Blog     e-Newsletter       Resource Library      Directories      Webinars     Apps
AFCEA logo

Balkans Serve as Proving Ground For Operational Imagery Support

October 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Vast air campaign and real-time requirements impel development of new data products, delivery methods.

New data storage and retrieval techniques are allowing theater air mission planners to call up detailed imagery and mapping data from a laptop computer. Using commercial hardware and software, U.S. forces directed attack and rescue missions during the recent Kosovo conflict by accessing continentwide data contained in a single box.

This replaced the need for users of geospatial information to connect with a remote database or sift through reams of CD-ROMs. The gigabytes of data, stored internally on a computer or server, still can be updated from distant databases as dynamic new information supercedes existing intelligence.

As a result, users can customize the information they need to carry out their mission. This can range from selecting broad-area maps to 1-meter remote sensing imagery products. In turn, the appropriate information can be digitally downloaded for analysis and planning and printed out for troops in the field.

This new capability is one element of a geospatial information makeover underway at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, or NIMA. The agency is teaming with other intelligence organizations to ensure that increasing amounts of information are delivered to customers in a timely and logistics-friendly manner. It is adding to its wealth of data with vast sensing programs, including a space shuttle radar mapping mission, and it is incorporating new rapid processing and dissemination techniques. NIMA has plans for a multibillion-dollar modernization effort, and it is seeking $500 million to purchase commercial remote sensing imagery with its mission partner, the National Reconnaissance Office.

Central to the agency’s modernization effort is the digitization of imagery and mapping data, explains NIMA’s director, Lt. Gen. James C. King, USA. Many of its map products have been on a six-, nine- or 12-year update schedule. Increasingly, operations require current information immediately at the onset of activity. Digitizing this information allows rapid updating and dissemination of the appropriate product, the general notes.

Much of the agency’s mission involves having a proper grasp of the Earth’s elevations, Gen. King relates. This is essential to generating three-dimensional scene visualizations comprising images draped over digitized terrain data. This is vital information for mission planning and rehearsal, for military and civil air navigation and for fly-through models and simulations.

“We want to have the Earth digitized so that we can put it into mission-specific data sets, but we recognize the operational necessity to provide our forces with both digital information and hard-copy products,” he declares.

The agency’s digital terrain elevation database currently features 100-meter post spacing over roughly 63 percent of the Earth. Later this year, a space shuttle mission is scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a NIMA payload to compile digital terrain and elevation data at 30-meter post spacing over 80 percent of the Earth. This covers virtually all territory from latitude 60 degrees north to latitude 56 degrees south with 20-meters-horizontal and 16-meters-vertical absolute accuracy.

Known as the shuttle radar topography mission, the payload comprises a spaceborne imaging radar and an X-band synthetic aperture radar. It will sweep the Earth in 225-kilometer (140-mile) swaths collecting data that will be processed into a digital topographical map. Data processing is expected to take about two years, and data formats are designed to be compatible with standard software and terrain analysis programs tailored to civil, military and scientific users.

“This mission will do, in an 11-day mission, what has taken us over 20 years to collect,” Gen. King says. NIMA will work with its partners, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to release data on the United States and its territories. Requests for data on foreign territories will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The agency’s controlled image base is vital to scene visualization for mission planning systems used by U.S. forces. This imagery is fused with geospatial information to generate scene visualization data. Imagery intelligence is added to produce custom-tailored products, whether digital or hard copy. The goal is to allow users to determine their own format in headquarters or field locations.

NIMA provided a variety of products for the Kosovo operation. Planning maps featured place names listed in both Albanian and Serbian. The agency also employed its controlled imagery to support mission planning. It developed more than 1,200 fixed targets for pilots and commanders, including precise points for precision guided munitions and target graphics illustrating collateral damage. To generate hard copy, the agency provided large formatted printers to forces in the field. NIMA also supplied the escape and evasion charts for pilots to use if they are downed. These charts include terrain details that helped identify pickup points, a coordinate reference system, communications lines and information on living off the land until rescue.

All told, during the Kosovo crisis NIMA produced more than 12 million maps and charts to meet force requirements. Gen. King explains that, if these maps had been generated through conventional hard-copy production, it would have taken up to 1,300 hours to produce one map. By digitizing, however, the agency could provide users with the maps or charts they needed in about 200 hours. This shortened time frame was partly based on the ability to customize the data to only what was needed for each mission or application.

