opposition.

We know that terrorists in Iraq were using downloaded imagery from the internet to plan their attacks – it’s a fact, and it will happen in future as well. You can’t stop this, you can’t stop soldiers from putting photographs on social websites such as facebook where you are giving away information because in the background you can see detail of relevance to an enemy.

Modern technology does make it easier for an asymmetric opponent because they can get information that was not available to them in the past. We don’t know how big this advantage is for them. However, our advantage is the ability to analyse vast quantities of information faster so that we can stay one step ahead of them.

Q. How do you perceive the future of this technology?
First, I think we need to improve information management so that relevant information is accessible to everyone. GIS has a part to play; it can be quite complex but it must appear simple for users. Second, change detection has moved quite a long way. I think it will continue to do so and that will be a major improvement. Further, GIS will continue to develop and new ideas will further improve the technology, but I can’t predict where that will go.

However, I think one thing that will change massively is hand-held devices. In civilian world, people have smart phones but in military, we have only now started getting that technology. I believe that will change enormously the way we do business because the geospatial community can enable everyone using these devices to see the same version of the data, although streaming that information over fragile communications is difficult.

Technology will solve that problem but it will be gradual process. But you can guarantee that in 5-years time, new technology, a new idea will change everyone’s thinking. You cannot think 10 or 20 years ahead in this environment, it is rapidly changing. Young people come up with new ideas. It is exciting, fast moving and makes geospatial support a key facet in any army’s inventory.