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'Geospatial Intelligence' Helps Save Troops' Lives

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 5, 2005 – Mention the word "geospatial" to troops on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and they might ask, "What's that?"

"Geospatial" and "intelligence" are two words that help save a lot of lives on the battlefields and get the combatants back home to their loved ones safely. But the troops will never know when these two words come into play to protect them, because much of what the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency does is top secret.

The agency is a member of the U.S. intelligence community and a Defense Department combat-support agency. It has its headquarters in Bethesda, Md., with major facilities in the St. Louis and Washington areas. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., a former senior intelligence officer for the Air Force, heads the agency.

To better understand the meaning of the word geospatial, "geo" comes from the Greek word for Earth. "Spatial" refers to place. Therefore, geospatial might be described as the means of finding out what's happening on every place on Earth.

That's a good thing for warfighters from the highest-ranking combat commander to troops in foxholes. And it's a boon for homeland-security officials and recipients of NGA's humanitarian efforts, such as peacekeeping, tracking floods and fires, and providing disaster relief for earthquakes and other natural disasters.

In an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service, Clapper said geospatial intelligence represents an expansion of a long-used Army term, "intelligence preparation of the battlefield."

"We've changed the term to mean intelligence preparation of the environment," Clapper said. "That's what we can glean from looking at the Earth and those matters which have national-security implications deriving from either natural or manmade factors."

NGA's objective is to provide timely, relevant and accurate geospatial-intelligence to decision makers, whether they're sitting in a foxhole or the White House, said the former enlisted Marine.

"Obviously, our biggest customer is the military," Clapper said. "But we support other cabinet departments, too. A growing mission for us is (supporting) the Department of Homeland Security."

Geospatial intelligence combines mapping, charting, imagery analysis, and imagery intelligence. NGA uses pictures to make sense of volumes of data and information. The organization provides tailored, customer-specific geospatial-intelligence analysis, services and solutions. When counterterrorist operations are to be launched, NGA tries to provide geospatial-intelligence answers to where the bad guys are located, the type of terrain in the area, and lines of communication. Clapper said the war on terrorism has changed NGA profoundly. "We're not unique here," he added. "We're part of a sea change that is going on in the intelligence community."

He said the battle model of legions of motorized rifle divisions charging an enemy is obsolete. "And the intelligence structure, which built up over decades during the Cold War, was geared toward that monolithic nation-state threat," Clapper said. "Of course, that's profoundly changed -- symbolized most graphically and most unfortunately with the attacks of 9/11 and the aftermath of that. So now we've gone from large, fixed complexes, as we did during the Cold War, to chasing individual people -- very fleeting targets."

Today's adversaries place a lot of emphasis on such things as denial, camouflage and deception, which makes fighting them tougher, Clapper said.

NGA has contributed to many successes in the war on terrorism, but most of them must go unpublicized, Clapper said. Saying he can't go into specifics, the retired general said there have been some profound successes in terms of attacking terrorists' networks. "We'd like to think we had some impact there," he added.

"In a homeland security context, we think we've helped effect the safety of many special events in the United States -- political conventions, Super Bowl, World Series or any other potential event where a terrorist attack could occur," he said. "The nation has done a lot to protect such events, and we play an important role by providing the common operating picture for all the entities, whether they be federal, state or local."

NGA and its predecessor -- the National Imagery and Mapping Agency -- have participated in consequence-management support after natural disasters, Clapper said.

"This includes imagery, which is a great assist to planners and responders so they can see graphically the full extent of damage, such as where roads are out and power lines are damaged," he said. "That helps with planning for recovery efforts. So after 9/11, it was sort of a natural morphing from support to disaster relief and recovery efforts into a homeland security mission because it's much the same."

NGA support teams are embedded in the Department of Homeland Security to provide front-end support with "reach back to mother NGA," just as is done with combatant commands, Clapper noted.

A major challenge facing NGA today is modernizing infrastructure. "We need to modernize and create an infrastructure that will accommodate the many sources of data and information we're acquiring," he said. "We're going to be in a very data-enriched environment. So we must come up with an infrastructure that will automate this process so we're not depending on humans to do so much of the labor."

With dramatic improvements in communications over the last decade, "we're able to move around a lot of data and imagery these days that we couldn't do 10 years ago," Clapper said.

Increasingly, NGA's experts are finding that they need insight from troops in the field. "There's no substitute for what the boots on the ground can see," Clapper said. "One of our challenges is to extract information from what they see and can collect. Every soldier is a sensor, and we need to capture that data as well.

"So it's a two-way street," Clapper noted. "It isn't just a monolithic national agency descending on the soldier. We need their input and their feedback and this needs to be a constant loop."

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