Gen. King relates that NIMA was a part of national intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and geospatial support to forces in the Balkans since U.S. operations began in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Kosovo crisis was still in negotiations, NIMA was tasked with producing geospatial information for the entire region. When a Kosovo monitoring mission was discussed, the agency generated and shipped 1:50,000-scale maps to support land and helicopter operations. Other products focused on humanitarian responses and positions  of key facilities for potential targeting.

Three areas required surge capabilities for supporting force operations. First was a requirement for 1:100,000-scale, U.S.-standard topographic line maps of the rugged Kosovo terrain to support potential Apache helicopter operations. Combining digital information on file with that of other nations, the agency delivered all of these maps within four weeks of the formal request. It also deployed a combat support team to help exploit the data.

The second task involved pretarget planning. The agency surged to meet precise targeting requirements for a 72-hour air tasking order. The third task focused on ensuring force protection by identifying the composition and disposition of integrated enemy air defenses. Compiling this information included accounting for the enemy’s complicated use of the air defenses.

A key element in the Kosovo operation, and a possible taste of NIMA’s future, is a portable digital imagery system dubbed “NIMA in a box.” This consists of a laptop computer accessing a small server into which the agency downloaded about 100 CD-ROMs containing 25 gigabytes of geospatial information system and other data for the Kosovo region. This configuration, which Gen. King describes as 20th century technology providing 21st century information, enabled users to call up relevant geospatial information instantly and annotate it at the desired scale.

The device was deployed among air units waging the campaign against Serbia and its forces. Designed to provide extensive displays from which data could be downloaded into aircraft, the system also was equipped with a printer to generate hard-copy maps for more portable or rugged use.

Gen. King explains that NIMA in a box emerged from an element of a Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (JWID) aboard the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier USS John Stennis. NIMA and U.S. Air Force planners witnessing the demonstration adapted it to serve air operations.

The average NIMA CD-ROM consists of 1,200 map files that are not easily identified by an operator. One problem that NIMA has encountered with its customers is that individuals often are reluctant to pore through, or even are confounded by, mountains of CD-ROMs in an effort to seek out the appropriate terrain information.

NIMA downloaded these CD-ROMs into a single laptop/network server configuration, from which these data can be accessed using commercial off-the-shelf software. Using ESRI Arcview, users can automate processes to customize the data for their own needs. Storing data in these smaller files, as opposed to a large data library, also eliminates the need for large and powerful workstations with advanced graphics engines.

Having all the data at hand removes the need for manually scanning through separate CD-ROMs for the appropriate data and resolution. It also allows seamless linking of adjacent areas to form a borderless string of both maps and satellite imagery. When tied into NIMA’s network, the box can receive imagery and data updates as they are entered into the agency’s database.

One major advantage comes with zoom capabilities. The system, which has map scales ranging from 1:5,000,000 to 1:15,000, responds to a user changing the map scale by presenting the best information in its database for the new scale. For example, the uses for 1:1,000,000-scale maps are different than those of 1:50,000. The system provides maps, possibly including imagery, that have the appropriate features for the likely application.

At 1:5,000,000, the “layer cake” system displays maps. Subsequent scales progress through 1:2,000,000; 1:1,000,000; 1:500,000; and 1:250,000. At 1:100,000, the system displays an image map using 10-meter remote sensing data mosaiced into a map base. Zooming in under 1:50,000 calls up 5-meter imagery, with even tighter scales producing 1-meter resolution. Air mission planners could begin with an overview map of the entire region and, as planning steps mandated, zoom in progressively to the point where they could identify a building’s ventilation shaft that would serve as the aiming point for a precision guided munition.

The Kosovo NIMA in a box included all of NIMA’s maps of Europe along with satellite imagery. The names of all the places, airfields, ports and targets are categorized in databases. A user can locate an airport in the area of interest by highlighting the airfield database layer and entering the name of the airfield. The system then takes the user to that site. Other logistical information about the facility is included in the airfield database to be called up if needed.

Potential targets worldwide are assigned a basic encyclopedia, or BE, number by the intelligence community for storage in a Defense Intelligence Agency database. If one of these targets is selected for attack, air strike planners using the box can call up that location directly by entering the target’s BE number. All available imagery is annotated and displayed on-screen. Bill MacDonald, NIMA senior engineer, estimates that this process can save 85 percent of mission planning time by providing this imagery and data in a single appliance.

