GEOINT Goes to Sea
Limited by low Internet bandwidth and cyber threats, U.S. sailors aboard even the most advanced aircraft carriers in the world often rely upon data, images and products that are produced and prepackaged elsewhere rather than benefiting from the same on-demand access to geospatial services enjoyed by anyone with a smartphone.
“At sea, Navy geospatial intelligence operations take place in a communication-restricted environment. It’s not uncommon for shared and low bandwidth limitations to define our capacity to exploit imagery in support of our mission and our own safety of navigation,” said Petty Officer Matthew Jumper, stationed aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
The very nature of the carrier environment — with its multiple operational priorities from daily flight operations to combat drills — makes employing new intelligence community technologies and techniques especially challenging. This reality drives the Navy’s requirement to balance enabling technologies and engineering with military planning standards and operations to accomplish its national security objectives.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s longstanding partnership with the Navy continues to provide critical linkages between GEOINT- related systems, products and processes. To that end, NGA Support Team members are embedded with fleet operations around the globe to help develop GEOINT solutions that address the Navy’s unique operational environment.
“I’m a big fan with an obvious bias toward retaining, and even expanding, the current level of NGA support to the fleet,” said Navy Capt. Carl Inman, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “In comparison to the other services, Navy use of GEOINT is still in the early stages, though it’s progressing. Until our enterprise is fully operational capable, I’m in favor of a greater level of on-site and federated support with the experts.”
It was during a late 2014 visit to U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, that a conversation between Inman and John Scali, deputy director of NGA’s Military Support directorate, turned to the scope of technology, data and products needed shipboard versus those actually available in order to ensure the best support of military decision making. From that discussion emerged one of the most unprecedented partnerships to date between NGA and the Navy.
In the spring of 2015, NGA deployed veteran imagery analyst Rob Stiver aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt as the first of two “ship riders” in a pilot program. Stiver has provided dramatically improved access to geospatial resources, demonstrated how GEOINT can be applied to fleet operations for the duration of a Navy deployment, and captured lessons learned, which will become a model for use by other intelligence community partners.
“This collaborative effort with NGA is driving us forward to a Navy enterprise in which the right people, tools and processes are in place to address key intelligence and operational problem sets by thinking geospatially,” said Inman. “The insights we’re gaining make us smarter as far as aligning systems, data and training to meet mission requirements.”
Scali said NGA’s embedded approach to GEOINT support has proven it can work just as effectively afloat as it does ashore in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or in any other deployed locations.
“This effort differs from our standard model of positioning a regional GEOINT analyst at a single geographic location for expertise on a particular area or issue. Progressively, we’re seeing that by taking on a ‘train, coach and mentor’ stance, our efforts are informing more people and serve as a force multiplier for enduring post- deployment effects,” said Scali. “It’s my hope that this experiment will influence the Navy’s training programs to include greater emphasis on GEOINT in support of fleet operations.”
After learning the realities of low- bandwidth communications aboard the ship, Stiver reached back to Military Support personnel at NGA and was remotely trained on a streaming imagery service available through NGA’s OCONUS [Outside Continental United States] data center. Stiver was then able to use his training and instruct the Navy analysts on this new imagery access technique, which mitigated the bandwidth constricted environment typical on most ships. Using the service, the analysts aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt are now able, for the first time, to stream imagery to their workstations in seconds versus waiting hours using alternative means. This capability alone has created immediate impact for the Navy customer by expediting intelligence operations.
“This is probably the most challenging and rewarding experience of my NGA career,” said Stiver. “It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to give these sailors the proficiency to make better use of GEOINT at a tactical level; but on a larger scale, my being here gives the Navy a foundation to formulate new and improved tactics, techniques and procedures for the entire fleet.”
While he is not the first NGA analyst to board a carrier, Stiver’s unique mission reflects a mounting awareness across U.S. and allied governments that the ability to counter primary security threats is deeply dependent on investment in key partnerships, intelligence and leading-edge technologies.
“GEOINT is one of those force multipliers for the Navy. We are continually bringing these elements together, learning from each other shipside, and being reminded that our collective knowledge adds up to more than the sum of its parts,” said Stiver. “It’s pretty humbling to think about the importance of what we’re doing out here today, when you remember that only 500 years ago, people thought the Earth was flat. Without GEOINT, we still wouldn’t know the difference.”