Agency's Name Changes, But Mission Continues
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Jan. 2, 2004 What's in a name? The director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency said his organization's new name more accurately reflects its mission than its old name did, but he's quick to add that doesn't mean the agency itself has changed much.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said anything that can be geospatially referenced which has national security implications on the Earth is NGA's domain. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We changed our name, and suddenly we have more capability?" Not true, said James R. Clapper Jr., NGA director.
"Changing the name from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency hasn't resulted in any profound mission changes," said the retired Air Force lieutenant general. The agency's new name took effect Nov. 24.
"The name change represents a more accurate portrayal of what NGA really does," he said. "The notion of geospatial intelligence has been around ever since NIMA was founded in 1996. The original vision of the founding fathers and mothers was the convergence of activities and legacy endeavors that had previously been separate and conducted by eight separate and distinct organizations."
Geospatial intelligence combines mapping, charting, geodesy, imagery analysis and imagery intelligence, Clapper noted. NGA provides geospatial intelligence for the nation, whether it's warfighters in the foxhole, the president, all ranks in between, and for civil agencies as well.
"Anything that can be geospatially referenced which has national security implications on the Earth is our domain," Clapper noted. "Sept. 11 and its aftermath served to accelerate the transformation of NIMA and the embracing of the notion of geospatial intelligence. So it seemed only logical that our name accurately connote what we do, as opposed to maps and imagery as two separate endeavors."
Clapper said the changes support the larger transformation of the Defense Department. "As our military grows more agile, lighter and more flexible, it's placing a greater and greater premium on situational awareness," he said.
Clapper said NGA wants to know what the battlefield looks like, where the friendly forces and the enemy are, what the environment looks like, and what is in the terrain that motivates or influences what an adversary might do.
Providing that type of information to commanders can shorten military operations and save troops' lives, according to Clapper. "If you can forewarn a commander of a hazard or exact location of an enemy that's ahead of him, that's how you save lives," he said. "If you can point out a specific target, characterize and locate it accurately so precision-guided munitions can be employed, it's our belief that helps prosecute the war and save lives -- not only Americans, but also Iraqi lives as well. When you can apply a weapon very specifically, and locate the target very precisely, you also avoid collateral damage and casualties."
Explaining geospatial intelligence in layman's terms, Clapper said, "It's the insight and knowledge of the Earth. It's the layers of data that will portray the Earth, either in its natural condition, or more importantly, what man has done to alter it that would influence issues related to national security."
Noting that everybody and everything has to be someplace, Clapper said geospatial intelligence depicts what mission planners, special operations forces or a pilot are going to see as they fly over an area or walk down a street.
"You're basically laying out what has traditionally been called in the Army 'the intelligence preparation of the battlefield,'" he said. "This helps us know as much as we possibly can beforehand about what to expect in terms of the lay of the land. This also applies in a maritime context and underwater."
"We've come light years ahead in improvements of our capabilities to collect, ingest, collate and move imagery and imagery-related products around the battlefield since then," said Clapper, who was chief of Air Force intelligence during Operation Desert Storm.
He said there is no timeline, because military planners are increasingly dependent on more and more sources of imagery, such as the government's National Technical Means, or NTMs, which are overhead satellites. And he pointed out that commercial imagery has come into prominence in the last year or so.
One of the major advantages of commercial imagery is that it's unclassified, Clapper noted. He said commercial imagery has a tremendous utility in a coalition context because users are not constrained by security classifications that are imposed on NTM users. It also has an application and a domestic context in homeland security.
"In the last few years, commercial imagery has come into its own in terms of its impact and effectiveness," Clapper noted, "not only in supporting combat, but in other environmental issues -- for example, border resolution issues and public diplomacy, where you expose the commercial imagery to the public. So it has a lot of utility for us, and we're very bullish on commercial imagery."
He pointed out that the timeline is different because of differences between the architecture used by commercial imagery and NTM. "Airborne sources of imagery and imagery-related data, not only from manned platforms, but unmanned aerial vehicles, Predators, Global Hawks and the like are also crucial resources," he added.
Since each of the new sources has its own attributes and drawbacks, the trick for NGA is to use all of the sources and capitalize on their respective strengths, Clapper said.
He said communications and bandwidth availability are always a challenge, though there have been marked improvements and more improvements are coming. "When you move imagery around, it's a voracious user of communications bandwidths," Clapper said. "So that's always a challenge for us. Getting the imagery that's needed through that last tactical mile continues to be a challenge. But we've made a lot of improvements since the era of Desert Storm."
NGA's challenge in obtaining geospatial intelligence is as diverse as the Earth, Clapper noted. "It's a lot easier to gather data over the broad ocean area or a desert than it is when we're analyzing a very crowded, congested urban area, or a jungle area with multiple layers of canopy," he said.
NGA is providing much more geospatial help to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) was able to provide 12 years ago, when troops were charging the enemy across desert sands in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, Clapper said. For example, he said before one troop set foot in the desert sand during Operation Iraqi Freedom, NGA sent out special computer disks containing the common operating picture for every major command and control element in the war.
"So when the war started, from a geospatial perspective, everyone had the same picture of the battlefield," he noted.
All commanders had to do was load the disk into their computers, as opposed to having warehouses full of hard-copy maps as commanders did during Desert Storm, Clapper said.
NGA also deployed a humvee-mounted mobile system called the MIGS Mobile Integrated Geospatial-Intelligence System. The system has its own organic communications capability in which NGA's forward deployed people can tap into the agency's larger capabilities from afar.
"For example, we deployed a large number of our people down to the Army division level," Clapper noted. "So they lived with the troops and were in harm's way sharing the same privations and hazards as the troops were. That's a great way to understand exactly what the user's needs are. When those divisions were on the move and needed geospatial intelligence products, we had people right there with them who could reach back to the larger agency resources. DMA didn't do that during Desert Storm.
"We've gotten pretty favorable feedback, and we've also gotten some critiques," he said. "We've compiled our own lessons learned -- some 250, some of greater magnitude than others, and we're engaged in the process of working off those lessons learned to build our strengths and do what we can to correct our weaknesses."
NGA provides geospatial intelligence to whatever agency needs it, military or civilian. "We're both a national intelligence agency and a combat support agency by law," Clapper noted. "We service all the military services, including the Coast Guard. Our primary customer apparatus is with each one of the unified commanders, either the regional or functional commanders. That's our primary military customer, but that can extend down to and include joint task forces and subordinate joint task forces. That was the case in Iraqi Freedom; we went down to the division level or special operations force team level."
On the nonmilitary side, NGA provides services and solutions for the CIA, White House and other civilian customers in the government, including the Department of Homeland Security.
The only civilian agency that provides similar services, Clapper said, is the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey, which has responsibility for the map of America.
NGA plays a major role in the urban warfare in Iraq, but, not necessarily by identifying or finding an individual terrorist or insurgent, Clapper said. "But we certainly can portray the battle space and help the commander and his subordinates see the battle space and help decide where the points of vulnerability are."
If, for example, a commander is going to run a convoy from Point A to Point B, he said, NGA can provide the geospatial picture of the route, potential vulnerability points and choke points. This data helps commanders plan and forestall or obviate the potential hazards that are presented by virtue of the territory where they're operating.