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Shaping the US military perspective

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Military Support Directorate’s role ensures that our armed forces get timely, relevant and accurate geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) data and products, to support mission planning and combat operations.

Patrick D. Warfle
Patrick D. Warfle
Deputy Director of Military Support

<< NGA was in news recently for its role in Operation Geronimo. GeoIntelligence spoke with Patrick D. Warfl e, Deputy Director of Military Support, ODMS, NGA, to understand how NGA functions and what makes it an indispensable part of US military >>

Military Support (D/DMS) at the NGA. Can you elaborate further about your role in NGA?
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Military Support Directorate’s role ensures that our armed forces get timely, relevant and accurate geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) data and products, to support mission planning and combat operations. The real-time military readiness capability of the United States is our primary responsibility at NGA. We also prepare US soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to use our GEOINT data and products to effectively manage crisis operations and to navigate around the world, through ocean or in air.

That is the nature of our readiness function. There is also a future military readiness function that helps our mission partners acquire weapon systems, platforms, sensors to understand how GEOINT plays a role in those future weapon systems and platforms. In other words, supporting the procurement process so that when the youngsters of today become the warriors of tomorrow, the systems they operate have the best possible GEOINT capability onboard or in the networks they work from. Hence, we have a near-term and a long-term military readiness function.

Also, everyday we work towards ensuring that our forward deployed GEOINT analysts are fully prepared, trained and understand the best way to advise and work with our mission partners. Approximately 20 per cent of our entire agency is forward deployed, working directly with customers in the field or in commands around the US and the world. Readiness functions, future and current, and also expeditionary operations make sure our people, our tools and our capabilities are being used as effectively as possible, right where the action is, anywhere in the world, whether it’s combat operations or humanitarian relief disaster operations or crisis management.

Q. How can geospatial technologies be used for dealing with asymmetric warfare and ensuring internal security?
In asymmetric warfare, the advantage of geospatial intelligence for those who are trying to prevent these things from happening around the world is that we are using a holistic approach to include, but not limited to: helping developing nations with their governance strategy such as reconstruction efforts in the most efficient way – assisting with roads, bridges and building projects, physical infrastructure to assist in nation building. For nations that need this kind of assistance, GEOINT can help show things like what is the best way to do a task and whether progress is being made.

We can shed light on whether things are getting better for people so they can establish legitimate governance and effective economic distribution of goods and services and improve their own economies. This can take away the root causes of terrorism and insurgency and help people live better lives. That’s how GEOINT is used in stemming the effects of asymmetric warfare in those areas of the world where it is the weapon of choice.

Q. You were talking about integrating the disparate data sets so that common operational picture is possible. How can this be achieved?
Common data sets, metadata and tagging, and disparate data sets whether they convey population information, land ownership, weather, climate effects, terrain or human-made features on the earth – all these things can be rolled together and folded into an immediately understandable picture which is GEOINT. For this to happen, data sets should be easily accessible to any customer who needs that kind of information. It doesn’t matter where the data comes from, as long as it can be co-registered, tagged and searched. Customers should be able to pull data, put it into the kind of visual medium that works for them in their conditions and it should help them understand what’s going on. We use the following motto – Know the Earth, Show the Way, Understand the World. The best way to understand the world is by working to align with our vision: creating online, on-demand access for our GEOINT, and helping to broaden and deepen analytical expertise in NGA and also among our partners. This will ensure that we have the kind of analysis that helps us to anticipate what will occur across a broad spectrum of confl ict and issues. This way we would be able to get ahead of problems and not always react to them. That’s the power of GEOINT.

Q. You recently talked about crowd sourced data. But considering that this information is very critical, whether it is asymmetric warfare or conventional warfare, how do you ensure the authenticity and security of this information?
I think the key is in making sure that it is clear what the level of authenticity is or what we are going to risk in taking that data at face value. I think it’s more important to have tags or explanations with the data being integrated into the GEOINT picture, so that customers can pick and choose themselves as to what they like, what they need and what they consider to be the authenticity of that source.

Q. Does NGA take any responsibility in terms of authenticity of information?
Analysis is done in order to validate or verify data that is provided through the open environment, through web-based tools and webbased reporting. That data can be put in proper context so that it is better understood by users who don’t have time to do the analysis themselves. But that would not always be the case, especially in some fast-breaking developments where it is actually more important to ensure access to data as time evolves and understand what that data really means.

Q. Can you tell us about NGA’s human terrain analysis project?
We have a couple of what we call “incubator projects” that are designed to teach us and further examine some of the ideas that we have in our vision, as explained earlier. The two major parts of our vision are online and on-demand access to GEOINT and broadening and deepening analytical activities. We are well on our way in using these “incubator projects” that are looking at how to build broader and deeper analytical activities which are available online and on-demand.

