Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Remarks as prepared for Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth , Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for 2023 USGIF GEOINT Symposium

Remarks as prepared for delivery by
VADM Trey Whitworth, USN
Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
“GEOINT – Out in Front”
Monday, May 22, 2023
America’s Center Convention Complex
St. Louis, Missouri 

Thanks for that kind introduction, Jennifer [Krischer, VP & GM of NGA Programs with Maxar].

Good morning to you all – I know that video resonated with everyone. 

[NGA video: USGIF GEOINT Symposium 2023 - From Seabed to Space Video - YouTube ]

Our thanks to USGIF for providing another opportunity for the GEOINT community to gather and collaborate.  And congratulations on this, your 20th symposium.  The entire community has benefitted and grown from your two decades of hard work. 

Today, I will address three topics. 

First, where NGA has been since the last symposium. S

Second, how the geospatial community has matured, in and around our host city.

Third, the way ahead for NGA and GEOINT tradecraft — and by extension, elements of warfare — in this period of intense acceleration for artificial intelligence and machine learning.  We’ll make predictions — we’ll discuss our role in a reluctant Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA — and our responsibility for avoiding a Devolution of Military Affairs, or DMA.

So, let’s start with where we’ve been.

You hopefully noticed that we changed our motto.  It’s now “Know the World, Show the Way…from Seabed to Space.”  And here’s why we did that.

• The new version retains the spirit of the previous versions.
• But now, it incorporates our expanding responsibilities — into areas not quite as visible to ordinary citizens.

So instead of a motto that could suggest we know the land masses, we have a motto that conveys we’re looking up, down, and everywhere our Nation’s interests may be threatened.

And make no mistake — distinguishing friendly from unfriendly behavior in Space has become particularly important to us.

You saw our five new, consolidated, strategic objectives in the video.  I won’t go over them in detail, but at NGA, everything we do will be related to these objectives.

We also have a new mission and end state.  They’re simple, but ambitious.

Especially our end state:  I asked our team what their desired goal was for our ultimate mission completion.  They resoundingly said:  “GEOINT Supremacy.”  It’s determined and bold.

Something else we’ve decided to be determined about:  Over the past year, we’ve bolstered my existing Functional Management responsibilities for the GEOINT Enterprise.

In October, we realigned our GEOINT Functional Management Directorate to be directly subordinate to me.  Likewise, I signed the first update to the GEOCOM Charter in 13 years, and it now provides a way forward, for a more integrated approach to our shared challenges.

The adoption of common standards is our top priority for improved integration.  We’re specifically addressing all of these that you see listed.

Standards simply make us better.  They’re key to increased interoperability, a mission-ready GEOINT workforce, and a fully integrated architecture.

All of this strengthens our role as a Combat Support Agency — a role central to our identity, essential to Combatant Commanders’ warfighting readiness, and critical to national security.

Over the past year, NGA has been out in front:  At the tactical level, on the forward edge of the battlefield.  At the operational level, with the combatant commands.  And at the strategic level, for the Pentagon and the White House.

In line with the National Security Strategy, our highest priority has been to help our nation succeed in the strategic competition with China and Russia.  The China intelligence problem especially has become a global challenge.  They’ve grown their military, tech, space, and cyber capabilities.  They have built political and economic leverage around the world.  And they clearly have become our pacing challenge.

One epicenter of that challenge is the tension across the Taiwan Strait.  And NGA analysis helps illuminate China’s pressure campaign there.  We’re often the vehicle that leads our allies and partners to a common understanding of the complex and multifaceted threat to the island.

The vigilance of NGA’s analysis is directly proportional to the timeliness and clarity of decisions encountered by the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Secretary of Defense, and the President of the United States.

Let’s talk about Russia/Ukraine, where we’ve also been playing an essential role.  NGA has been providing key insights on Russian forces, tracking their movements and capabilities, as well as assessing their infrastructure.

Back before the conflict kicked off in February of last year, we connected commercial satellite vendors to Ukraine — which provided them a responsive mechanism to do their own intelligence.  And of course, our robust partnership with the Allied geospatial community enables us to share widely across the enterprise.

Moving to the Middle East, Iran is still the leading source of instability in that region.  Its continued sponsorship and provocation of malign activities and influence pose direct and indirect challenges to U.S. interests, and to those of our allies and partners.

