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Demonstration Reveals How GEOINT Tools and Tradecraft Have Transformed

 Sept. 14, 2015

 Jeanne Chircop
 NGA Office of Corporate Communications

Anyone who has seen the 1986 movie “Heartbreak Ridge” understands how essential integration and interoperability are to survival. At the height of the action, the Marine sergeant played by Clint Eastwood struggles alongside his men, as different branches of the military fail to collaborate to rescue them. The irony that the platoon is saved by using a commercial source — a credit card to phone home — is not lost on National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency employees. One of NGA’s new strategic goals is to leverage commercial sources as much as possible.

“At the time [the movie was made], troops on the ground only had interpersonal radios for communication… Yet they could connect with basically anyone, anywhere, at any time, if they could get to the commercial telephone service,” said D.K. Stewart, who came to NGA after retiring from supporting Air Force special operations.

Stewart believes the movie serves as an analogy for the importance of standards — for both technology and behavior.

“The reason that commercial services work is because of the standards,” he said. “They have to be interoperable. They don’t do well if they exclude customers.”

Fans of “Heartbreak Ridge” know that the film was based on an event that occurred in Grenada in 1983. Knowledge of the situation influenced introduction of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which formally established the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commands NGA supports today.

The tipping point

Notwithstanding reforms brought about by Goldwater-Nichols, the sharing of geospatial intelligence remained difficult. Just how much so came to light during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

“There were a lot of issues with getting GEOINT into the hands of policy makers so they could make decisions,” said John Sherman, who was the White House Situation Room duty officer on 9/11.

According to Sherman, GEOINT capabilities were unconnected at the time. At one point, he collaborated with his peers by holding different telephone handsets to each of his ears — one connected to a representative of the Air Force and the other to one of New York Mayor Rudy Giulliani’s aides.

“Everything required a lot of manual work back then,” he said. “We would print out a map from a website, and cut and paste information from emails. It was all very time and labor intensive.”

The types of information Sherman and his counterparts used in 2001 are now increasingly available through shared platforms and databases.

“The wartime scenario we went into after 9/11 forced a lot of integration,” he said. “The customer didn’t have time to go to different places to get information.”

Personnel in combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq became the biggest innovation drivers.

“Tools and expertise began changing quickly, not just because warfighters didn’t have time to be information integrators, but also because they were becoming savvier,” Sherman said. “They had started to understand the power that GEOINT brought them.”

Evolution of tools and tradecraft

The military services and many DOD agencies share information today through a common desktop environment known as the Joint Information Environment, or JIE. Within the intelligence community, a growing number of employees use the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, or IC ITE, and NATO allies have a separate network. DOD and IC entities, including NGA, are developing the Defense Intelligence Information Enterprise, commonly known as DI2E, to integrate cross-domain intelligence from these various venues for reliable battlespace awareness.

Developing the DI2E is central to the Enterprise Challenge, an annual event to test the interoperability of data-sharing technologies across the DOD enterprise. (Prior to 2012, the EC was known as the Empire Challenge.) The EC engages every branch of the U.S. military, key combatant commands and several U.S. allied nations in demonstrating state-of-the art GEOINT capabilities. This year, large-scale testing occurred in NGA’s InnoVision Laboratory Environment as well as at more than 15 additional sites across the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The underlying purpose for the EC is to ensure that U.S. and allied warfighters, and the decision makers who direct them, have the capabilities for understanding where adversaries are and what they are doing — at all times and in real time. They need to be certain of the location of mission partners, to know exactly where civilians are and to know targeting data is reliable. Geospatial intelligence provides the foundation for this.

NGA leads and executes the event each year.

“When you commit forces somewhere, you have to do everything you can to ensure that they’re safe,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Joseph Smith, who has been involved with the EC since its inception. “That means making sure their data systems work as they should.”

Ronnie Stanfill, NGA’s manager for EC-15 held earlier this year, agreed. Stanfill is a retired Air Force fighter pilot and former squadron commander who has a long history with the EC.

“It is critical that warfighters have confidence that the information they have is accurate and complete, especially for targeting purposes,” he said. Most important, said Stanfill, is to nurture a culture of information sharing.

“Once we started understanding that there was a family of systems, that’s when we began to think about how they needed to be connected — for instance, how the full-motion video used by the Air Force would be more useful if it combined analysis from the Army, and so forth,” he said.

Tracking the evolution of the EC culture shows how GEOINT tools and tradecraft have transformed over time.

“We’ve gone from compliance to conformance, and are now moving toward true compatibility,” Stanfill said.

