SAN ANTONIO — U.S. troops are hungrier than ever for user-friendly geospatial intelligence that can be accessed quickly and merged with other intelligence, sometimes in the midst of a mission, said members of the panel “The View from Down Range” at the Geoint 2007 Symposium here.

Members of the panel offered different views on the value of the intelligence community’s “reach back” initiative as a way to satisfy that hunger.

Staff members from the National Security Agency (NSA), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and other organizations have been embedded with troops under that initiative to help them tap repositories of imagery and other types of intelligence stored in the United States or at U.S. locations abroad.

“From a reach back perspective, I would caution that you can’t rely, or over rely on reach back, especially in what we face now in counter-insurgency operations and small unit activities,” said Marine Corps Col. Keith A. Lawless, an assistant chief of staff at Marine Corps Special Operations Command. “You don’t have time to wait for an organization that’s certainly out of theater to be able to provide you that support,” he said, adding that reach back is most valuable where time is less of a constraint.

Lawless said Marine imagery analysts and topographic analysts are now part of Marine units. “These young Marines are out forward in Humvees, and in many cases they are the spearhead of the mission,” he said.

While not taking issue directly with Lawless, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Horne, who was chief of targeting in Iraq, lauded the reach back initiative.

“NSA and NGA have absolutely responded magnificently to placing analysts forward and doing reach back the way we’ve never done it before. It’s an incredible thing to watch,” said Horne, who is now deputy director for mission support operations at the National Reconnaissance Office in Virginia.

The panelists also noted a shift in the types of missions enabled by intelligence now that the United States has redirected its counter-insurgency approach to winning over and holding neighborhoods.

“The traditional [mission] you think of is killing targets, prosecuting targets, picking people up. There’s a lot bigger piece to that, and that’s the ability to build trust and confidence of the people that we can take care of them. If you can convince the people that their government can do a better job of providing health and basic services than the others can, then you’re on your way to winning,” Horne said.

It is not always glamorous. Horne told a story of stepping ankle deep in sewer water that had flooded a Baghdad neighborhood.

“We had pictures of where the problem was,” Horne said. U.S. and Iraqi government officials drained the water. “We would not be able to do that without your products,” Horne told the attendees.

The panelists agreed that government-supplied information needs to be more user friendly, and several pointed to the attraction of unclassified or civilian-produced terrain products.

U.S. Army Col. Bill Harmon, chief of the forward support team to Central Command for the NGA, recounted visiting a company in Iraq during a recent tour with Navy Adm. Robert Murrett, NGA’s director.

“We walked into their operational center. It’s actually a plywood structure. They have full-color, unclassified imagery, about a half-meter resolution, and that’s what they’re using to plan their missions, and they’re also using that to go out into the streets of Baghdad to prosecute targets,” Harmon said.

The reality is that troops “are creating lots of products on their own,” added Lawless. “I think we need to do a better job in standardizing that data so it’s easier to retrieve and use at a later date. I think the formats need to be more user friendly. My Marines keep coming back and saying, ‘Hey, Google Earth is where it’s at,’” Lawless said.

The panelists agreed there is no shortage of data, but there is a shortage of systems for managing and disseminating the data, and pushing it far forward.

“Bringing that together, swimming in the sea of information, is probably the most critical thing that I can challenge you that we gotta figure out how to do,” Horne said.

And yet, the data keeps coming or will soon, such as that from the planned Space Radar satellites. “I think it’s anticipated the Space Radar will add about 100 times as much data in the system. How do you deal with that?” Horne asked.

Even as they challenged the audience, members of the panel were careful to note progress over the years.

Lawless recalled the Persian Gulf War. “I remember distinctly being force fed a number of prototypical systems. A lot of systems had no contract support, no training sustainment with them at all. They looked like they could do tremendous things for us but all they did was sit in the corner of the battalion [center] because we didn’t know how to use them,” he said.