Afghanistan Imagery Reveals Snapshot of Future Challenges

February 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Mapping organization look to innovation, industry for rapid response to crises.

The war against terrorism in Afghanistan has propelled the National Imagery and Mapping Agency into the future ahead of schedule. Faced with an urgent demand for intelligence on a region of the world not fully covered in its databases, the agency turned to private industry for products and services. And, it introduced advanced methods and products of its own to serve decision makers and warfighters.

The agency already had been moving more toward contracting goods and services than being a purely government-based provider. Budget constraints and the maturity of commercial remote sensing, along with increased demand for imagery products at more levels of command, had led to a greater involvement with the private sector.

However, the September 11 crisis and its aftermath highlighted the importance of many of the agency’s medium- and long-term plans. U.S. forces suddenly may find themselves at war in a region that has not been at the top of any planner’s priorities. Activities may require new types of imagery products both for mission planning and for ongoing operational requirements. The incorporation of real-time streaming video into the intelligence arsenal will impel development of new imagery presentation technologies that go beyond three-dimensional displays.

Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., USAF (Ret.), director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Bethesda, Maryland, states that his main concern is the long-standing imbalance between data collection and the ability to process, exploit and disseminate intelligence. He notes that this collecting is well underway. Next come the processing and dissemination.

NIMA must be “populator of the grand knowledge map,” Gen. Clapper maintains. The agency must gather imagery and geospatial information from any source, whether national technical means or commercial platforms. He notes that NIMA would use this diverse information to populate an automated database from which customers could extract needed material “even on a semi-real-time basis if necessary.” The agency would be responsible for the “geospatial assurance” that encompasses accuracy, currency and validity of this information.

Gen. Clapper emphasizes the importance of analysis and timely dissemination. Suddenly emerging crises may require the rapid collection of specific forms of intelligence. “We are in the information business, and that is the major challenge for us and the intelligence community at large,” he states.

He continues that the nature of the new war on terrorism amplifies this classical challenge. “Afghanistan was not on top of our high priority list. Suddenly, it came to the forefront, and a lot of our databases on Afghanistan were not as complete as we would have liked. It caused us to have to turn quickly to get the currency, the completeness and the accuracy and get it to people that needed it right away,” he relates.

The onset of the war against terrorism presented NIMA with an urgent challenge. Gen. Clapper compares it to the situation in Somalia in 1992, when U.S. forces entered that African nation as part of a coalition. While intelligence agencies had to scramble to generate needed information to support those operations, the Afghanistan operations required—and received—a much more rapid response.

The key for NIMA was its ability to turn to its industry partners. Gen. Clapper relates that ongoing contractual arrangements with these commercial entities allowed NIMA to expand its work force rapidly. These companies “were absolutely crucial—not only in collection that supplemented our national technical means, but they also helped us in doing value-added [products],” he allows. This entailed completing foundation geospatial databases faster than NIMA could, which Gen. Clapper describes as “the major difference.”

These commercial contributions to Afghanistan operations encompassed both classical intelligence and geospatial data. NIMA signed an agreement with Space Imaging for exclusive access to all Ikonos satellite Afghanistan data collected after September 11, 2001 (SIGNAL, December 2001, page 16). Many direct customer requirements have been filled by commercial Afghanistan imagery. Other value-added services addressed database needs, especially in foundational work such as incorporating terrain data.

Another significant change since September 11 is that NIMA’s traditional products, services and capabilities now are being applied to homeland security. Gen. Clapper explains that the agency is turning its formerly foreign-oriented assets into domestic geospatial support elements. Among the many consumers of U.S. data are the U.S. Defense Department—including the Joint Forces Command and the Joint Staff for Intelligence, J-2—and other federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Office of Homeland Security.

This new domestic focus raises several policy and resource issues that remain to be resolved, the general adds. The agency is “very sensitive to those concerns” over how the national foreign intelligence apparatus can be used domestically, he notes. NIMA is responding to customer needs until this debate is resolved. “Our whole posture as to how we respond to this is still a work in progress,” he declares.

The agency has had to shift personnel and capabilities to meet customer needs during this period. Gen. Clapper offers that this new focus likely will be long haul, so the agency must adjust to the pace and settle into a routine.

Gen. Clapper assumed his position as NIMA director two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Those attacks and the ensuing war that they triggered accelerated some of the changes he had planned for NIMA. The agency adopted a temporal organizing principle of focusing on three elements: the Now, the Next, and the After Next.