The system received its acid test when a U.S. pilot was downed in northwest Kosovo at about 2 a.m. local time. An EC-130E airborne command and control center equipped with NIMA in a box called up a detailed map of the area that identified potential hazards to the helicopter search-and-rescue team, which was already in the air to locate and pick up the pilot. After plugging in the downed pilot’s coordinates, the air crew used the NIMA map data to reroute the helicopter team around some power lines that could have been an invisible menace when the rescue crews dropped in on the pilot’s location. Armed with this information, the rescuers were able to retrieve the pilot from his hiding place amid Serbian forces only about two hours after he parachuted to the ground. This took place on the second day that NIMA in a box was deployed on the EC-130E.

The same aircraft also used the box to direct allied air strikes against mobile or suddenly detected targets. This allowed pilots to be redirected in mid-flight to newly designated targets based on radio transmissions from spotters to the EC-130E. Aircraft could be on target in about 20 minutes, instead of two to four hours using conventional methods and paper maps.

Throughout the Kosovo operation, engineers in the United States were updating software and writing new applications based on feedback from the theater. Some applications were designed to be mission specific. Mission planning data generated by the system could be printed in customized graphics for each individual aircraft. The agency and the Air Force are evaluating technologies for direct data transfer on the ground to the aircraft’s display system.

Operators also could use the box for mission planning. The targets for the entire theater could be painted and overlaid on a small-scale map. In addition to packages for individual targets, pilots could have a planning map showing where each air wing was deployed for the different targets throughout the theater. Elevation models proved useful to terrain-following B-1 strikes. Planners could evaluate the terrain to determine the best approach to the target.

“It provides unprecedented access to NIMA data,” MacDonald declares. “The data has always been there, in bulk, for several years. But at the tactical level, the cost of putting in workstations and training personnel on high-end tools has prevented this concept from arriving. This [NIMA in a box] was finally an affordable package.”

A total of 15 box systems were deployed to sites in the combined air operations center at Vicenza, Italy; Aviano, Gioia del Colle and San Vito air bases, also in Italy; and Tirana, Albania. After the end of the air campaign against Serbia, some systems were redeployed from Tirana, San Vito and Gioia del Colle to home stations in Stuttgart, Spangdahlem and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Royal Air Force bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath in the United Kingdom.

This system is designed to bring the advantages of the NIMA database to operational theater personnel quickly and inexpensively. For its long-term future, NIMA has developed an imagery and geospatial information service modernization plan that is moving through the budget process. It is estimated to require $4.5 billion in full funding, with a bare minimum of $2.7 billion. The general is optimistic that the agency will receive the necessary funding to carry out its modernization plan.

“Technology is not our speed bump,” Gen. King relates. “Obtaining the right resources is the challenge that we face.

“We are underresourced,” he continues. “We cannot support two major theaters of war.”

Part of this challenge is modernizing and then incorporating the agency’s 170 legacy systems into its future architecture. Another need is having the workstations, libraries and applications to use its information. The agency already is outsourcing 24 percent of its geospatial information production to private industry (SIGNAL, May, page 42), and it is establishing a joint military reserve program.

Gen. King allows that NIMA has dedicated more than $500 million for private industry involvement from 2000 to 2005. The agency and the National Reconnaissance Office have developed a commercial imagery strategy that would enable purchasing another $500 million in remote sensing imagery from commercial providers in the same time frame.

The modernization plan currently concentrates on moving information to the joint task force and to the individual service components involved in an operation. The agency also works jointly with the services to ensure that the “last tactical mile” is covered. “It is not our intention to create a stovepipe imagery dissemination or geospatial information [system],” the general says. The product must move over existing common service user networks, both in classification and volume. However, NIMA is working to ensure that necessary connectivity exists for its library and information archive and storage. NIMA has established an information gateway in St. Louis to update and populate systems and tools with the agency’s digital information electronically.

Several technologies could play important roles in the agency’s future. Key to managing and disseminating the expected vast amounts of data are applications for mass media storage. The agency also will need technologies that allow it to exploit motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles. A top priority is ensuring that data is properly entered into its database. And, NIMA will need to be able to georeference national technical means to airborne platforms. All of these requirements come under the banner of information management.


Additional information on the National Imagery and Mapping Agency is available on the World Wide Web at