The continuum started with stove-piped systems, according to Mark Mogle, a former Air Force imagery analyst and NGA contractor who has been involved with the EC for more than a decade. In stove-piped systems, data were shared by way of email from analyst to analyst. Outside the classified environment, data were often shared by exchanging computer diskettes, said Smith.

The advent of metadata tagging enabled true data sharing, and the integration of tagged services soon followed.

The DI2E framework will allow all mission partners — including international allies — to ingest data into whichever platform and security level they normally use for mission accomplishment.

A milestone on the road to integration came when the community began to view GEOINT as a service, said Dave Cacner, one of NGA’s GEOINT IT experts. In the past, many data types required a unique repository dependent on a specific software application in order to be viewed and used. Separating datasets from applications enabled the data to be consumed independently, grouped or combined with intelligence or operational information, he said.

GEOINT applications have also evolved from stand-alone systems to more agile, customizable services that can be shared and even used on mobile platforms.

Royal Air Force Maj. Andy Mangan, the United Kingdom’s representative to this year’s EC, cited the sharing of common services as a top outcome of international collaboration to date.

“The NATO Top 10 apps — and really understanding what they can do — are proven benefits of the Enterprise Challenge,” Mangan said.

Cacner explained that the GEOINT data architecture is also being overhauled. Originally designed on a World War II-based tasking, processing, exploitation and dissemination model, the architecture is too linear to keep up with the vol- ume and pace of today’s data.

“GEOINT data continues to grow substantially, and it’s no longer enough to push data to multiple global locations. We need to enable rapid data access, discovery and visualization over common networks that minimize bandwidth dependencies for information flow,” Cacner said.

Moving forward, Mangan said that building the proper DI2E architecture is critical.

“We’ve got to get things right at the outset,” he said, because the architecture is the foundation upon which all GEOINT will be shared by allied military forces.


Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors are at the center of both GEOINT and the EC. Modern ISR sensors have transformed over time to handle increased collection (i.e., big data), larger file sizes (i.e., large data) and new types of data (e.g., LIDAR, hyperspectral), according to Cacner.

Interoperability of ISR sensor data among FVEY partners is a major focus of the EC. The “Five Eyes,” commonly abbreviated as FVEY, denote an intelligence alliance comprising the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

“After all, when we fight a war, we do it as a coalition,” said Mogle.

FVEY partners view the EC as beneficial for reasons other than straight technology interoperability. Mangan cited sharing lessons learned. Air Force Maj. Jamie Miller, the Canadian representative to EC-15, cited cost-effectiveness, as duplicative services are avoided and partner technologies are leveraged.

Among services now shared by FVEY partners are those that connect reporting with video imagery and video imagery with maps. The same technologies connect GEOINT to other intelligences — to signal intelligence and human intelligence, for instance.

“We need to be wider than just GEOINT in order to provide high-fidelity intelligence to the warfighter,” said Miller.

Humanitarian aid and public safety

Interoperability is about more than battlespace preparation. Integrated content and services are also critical for humanitarian assistance and safety of navigation.

U.S. agencies team with international partners for disaster relief and rescue efforts. Examples include assistance following the 2010 hurricane in Haiti, the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines and the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. International coalitions have fought Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and monitored previous pandemic threats, such as the spread of bird flu in Asia.

NGA’s Map of the World has proved itself a useful tool for humanitarian assistance, said Stanfill. The tool provides content that enables first responders to identify safest access to hospitals and best supply and evacuation routes. During EC-15, NGA technologists demonstrated how mission partners layer street maps with overlays of airfields and warehouses, and then add human geography data and even crowdsourced details.

“We can add intel straight from folks in the field to update actual conditions,” said Dave Currence, an NGA analyst who led one of the MoW demonstrations.

Overcoming challenges

While the thrust of EC-15 is interoperability, an equally critical task is to develop access control mechanisms that protect sensitive data while making content available to mission partners who need it. Identity and management tools control who can use resources — an authentication process— and what resources they can use and in what ways — an authorization function.

“Cross-domain is a big issue for working with international partners,” said John Snevely, an EC-15 presenter representing the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.

None of the solutions demonstrated through the EC will succeed without standards and compliance, said Stanfill. He believes NGA is positioned to assist.

“As the GEOINT functional manager, NGA’s director, Robert Cardillo, can work with members of the NSG [National System for Geospatial Intelligence] and ASG [Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence] to encourage standards compliance,” Stanfill said.

Stanfill also said that under Cardillo’s leadership, NGA is starting to change the mindset of the GEOINT community. He believes this new thinking will drive the tradecraft into the future.

“When community members realize ‘I am no longer a specialized analyst, I am a member of the GEOINT team,’ that will carry us to true fusion,” Stanfill said.