The challenge facing NIMA and its companion intelligence agencies is dealing with the Now mission—the war on terrorism—while attending to the Next. These complex tasks also must be achieved while planning for the future—the After Next.

The general continues that NIMA has organized three major directorates around these three temporal dimensions. The Now element comprises analysis and production; acquisition serves the Next element; and a directorate known as Innovision focuses on After Next. This directorate encompasses research and development, futuristic thought and plans and requirements. Gen. Clapper emphasizes that these are not designed to be temporal stovepipe directorates.

The general wants NIMA’s relationship with industry to take the form of a partnership. The goal is for the commercial sector to provide continued innovation to refresh the agency’s technology. “In a couple of years, we will be more of a contractor work force than a government [one],” he predicts.

Industry already has begun working more closely with NIMA in the war on terrorism. “The onset of the [September 11] crisis has brought out this commitment,” he submits. “I have had a lot of very sincere expressions of support from the contractor community.”

He continues that NIMA is looking to its two contractor teams in the U.S. Imagery and Geospatial Information System (USIGS) program to help design “what the new future NIMA will be.” This enterprise is intended to be a total systems architecture for improving NIMA’s ability to task, process, evaluate and disseminate information. General Dynamics Electronics Systems and Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems were tapped last October to head the effort.

One of the general’s goals is to broaden the agency’s contractor base. He is looking for new companies to work with NIMA across the board from logistics to remote sensing. The agency already is outsourcing mission support facilities management, and its next step is to outsource information technology. Gen. Clapper describes NIMA as “on the cusp” of this thrust in the manner of the National Security Agency with its Groundbreaker program.

The most important technologies that NIMA seeks from the commercial sector involve data automation, manipulation and correlation as well as bandwidth compression. Visualization technologies will increase in importance as the agency moves its intelligence into four-dimensional products. Full-motion or streaming video, which has become significant in Afghanistan operations, is a wave of the future, Gen. Clapper offers.

He describes motion video as the most exciting future prospect in the After Next arena. Making this technology ubiquitous and managing it in the real-time dimension may hold the key to future battle management. The real-time video imagery could even be combined with geospatial location and terrain data to produce a four-dimensional intelligence information product, with time as the fourth dimension.

Bandwidth is a problem, the general admits. One solution may be to combine and compress more data instead of providing additional unique communications pipes. Bandwidth management also may be a solution to this challenge, he offers.

New types of sensors also may lie ahead. Multispectral and hyperspectral sensors could be the heirs apparent to existing dedicated platforms, especially national technical means.

The general notes that the lines between strategic and tactical collection resources are blurring as each is used to support all elements of operation. These sources have become transparent to the user as their data is integrated with other information to generate an intelligence product.

Nonetheless, some national technical means that were designed largely for strategic applications remain. Gen. Clapper allows that this illustrates the importance of complementary sources such as unmanned aerial vehicles or other surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. Combining these assets with the global capability of national technical assets not only provides a more comprehensive picture, it also helps address individual needs of the more diverse customer base that NIMA must serve.

The agency is committed to the Defense Department transformation currently underway, the general continues. Regardless of this transformation’s pace or its course, NIMA’s element is the geospatial dimension. This element is a cornerstone of the transformation.

“The geospatial dimension that is the basic IPB [intelligence preparation of the battlefield] is the basic foundation over which successive layers of information can be overlaid,” the general declares. “And, this is the basic foundation for achieving battle field superiority.”

Achieving greater battlefield results with fewer, but more accurate, precision-guided munitions requires voracious amounts of geospatial data. Providing the information that places that munition precisely on target captures the task facing NIMA, Gen. Clapper maintains.

As with many other members of the intelligence community, NIMA is finding its resources taxed by post-September-11 operations. Supplemental funding for operation Enduring Freedom largely is being used to support operations. With NIMA transitioning to a larger contractor work force with smaller government staffing, the agency’s dependence on contractors has increased during the war on terrorism. Costs have risen accordingly.

When additional funds are available for other expenditures, Gen. Clapper offers that he would improve NIMA’s infrastructure. The agency still suffers from the consequences of the way it was created in 1996. It has a collection of infra- structures that do not necessarily work well or are not even compatible. The agency is as geographically dispersed as it was at its creation more than five years ago, and it inherited a collection of communications and automation infrastructures that also beg improvement.

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

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