Adm. Kurt Tidd, leader of U.S. Southern Command, told GEOINT 2017 that South America presents unique opportunities to test new geospatial capabilities. Credit: USGIF

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — South America’s unique position in the world presents the opportunity to test out and develop new GEOINT capabilities, said U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, leader of U.S. Southern Command.

As the flag officer in charge of U.S. military operations in South America, Tidd said he’s constantly on the lookout for new geospatial intelligence capabilities that could help him in his mission.

“We’ve got a host of willing, capable partners, who are eager to work with us, and with each other,” Tidd said this week during the annual GEOINT Symposium hosted by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. “While the region may be largely at peace, that doesn’t mean that it’s free from security challenges…It’s an environment we know more about, but seeing the signal through the noise and knowing what to do about it is a challenge in and of itself.”

Tidd noted that drug gangs once considered “small-time criminals” are becoming increasingly sophisticated — blurring the line between local and global threats — and in some cases are helping to fund overseas terrorist networks through the drug trade.

“What were once public safety nuisances have in some cases become globally integrated enterprises that fuel corruption, chaos, and criminality,” the admiral said. “We need to think and to act differently — not just about these networks, but also about how we use information, how we get it, how we share it with our partners, and how we act on it together.”

While U.S. Southern Command isn’t engaged in the kind of fight U.S. Central Command has been waging in the Middle East for more than a decade, SOUTHCOM’s geographic jurisdiction is anything but uneventful. Russia and China, for example, are wielding their influence in the region through arms sales and defense agreements.

“We don’t have the luxury of significant resources to help us get after these challenges,” Tidd said. “That means that we need to get a lot smarter about making the best use of what we do have.”

Geospatial intelligence from satellite imaging, aircraft imaging, and data analytics has revolutionized how SOUTHCOM handles its missions, Tidd said.

For example, imagery can detect remote airfields that are being constructed or repaired, likely used by cartels to transport drugs. Tracking prison capacities and construction of new prisons has given the U.S. military a better idea of the success or failure of gang round-up efforts in several South American nations.

And GEOINT uncovered evidence of illegal mining operations in Peru, as well as illegal deforestation in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, Tidd said.

“This combination gives us insight into people-to-people connections, allowing us to see not just what’s happening, but where, and most importantly when, gaining critical context in both time and space,” he said.

Perhaps the most prominent use so far has been supporting relief efforts in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016, the admiral said, adding that an integrated approach to GEOINT helps even when satellites can’t get clear images.

“Using commercial imagery, photos from Twitter, and postings from other social media sites, our team was able to rapidly identify washed-out bridges and damaged infrastructure faster than we could get the information from our own assets due to the days of cloud cover that typically follow a storm,” he said.

Tidd is looking for solutions, no matter how experimental, and wants companies to get in touch with SOUTHCOM if they have a GEOINT capability they want to test out. At the moment, the Miami, Florida-based combatant command is studying about 500 commercially available low-cost systems that could be used to gather intelligence.

The admiral said he’s got his eye on suborbital balloons, such as those under development by Tucson, Arizona-based World View Enterprises, that could carry a GEOINT payload.

“This capability is actually being developed for commercial near-space tourism,” Tidd said. “But we think it has some interesting applications for our mission sets, particularly if the balloons achieve their predicted flight durations of greater than 180 days. We think this has the potential to be a game changer for us, a great, long-duration, long-dwell surveillance platform.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...