Home Geospatial Applications Miscellaneous Socio-cultural information is critical: US Army

Socio-cultural information is critical: US Army

San Antonio, US: “The Army has been slow at understanding the importance of socio-cultural information. While there were examples of successful uses, such as the occupation of Japan after World II, that was not the cases in Vietnam, or in the current conflicts until they were well under way,” acknowledged CW5 Michael Harper, military deputy, Army Geospatial Center, US, during the session, Socio-Cultural Dynamics: An Overview from a Diplomacy, Development, Defense and Intelligence Perspective, held at the GEOINT 2011 Symposium.

To be sure, he said, those shortfalls were partly due to the fact that such analysis is not part of the Army’s core mission, which is to conduct kinetic operations. At the same time however, “In Afghanistan and Iraq, we had considered socio-cultural in more detail up front, maybe we would have executed those operations differently. If we had had a more robust socio-cultural staff at a strategic level, we might have avoided mistakes,” he said.

As soon as you transit from being focused on the kinetic part of the Army’s mission to non-kinetic operations and focus on security and nation building, socio-cultural becomes hugely important at every level, Harper argued. Looking back on his career, Harper recalled that in his first 20 years of service, he had never conducted battlefield preparation using socio-cultural factors. But in 2004, he began getting calls from units in Iraq, whose commanders were asking to track socio-cultural factors that the Army hadn’t before. The codes used to track information in the current fight simply didn’t reflect many vital cultural issues, such as differences within the religion of Islam.

“You couldn’t input information such as this was a mosque with a certain orientation. So we had to build a data model to support what commanders were interested in tracking, and what they wanted to see in their common operating picture,” he said. Since then, however, the Army and the Army Geospatial Center have made substantial progress. “If you look at our portfolio of programmes today, we’re all over socio-cultural, from developing handheld apps to enable psyops and civil affairs soldiers to rapidly collect information, and quickly get that information back into a mission command environment so it can be shared,” Harper said.

In his remarks, Dan Plafcan, policy analyst and portfolio manager for socio-cultural analysis, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, US, identified three areas of challenge and opportunity that GEOINT tradecraft is bringing to socio-cultural analysis. First, he said, the expansiveness of GEOINT and the human geography part of it is so huge that there needs to be disciplinary forces to funnel these efforts in a way to provide the most bang for the buck. Second, people in the field need to think carefully about the downstream implications about a lot of the upstream work that’s being done now in GEOINT and human geography, and how that matches up with requirements and the context of use for the data. Finally, more clarity in terms is needed.

“We need a more question-focused and conceptually informed look at the kind of products that we need,” Plafcan continued. “Rather than human geography being mistakenly viewed as an added value, it needs to be brought into the centre by showing its clear value for military operations across a broad spectrum. “It’s not a topic or an empirical domain, but a form of analysis, which includes concepts as well as technologies. The focus is on populations or groups of people. If we can get sophisticated about technical specifications and other factors, we should be able to have that same sophistication about the social world. We don’t have that yet as a community,” he said.

“Our vision is the seamless integration of socio-cultural analysis into all-source—not a boutique or a specialty. The objective is to inform the full spectrum of military operations,” Plafcan added.

Wrapping up the session, Elizabeth Lyon, geographer, Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center, pointed to the good news that there are a lot of similarities between the way the worlds of defence, intelligence, diplomacy and development view socio-cultural geography. But, she said, “We’re not at the point where we can point to one place and say a word, such as school, means the same thing, or we recognise the different components of that term. The Corps of Engineers thinks of a school as a structure, while the defence community might be interested in the alternative uses of a school as a building. The diplomatic community would be interested in how that school educates the population. We have similar language, but we’re not yet in the same room in recognizing how we interact with each other. “Mapping is really about the future. Where are we going, and how can we display that information?” asked Lyon, who recently was named as an adviser to the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s board of directors.