By Michael Hales and Michael Wagner, NGA International Affairs
We all know there can be strength in numbers. In our business, strength matters most when it resembles cohesion with Allies who share a common geospatial intelligence picture.
In October 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued DOD guidance to “... strengthen alliances and attract new partners,” noting that “... alliances and multinational partnerships provide avenues for peace ... [that] temper the plans of those who would attack....”
Making one force out of many
For decades the backbone of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency international partnerships included mostly bilateral endeavors that were customer oriented and comfortable. These two-way partnerships were established to support the mutual interests of both nations, establish longstanding GEOINT-sharing relationships and develop practices that use common tradecraft.
Today's constantly evolving security challenges cannot be adequately addressed through bilateral partnerships alone, however; even through a network of bilateral partnerships. Historically, when a crisis hit a region, NGA coordinated multiple bilateral efforts only to find that sometimes the whole was not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
Yet it is because of our strong bilateral relationships that we find ourselves ready to evolve with our most capable and trusted partners to greater levels of cooperation, working together in innovative ways to monitor and/or operationally respond to regional and global threats. This “jointness” is the core of NGA's enterprise approach for the National System for Geospatial Intelligence, which includes NGA's international partners.
NGA has a history of success with multinational geospatial efforts that have established effective partnerships for foundation data. GEOINT can be feasibly shared in unclassified environments and has an inherent universality, because everything on Earth can be linked by time and location. It is the most visual of the intelligences, lending itself to truly be the “universal language” of warfighters and first responders, and the most capable platform for multinational collaboration.
The goal of NGA's multinational partnership approach is to ensure we operate more efficiently with the collective potential and capabilities of our most trusted partners in a coordinated way to maximize resources, unique accesses and technical expertise. A multinational approach also creates a level workspace and minimizes unintended consequences of sharing GEOINT with some partners, but not others, on common efforts. Consequently, this new approach builds trust, cohesion and interoperability in a steady manner.
Providing operational value
There are benefits to the transparency arising from multinational GEOINT coalitions. The expanded partnerships have the advantage of being scalable, and once established, they reduce the complexity of working through multiple layers of intelligence-sharing policies.
Another key advantage of multinational partnerships is how they allow their form to follow their function. They are shaped by each nation's effort to build a coalition to satisfy its own operational needs while collectively addressing their common strategic interests. These partnerships can even serve formal or informal roles in operational environments.
Even before Secretary Mattis called for expanding partnerships, NGA's International GEOINT Strategy encouraged a multinational approach. It notes, “Using each other's unique capabilities, experience and insight will allow the international GEOINT community to appropriately address global challenges and crises, and increasingly see the advantages of rapidly ingesting and sharing data.”
The three principles guiding NGA’s strategy for forming multinational partnerships are:
• Multinational partnerships should be driven by shared strategic interests and each partner's ability/willingness to provide operational value to the coalition.
• Operational interests must be equally shared for any multinational approach to work in balance.
• Technological gaps must be bridged so that partners can communicate and be interoperable with each other, or the multinational effort will be at risk.
NGA has taken unprecedented steps to successfully break these barriers and build policy and technology infrastructures to support multinational analytical and operational activities with other nations. But there are still significant challenges to improve communication and ensure multilateral GEOINT interoperability becomes reality. We are working collaboratively with our expanded community of partners to pursue solutions that will make our combined GEOINT efforts more timely and relevant in an operational environment.