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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 Agency Grapples With Demand For Detailed, Timely Intelligence  

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 By Sandra I. Erwin

 

In response to a soaring demand for battlefield imagery and digital maps, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency wants to find better ways to manage and distribute data, officials said.

Specifically, the agency is seeking to automate the parsing and analysis of intelligence, and to make its products more easily available to front-line commanders.

"War fighters want a perfect god's eye view of the battlefield, and it can't be more than a minute old," says James Clapper, NGA director.

In reality, "We are a far cry from that," he tells reporters. While NGA analysts are able to supply loads of intelligence to senior commanders, he explains, they have more trouble reaching down to the "last tactical mile," where the fighting takes place.

"Getting high-end, dense geospatial intelligence into the hands of 'disadvantaged users' who are well forward on the battlefield is the issue that many commanders feel is the next big step in NGA's support to operations," writes Ed Mornston, the agency's deputy military executive.

To that end, NGA has asked the Joint Forces Command to create a bridging mechanism to get intelligence to battalion commanders in Iraq and other combat zones. It also recently hired 700 new analysts to help process and feed intelligence to military users.

In the latest edition of its in-house magazine, NGA reports a newly established partnership with Joint Forces Command to "develop joint force doctrine, training, and concepts to meet joint war-fighter requirements for geospatial intelligence support down to the lowest tactical level." Details of how the two agencies will work together, however, are still being negotiated and no formal agreement had been signed at press time, according to a JFCOM spokesman.

Illustrating the problems commanders face on the ground in Iraq was a September 2005 "lessons learned" report that a Marine colonel wrote for Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

While geospatial intelligence is easily accessible by a Marine Expeditionary Unit commander, information is not available at lower echelons, the report says. "The majority of staff and tactical level intelligence officers and enlisted personnel voiced concern that the process was too bureaucratic, complicated and cumbersome." The satellite imagery provided to tactical commanders in Iraq, the report notes, often is "dated" or "incomplete."

During a recent deployment, neither the 1st Marine Division nor any of its subordinate units had the capability to download and exploit national imagery, the report adds. "Furthermore, the 1st Intelligence Battalion was unable to provide this imagery to the Division due to bandwidth and personnel constraints." In the words of the division's intelligence director, "It was frustrating to be desperate for current high-resolution imagery of Safwan Town (for example) and unable to receive it in response to a tactical unit's request, only to see perfect imagery appear in an National Ground Intelligence Center assessment only days later."

The imagery furnished by NGA, in many instances, "did not provide the resolution required for detailed tactical planning, and, in some cases, misrepresented areas that had changed over the last year," says the intelligence officer.

The issues highlighted by these Marine commanders are one of the motivators behind NGA's efforts to modernize its technology, say agency officials. With a multitude of sensors taking pictures around the clock, NGA is compelled to automate the parsing and organization of incoming data - a process that experts describe as equivalent to trying to drink water from Niagara Falls.

"We have a gigantic automation challenge," says Jaan A. Loger, head of NGA's research branch, known as the InnoVision Directorate.

"There are gigantic streams of bits coming into this place. No single individual has a clue about how the heck to figure out what's in them," says Loger. Plans are underway to create an automated library with catalog-like functions to sort through images.

A torrent of video collected by dozens of spy aircraft pose a daunting archiving challenge, he adds.

Real-time video images have become an increasingly important source of information for remote surveillance, intelligence gathering and decision-making, says Curt H. Davis, a professor at the University of Missouri's Center for Geospatial Intelligence.

"In airborne video surveillance, the ability to associate geospatial information with imagery intelligence allows decision makers to view the geographical context of the situation, track and visualize events as they unfold, and predict possible outcomes as the situation develops," Davis explains.

At NGA, much of the research-and-development work currently is targeted to the archiving of motion pictures, Loger says. "The challenge is 'what do I do with all the video?'" It is part of the culture of NGA that nothing gets thrown away, he says.

Motion imagery comes in many frames per second. "You have to download it, store it, get it back to edit and process," says Loger. "We think we know a lot about motion pictures, but we haven't done much to catalog it for the war fighter. This will continue for two decades at least."

That is certainly one downside of the rapid expansion of the military's unmanned air vehicle fleet, says John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity.org. "The good news is that they provide persistent surveillance. The bad news is that the amount of data they generate is preposterous."

Coping with the management of enormous amounts of data and automating the analysis are pieces of a broad modernization program at NGA, known as GeoScout.

Most of the investments associated with GeoScout are in modern computers and networking technology, according to Clapper. "Our infrastructure is a patchwork quilt. We want to capitalize on technology so customers can do business with us like they do business on the Internet."

The Internet has changed the rules in the game in geospatial intelligence, particularly since the advent of systems such as Google Earth, which delivers user-friendly 3D maps that incorporate specific geographic information about a region of the world, in real-time.

"The kinds of things that Google Earth shows are very interesting to us," Loger says. "It's the sweet spot of what we do for a living."

With Google Earth, users can view 3D images of any place on the globe, as well as tap a rich database of roads, businesses and other points of interest. They can enter an address or other location information and the Keyhole software accesses the database and takes them to a digital image of that location on their computer screen.

They can zoom in from space-level to street-level, tilt and rotate the view or search for other information such as hotels, parks or subways. Unlike traditional mapping technologies, Keyhole displays geographic information in user-friendly 3D format.

Military consumers of tactical intelligence welcome these technologies, as they accomplish many of the tasks that in the past would have required the Defense Department to spend countless millions of dollars, says Lt. Gen. Steven Boutelle, the Army's chief information officer.

"Today you can do things with Google Earth that we probably spent $100 million on," Boutelle says. "You could probably do it now for $100 and a couple of engineers."

Davis admits he was somewhat surprised by the buzz that Google Earth generated, even though the technology had been around for years. "Google didn't develop anything," Davis notes. Google acquired the Keyhole software when it bought the company last year, and, overnight, it turned what used to be government-only capability into mainstream technology. Google got so much attention that Microsoft responded with its own system, called Virtual Earth.

Pike cautions that systems such as Google Earth offer great entertainment value, but cannot provide the level of detail that often is needed for government applications. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, for example, NGA posted a vast assortment of imagery online that never could have been achieved by Google Earth, Pike says.

Products such as Google Earth are promising signs that there is a viable commercial industry out there from which NGA can draw useful technologies, Loger says. On commercial satellite images alone, NGA plans to spend $500 million in the coming years.

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