Iran has even sent Mahajer-6 and Shahed-series Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Russia — which is using them on the battlefield in Ukraine.  So, we remain vigilant in monitoring the Iranian threat — in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In the U.S. Intelligence Community, North Korea is often described as the hardest target when it comes to generating intelligence insights — not surprising given the controlling nature of the regime.  

Despite this, NGA’s analysis has been invaluable to multiple requirements this past year, like providing assessments on the regime’s weapon of mass destruction program, its evolving land- and sea-based missile capabilities, and its nuclear weapons aspirations.  We’ve also exposed their efforts to circumvent enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions that target weapons of mass destruction exports and imports.

In addition to focusing on these enduring security challenges, we’re charged with monitoring the globe for less predictable threats and sources of instability.  The situation in Sudan serves as a great example of this.  In addition to initial indications and warning, NGA provided foundational data and products — guiding the safe navigation of ports and airfields, all in support of U.S. and multinational evacuation efforts.

We supported DoD, the State Department, and the wider Intelligence Community with tailored products, as security issues in Sudan intensified, and then changed.

Of course, NGA’s efforts go beyond security issues.  We have a significant role in humanitarian support and disaster relief, too — both here and abroad.  It’s a unique privilege to work at an organization that can shift to causes that save civilian lives, and preserve our planet.  At home, when requested by lead federal agencies like FEMA, we provide support to disasters — like we did for Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers, Florida.

Our deployed analysts processed more than 100 square miles of commercial imagery there, and 800 gigabytes of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems data comprising nearly 80,000 images.  They printed more than a thousand maps, and developed route analysis.  They also highlighted gaps in searches to assist FEMA supervisors quickly direct resources to where they were needed.

We’ve made the same impact internationally — standing up portals within 24 hours of devastating earthquakes, providing access to unclassified charts, maps, and imagery products needed to support disaster relief efforts.  These included overviews of damaged medical facilities, and helicopter landing zones to help guide aid.

Together with U.S. Southern Command, we created similar products in March for the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador.

And the wildfires in Chile, back in January.

Now, of course we’re not just facing challenges from global threats and disasters, but dramatic changes in our operating environment that force us to relook everything we know.

We assumed leadership of Maven in January, and it’s playing an essential role in future military operations.  The volume of GEOINT data expands with the proliferation of collection systems, and expansion into the space domain.  Artificial intelligence and machine learning are capable of quickly fusing enormous amounts of data from across disparate data sets, and they’ll provide meaningful answers.

So we’re embracing this new technology, working to automate significant portions of dynamic collection, imagery exploitation, and reporting workflows, to rapidly exploit data, and anticipate activity.

In mere months since taking over the project, we’ve made important strides.

We’ve worked closely with the Combatant Commands to integrate AI into workflows, accelerating operations and speed to decision.  This benefits maritime domain awareness, target management, and our ability to automatically search and detect objects of interest.

We’ve increased fidelity of targets, improved geolocation accuracy, and refined our test-and-evaluation process.  And we’ve ensured Maven models can run in other machine learning platforms.

The bottom-line here is that under NGA’s watch, Maven has made some of its most significant technological strides, and has already contributed to some of our Nation’s most important operations.  I’ll fold Maven, AI, and ML into the future of GEOINT in a few minutes.

As we continue our review of the last year, I need to draw attention to NGA’s unparalleled accomplishments in collection orchestration — as too few people know about this aspect of our mission.  Collection orchestration is the art of tasking pieces of the collection puzzle to become aligned with national priorities, operational and analytical needs, and real-world deadlines.

NGA’s role in collection orchestration is not only in statute, policy, and practice — it’s also rooted in our expertise as leaders in the GEOINT discipline.  This year, we have been emphasizing our leadership in this field — especially as collection orchestration becomes increasingly complex.  Let me expound on this complexity.

Newer sources of commercial imagery, like Synthetic Aperture Radar, give us more options than ever before to support a variety of missions.

What you see here are other, more specific developments. 
• An Electro-Optical Commercial Layer contract now delivers more than 50,000 commercial images per week to NGA.
• We now have operational access to nearly 240 commercial imaging satellites — about 60 taskable imagers and 180 Planet doves.
• We have more than 20 different commercial analytic services on contract.
• And we receive more than 4000 automated aircraft detections per day, from one commercial service.