One of those incubators is looking at human terrain as a feature. It is a relatively new GEOINT discipline which gathers sociological data that helps create a visual context for users and mission partners. This helps them understand what exactly is going on in some area of the world. Human terrain is important for getting this context correct. Cultural attributes, religious attributes, perhaps tribal issues – all these things integrate in a certain way in human population depending on the dynamics of the situation and environment. For example, suppose you have different tribal factions that are occupying the same geographic area over centuries that shares common natural resources. If a shock is introduced to the system, such as an environmental disaster or water resources becoming scarce, this may lead to friction in the society that may cause confl ict.

Human terrain analysis, if it is done correctly, can predict these points of contention. The goal of GEOINT in this context could be to use human terrain, understand the physical terrain features, the environment, climate and water resources, and put all those things together to visualise it as a whole. This way, the policy makers and people who are trying to make things better can recognise the problem areas and do something about them so that they do not become major concerns later on. I think that’s a good illustration of the whole concept.

Q. How does online, on-demand GEOINT data work? Is it free?
There are different levels of classification of data – from unclassified to public domain, web protected, web password protected networks, data meant only for some organisations like police and security services. It depends on the user and on the type of task for which data is required. For example, if there is a particular country where there are wildfires or fl ooding, the policy makers or the first responders may want to use GEOINT as a tool to help them understand what’s happening, how to control it, and where to focus to protect property and save lives. In these situations, you need to have access open to firemen, police and the emergency or medical practitioners.

Q. What about US policy making bodies and federal government agencies – is the data free to them or do they have to pay for it?
Yes, we have certain contract arrangements for things like commercially provided remote sensing data. We have entered into contracts with some organisations to get the best value for our federal government through NGA contract vehicles. The data obtained from them is then integrated into the online on-demand access which our domestic agencies can access directly and use.

Q. You are pro-active in Asia-Pacific region. Can you give us details about it?
In Asia-Pacific, we coordinate a lot of our GEOINT activities through the United States Pacific Command, which has responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region for our Department of Defense. We also coordinate through the United States State Department (through diplomatic means) so that the region gets the best GEOINT system possible to understand and visualise what is happening there. For example, in the context of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, such as in the case of ameliorating the effects of tropical storms, we partner with international organisations and United States Pacific Command to use GEOINT to ensure that we do the best we can with humanitarian disaster relief. It is a powerful tool that helps understand the situation better and what we can do with it.

Q. Does NGA provide any consultancy services in domestic as well as international market?
No, we do not provide services to the private market. We work with several agencies that serve the executive branch of the United States government as well as foreign partners and international organisations. The commercial sector certainly benefits from partnering with the United States, with NGA and other ally organisations. NGA enjoys a close industry-government partnership to get the best out of our tools, online access and ways of digitising GEOINT and related services for all our customers.

Q. India’s Army Chief was recently talking about the plug and play kind of services for the soldier. Are we anyway closer to that?
Yes, we are. In the United States and with our ally partners, we are significantly closer to that. It’s a journey, not necessarily a destination. We always can do better, so we always look for ways to do that. And one of the key elements there, I think, is what NGA has done with military customers since 9/11. There is a very close personal relationship between NGA analysts in the field and the warfighter – you know exactly what is needed; and since you eat, sleep, live and work with your partners, you understand what it is like to be in combat. I have done this myself in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so have many of our analysts. The reason we do that is to make sure that we are evolving together with our customer to give the best possible GEOINT support in their battlespace, so that it’s relevant, helps them save lives, finish their mission safely and move on to the next challenge.

Those kinds of insights are important and will serve us well wherever we go in future. We are always making GEOINT useful and relevant for our customer, whether it’s a warfighter, a policymaker or a humanitarian disaster relief manager. Our customers are making important decisions and that’s what we keep going for: that relevance and usefulness. I believe that a lot of our international partners are doing the same in the context of the larger functional management role that NGA executes through the greater community of like-minded analytical practitioners who use GIS.

Q. How do you perceive the future of GEOINT that would help in defence related operations? What do you look forward to?
I am a believer in GEOINT. I think it is the most effective way for any government or organisation to characterise how things are going in the world in any particular area, in any particular situation. It helps people understand things that are not apparent to them. It puts things in an easily understandable, visual medium, whether digital or hard copy. It gives users a quick grasp of the situation and helps them identify things to do in order to make things better, improve the disaster relief situation, stem violence or confl ict, help people around the world live normal lives and pursue their happiness and economic prosperity.

In future, technologies that enable digitisation, integration of disparate data sets, common data standards and access to data that customers need real-time will be required. Technologies that use GEOINT to give customers the context and the information that they are looking for and the confidence that they can do something about a situation are the tools that will drive the future.