There are many reasons that the U.S. geospatial intelligence mission area and the industries that support it should be enjoying a rise in prominence and benefiting from increasing investments. New technology and sources of data are contributing to exciting new analytic methods, products and services that contribute significantly to the intelligence mission. However, the current national attention to spending and debt levels is obscuring leadership’s focus on otherwise very relevant factors that should drive higher levels of funding; leaders in both the executive and legislative branches seem to have accepted budgetary reductions as a fait accompli. A detailed and balanced approach to these national priorities should still favor significant investments in geospatial intelligence.
Setting aside the debt, this should be an exciting time for our industry. There are many emerging technology areas that are changing the way we live our lives, but three significantly stand out: the Internet, mobile communications and geospatial technology. The confluence is resulting in innovative products and services that provide us access to vast amounts of data, on demand, regardless of where we are. They are served to us in relevant ways, wherever we are and for whatever purpose we are interested in, from weather and traffic to banking, dining and lodging, to name just a few. These technologies have had a dramatic and fundamental impact on how we live.
The power of these technologies and the promise of continuing advancements to come are exciting to think about insofar as how they will affect us personally, but they are a mixed blessing for the intelligence community. On the benefit side, they are being leveraged to improve and expand how we respond to and support the wide-ranging demands of customers around the globe, but they have a down side that can complicate an already challenging mission by dramatically increasing the amounts of source data to process and analyze. Moreover, our adversaries will similarly benefit from using the technologies to carry out their activities, but in doing so will provide opportunities for us to exploit. Turning these challenges into an advantage will require additional investment. If we overly constrain our investments today, we will find ourselves shackled to technology from a bygone decade.
Within the current budget-constrained environment, some agencies appear to be faring better than others. One indicator of where the budgetary emphasis is involves tracking the magical key words that are shamelessly woven into every project’s justification for budget resources. “Horizontal integration” is out and “cyber” is in. Consequently, the National Security Agency seems to be the darling of the intelligence community, as the use of the first two technologies (the Internet and mobile communications) are generally cyber related and fall in their wheelhouse. It’s less clear that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is positioned to capitalize on the growing demand and opportunities related to its geospatial mission as its budget does not reflect the level of funds that could effectively be applied to take advantage of the opportunities.
If we have failed to convince our leadership of the opportunity, nobody should observe the threats around the world today and conclude that even maintaining a flat investment profile will allow the intelligence community to meet expectations. The challenge to provide timely analysis and quality judgments across the range of issues continues to grow.
While those of us who were brave enough to request post-GSA-extravaganza travel approvals are enjoying the Geoint 2012 Symposium in Orlando, Fla., this week, the nation’s elected officials are avoiding a very important task — to construct a reasonable process for both parties to tackle our long-term debt problems and erase last year’s failed process that created the impending sequestration. It matters not who voted for it or against it, it only matters now who is working to fix it. Unfortunately, the sound of crickets is currently louder than that of any bipartisan negotiations ongoing in the halls of the Capitol.
There is no rational reason that a reduction to the resources for our intelligence community is in the best interest of the nation at this time. Consider the current demands on each of the instruments of national power and how intelligence is essential to all of them in order to provide leadership on a global scale. Was the United States able to provide an appropriate and timely response after our consulate was attacked in Libya? As regional tension continues to rise over the status of Iran’s nuclear program, are we able to provide a calm and assured basis that avoids a potentially disastrous conflict? If there is a conflict, can we resolve it decisively and with minimum human loss and destruction? What is the tipping point for Syria’s Bashar Assad to use his chemical arsenal, and do we have good intelligence and plans to avoid such a catastrophe? These examples are each incredibly serious yet it’s only a partial list that scratches the Middle East.
It is time for the geospatial intelligence industry to make a strong and deserving case for the future. For decades, our imagery satellites have provided a source of data that allowed our analysts to give policymakers unparalleled insight and warfighters decisive advantages. Back in the day, when our nation was far less affluent, thankfully the leadership didn’t focus on cutting costs and settling for “good enough” capability. Although some people think our space programs have reached a point of diminishing return, the value of the systems continues to prove itself again and again. They remain oversubscribed workhorses providing access around the clock and around the globe. There is no analysis that indicates future demand will diminish.
When Jim Clapper was the director of NGA, he articulated the amalgamation of imagery analysis and geospatial information and laid out a vision for the value of geospatial intelligence. He made the point that everything has to be somewhere. Today, new algorithms can search vast volumes of data and find correlations of relevant information that were unfathomable a few years ago. For example, if two cellphones that have been identified with individuals of concern are used in the same approximate time and place, it is geospatial intelligence that provides the tip or cue that a potential meeting is occurring. Similar analysis can be performed on any record that is associated with the trail of an individual. At the time Clapper put the agency on this new track, very few people could foresee the scale of opportunity that would emerge.
Our intelligence is among the best the world can offer, yet it is still hard-pressed to satisfy the demands placed upon it. Strong leadership and a vision for the future, backed by the realities of the world, should make the case for continued strong investments. It is important that we continue our individual and collective commitments to maintain our global advantage.
John Stopher is the founder and president of 377 Omega Inc., a technical and business consulting company that serves the U.S. intelligence community.