As collection orchestration leaders, NGA will work on integrated commercial solutions and government-industry engagements — this to reach our strategic goals, and meet our Nation’s needs.

Let’s talk about NGA analysts.  They’ve been making major advances in structured observation management, auto reporting, modeling, Computer Vision, and conveyance — aligning collection requirements with resulting analysis in an integrated fashion.

In the past year, those analysts have: 
• Captured about 5 million structured observations.
• Generated more than 20,000 automatically generated reports from data to text to inform our readership.
• Employed more than 100 adversary activity models, to assist in knowledge capture and automation.
• And ingested approximately 1.5 million Computer Vision detections per day — from multiple providers. 

We’ve begun ingesting those from internally developed capabilities and commercial suppliers, as well as more than 18 million detections from Maven, into our analytic workflow — allowing analyst access and adjudication from their own electronic light tables.

This integrated data approach has enabled more automated reporting, visualization, and advanced analytics, using the automated detections.  This is a monumental step forward that will increase the speed, accuracy, and precision of GEOINT.

Let’s talk about foundational GEOINT.  The physical modeling of our planet directly supports DoD by ensuring the precision and accuracy of GPS, and maintaining the WGS 84 reference frame.  Those are the building blocks of precision targeting and navigation.

Our adversaries, however, are willing to disrupt our geolocation capabilities, and are building out their own capabilities to gain advantage.  So, we must be proactive to ensure resiliency of vital Positioning, Navigation and Timing systems.

In light of this, NGA is developing AI/ML technologies to model the earth’s gravitational field, which can help us to fill in missing data where direct collection is difficult.  We’re also working on alternative reference systems to support:  Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, Precision PNT, and Non-Earth Operations.

Just as NGA’s predecessor agencies mapped the moon ahead of the Apollo missions, today we’re working with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Space Force, and U.S. Space Command, to develop the Lunar Geodetic System that will guide future visitors around the Moon’s surface as accurately and safely as GPS does on Earth.

And given various plans for further planetary exploration, the Lunar Geodetic System is likely to be the first of many celestial body reference systems NGA will be tasked with in the years ahead.

It’s one of many reasons we’re working on growing and training the next generation of scientists, and bringing geodesy and geomatics skillsets back to the U.S.  Developing long-term relationships with academic partners is one way to do that.

In some cases, modernizing means stopping what you’ve been doing — even something as historic as processing U2 wet film imagery.  After 48 years of support to the Arab-Israeli Treaty of 1976, the Intelligence Community’s film development capability will be officially decommissioned next month, when we process the final aerial reconnaissance hard copy film mission.

So, discontinuing this process will mark the end of an era.  It closes the loop on our analog heritage and digital transformation.

I’ll shift gears now, and speak to developments here in and around the great city of St. Louis.

We’re very proud of our heritage in the Gateway City.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Aero mission in St. Louis.  It began a few blocks from here, in the midst of World War II with the Aeronautical Chart Plant.  During the war, local St. Louis professionals completed and shipped more than 14 million aeronautical maps charts.

After the war, the Aero mission expanded, and relocated to our current site at the Arsenal, providing trailblazing support to historic events like the Apollo 11 moon landing.  We couldn’t be prouder of our people being out in front — for eight uninterrupted decades of partnership and excellence.

Let me add that our statutory Safety of Navigation mission has been paramount to the well-being of U.S. Airmen for longer than the Air Force has been in existence.  Nobody has our expertise on the planet — from mapping and validating safe arrival and departure routes to airports around the world to maintaining a global airfield library ready to support any contingency operation.

A more recent development is our Moonshot Labs, just up the street from here.  It’s our unclassified innovation hub and collaboration space — our place to meet, create, collaborate, and innovate.  It allows us to take advantage of the growing geospatial ecosystem in the region and prepare for unclassified collaboration at our new facility.

It forges connections between creative minds across the Intelligence Community and the Defense Department — with cleared and uncleared technologists, academics, and Allied partners.

The goal is to bring novel solutions to today’s national security challenges, and to build innovation around collaboration, where inclusive groups yield better results.  They’ve been very busy, with engagements held to hear from industry on potential solutions to challenges.

And of course, as an Agency, we have something even larger going on a mile from here.  The new NGA campus in St. Louis is well on its way.

What’s happened in the last year?  The main building is now enclosed.  The parking garages are complete.  Security and IT contracts have been awarded, and installation of the technology required to support our mission starts very soon.

The new building has been a joint effort among NGA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Air Force, the city of St. Louis, and the state of Missouri.  Everything is on track to begin moving into the new spaces in late 2025.

We continue to be excited with the burgeoning GEOINT ecosystem — local officials, nonprofits, and innovators in industry and academia — at all ages.  We’re committed to growing a pipeline of local talent.

We continue STEM outreach — in K-12, and at the college level.  We launched our first ever high school intern program this year, and we’ve sustained strong ties with regional colleges and universities.

Some of these ties are held together firmly through Education Partnership Agreements, or EPAs.  Here in St. Louis, since 2020, we’ve signed EPAs with both Harris-Stowe State University, a Historically Black College, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We’re working to create a geospatial talent pipeline from elementary schools to the agency.  So they’re developing academic courses and programs in STEM that will provide students the knowledge and skills needed for careers in GEOINT — both at NGA and throughout the area’s geospatial ecosystem.

Almost a year ago, we worked with Harris-Stowe on their first month-long geospatial immersion program for undergrad students, and we’re doing another one this summer.  And in April, we co-hosted a STEM forum with Harris-Stowe for middle-school and high-school teachers, on how to engage their students with STEM.

We’re also working with UMSL to build curriculum and teach courses for a GIS. certificate program slated to launch there this fall.  And we’re planning on building additional offerings there in geophysics and geodesy — two disciplines critical for our mission.

You might have heard NGA personnel refer to our campus here in St. Louis as NGA Campus West, or NCW, and out in Springfield, Virginia as NGA Campus East, or NCE — to distinguish them from each other.

Well, we’re about to change things a bit.  “East” and “West” can be misinterpreted as simple directions.  We want our people to identify with their assigned commands and locations.  So, in honor of our host city and our heritage here, we’re now going to refer to the NGA campus at the Arsenal as NGA-St. Louis.  That name will transfer to the new site when it’s ready.  Our smaller campus at Arnold, Missouri will be NGA-Arnold.

Now to my third subject — a look at the way forward for NGA over the next 20 years.

When the National Intelligence Council published Global Trends 2040, it identified five plausible scenarios of the future.  In the first three, international challenges will become incrementally more severe, and interactions will be defined by a U.S.-China rivalry.

The last two scenarios depict even more radical changes on the planet, due to severe global challenges.

We have to be ready — and out front — for all five of them.

I’m going to introduce you to a concept I call the Reluctant Revolution in Military Affairs — or RMA — and how we at NGA plan to navigate ourselves accordingly.  Because it applies to how we have to face all the scenarios.

I submit the essence of this Reluctant RMA is that modern warfare is unmanning considerable portions of power projection.  Not all of it, mind you — but considerable portions.  The underlying idea here is that lethal technologies — bringing extreme speeds, extreme ranges, and extreme accuracies — yield an uncomfortable risk calculus for putting American souls in harm’s way.

But many warfighters don’t like the obvious mitigations of unmanning the platforms of conflict.  We feel honor-bound to be “over there,” instead of “staying here.”  That’s reflective of an ethos that’s been forged by every generation of American warfighter.

The reality is that we want to be in those platforms with our teammates.  It’s energizing.  It’s real.  And for those who’ve been at the tip-of-the-spear, it’s memorable.

So, herein lies our reluctance to accept — much less, embrace — this confounding RMA.

We might resist this reality as long as we can.  But our enemies and adversaries — both ascending powers and declining ones — are not reluctant, and could not care less about nostalgia.  So, they’ll be fine accepting more remote applications of combat power.  And that will eventually pressure the U.S. and our allies to do the same.

If you doubt me, take a look at the efficiencies and effects brought by fairly recent unmanned technologies in places like Ukraine, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, and throughout Southwest Asia.

What does this mean for NGA and the GEOINT community?  It means we’re more important than ever, because sensing and sense-making have become mission-essential for remote, technology-enabled operations. 

In this room are the people who will help us assure the timeliness and end-to-end accuracy of our collection, exploitation, and analysis.  That will ultimately yield to greater understanding, and to informed decisions and execution by our warfighters. 

We in the GEOINT community are in the driver’s seat for navigating this team out of the reluctance of this RMA.  We’re the ones out in front — for every one of these future scenarios.  Likewise, we’ll work to ensure this RMA stays revolutionary — and doesn’t erode into a Devolution in Military Affairs — or DMA.  I submit a DMA could be an unmanning of decision-making in the application of force against unwitting actors. Our MAVEN hard-chargers are like-minded on this — we’re dedicated to using AI and ML as productive tools for human-machine teaming bringing decision speed and improvement to humans.

Let’s wrap up with some predictions.  How do we foresee GEOINT collection changing over the next two decades — particularly at NGA?

We see almost persistent coverage of the entire planet.  Improved space-based collection means better analytic services.  We’re preparing for these advancements in analytics through our upcoming LUNO contract — the successor to our Economic Indicator Monitoring contract.  It has provided shareable commercial analytics with valuable information to support our Indicators and Warning, and Monitoring missions.

We see automated 3D mapping.  Autonomous vehicles can already capture and process 3D data in real time, and they’ve set mass market expectations.  We already have some customers demanding 3D products, and it feels a bit like the invention of color television.  You don’t see much demand for black and white sets any more.

You may have heard of digital twins.  A virtual representation of a real-world system, a digital twin is typically used to predict conditions, responses, or results of the real-world system by modeling inputs in a prediction of future potential.

An example is the aeronautical industry building digital twins of aircraft engines, to help predict how well and how long they’ll perform under various maintenance conditions.  We’re seeking to build a dynamic digital twin for foundation data of the entire globe, by building an automated federation of feature-level data, updated and provided in near real-time.

We believe industry’s ability to self-organize into multi-sourced consortiums will provide never-before-seen opportunities to develop and acquire unclassified services that will deliver enriched data, and maintain custody of activity of interest.

Besides multi-source analytics, the emergence of “custody services” could provide defense, civil, and intelligence customers with reliable, periodic updates of the position and disposition of objects and activity throughout time and space. 

We envision tasking for the insights we desire, and letting industry provide us with the best mix of sources and analytics required to deliver the insight.  Instead of us buying different analytic services and combining them ourselves, industry will that do themselves — with better and more accurate analytics, coming from multiple sources.

We also see consortiums of companies able to self-tip-and-cue, to maintain custody of high-interest activity/objects over time.  There will be a shift from buying analysis-as-a-service to buying commercial orchestration-as-a-service.

What are our predictions about the next 20 years for GEOINT Analysis — especially at NGA?
We think we’ll continually develop and implement human machine learning, automated strategies, and technology efficiencies to shorten the timeline between observation and direct support to decision-makers and warfighters.

We believe the U.S. must remain the preeminent producer of GEOINT — staying ahead of aggressive global competitors and their expanding capabilities, the growing availability of social media and commercially sourced information, and infrastructure threats from Cyber and OPSEC concerns.

Collaboration with academia, industry, and international partners will increase our production flows, expand access to sources, and leverage efficiencies to process growing data reserves.

We’ll pursue more common physical workspaces, and on common systems, where Allied and Intelligence Community partners will be able to access data and information instantaneously on the same networks.

The next generation is increasingly comfortable processing information from multiple sources in short timelines — so we’ll figure out how to leverage that.

So, those are our predictions about the next two decades.  I appreciate being able to share them with you at this symposium.  There’s an enormous long-term value to us all getting together – working as a unifying force, to get to where we need to be.

Allow me to sum up my remarks.

First — this past year has been a remarkable one — a world full of problems and challenges.  But every time it came to national security issues, NGA has been out in front — and we’re very proud of that.

Second — St. Louis is really the place to be, if you want to position yourself at the gateway for the future of GEOINT.

And last — the way ahead for the next 20 years has everything to do with our ability to manage the coming onslaught of data.  We need to be able to quickly and accurately create order from chaos.  So, we greatly welcome collaboration with those who can contribute in that arena.

Our past and present have been remarkable; our future requires us to be bold and ambitious — and always, always — out front.

Together, we can meet and exceed the challenges that lie ahead.  Our Nation relies on us to do no less. 
Thanks for your attention — thanks, USGIF, for this forum.  I welcome your questions.

Associated Document(s)

Remarks as prepared for delivery by VADM Whitworth 2023 GEOINT Symposium
 Download  Open in a New Tab
2023 GEOINT Symposium Keynote PowerPoint Slides
 Download  Open in a New Tab