Providing Imagery Is Only Part of the Picture

May 1999
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

As they become interconnected through the evolution of network-centric warfare, military forces are discovering the increasingly indispensable nature of geospatial information systems, or GIS. At many levels, mission planning now relies on GIS products to ensure success and reduce losses during potentially hazardous actions. Even the civil government and commercial worlds are incorporating these emerging technologies into their everyday operations. While all this activity ensures a continued flow of innovation into the GIS wellspring, new and considerable investments must be made now to ensure that GIS continues to meet user needs in the foreseeable future.

Military forces are exploiting GIS to an increasing degree, with applications ranging from navigation to munitions guidance. National technical assets are being augmented by commercial remote sensing orbiters, while ubiquitous global positioning system satellites provide nonstop position location data virtually anywhere on Earth. These data are incorporated into other systems or are processed into products and disseminated by a growing number of sophisticated display programs.

The military’s use of GIS reflects the services’ larger trend toward interlocking disciplines. A host of separate elements—position location, reconnaissance and surveillance, battle damage assessment, situational awareness and munitions guidance—are fast coming under the GIS umbrella. For example, tactical air forces can rehearse a mission in a virtual fly-through of a complete three-dimensional terrain model of their mission route. This model can be built by incorporating satellite imagery, elevation data and seasonal climate information to present a realistic picture of the pilot’s view throughout the journey. Vital military information such as signals and measurement and signature intelligence can be added to provide a visual threat picture overlaid on the terrain imagery.

The creation of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency institutionalized the military’s changed view of GIS. Previously, the Defense Mapping Agency concentrated on providing detailed, accurate renditions of terrain and human constructs, and the intelligence community focused on delivering high-resolution imagery of foreign strategic and tactical assets. In terms of service to the warfighter, these two products now are inexorably linked.

As these capabilities coalesced, the emphasis in GIS shifted from increasing technology innovation toward expanding applications. The spread of GIS products in recent years has been driven to a greater extent by more varied types of users incorporating GIS capabilities into their operations. Just as advances in network-centric warfare are putting personal computing and communications devices into the hands of individuals on the battlefield, so are greater flexibility and applicability of GIS products empowering an increasing number of users.

Now, however, GIS stands at a crossroads. Its usefulness mandates the development of new capabilities—both to serve emerging operational needs and to complement new military systems that offer to change the face of future battlefields. In addition to a focused effort, these developments will require substantial investment.

In the past, two-way dialog between government and the GIS industry was less than adequate. Only in recent years did the military begin to recognize commercial remote sensing imagery, for example, as a regular operational asset instead of an ad hoc solution to resort to in emergencies. Many simulation and virtual display software products had their origins in the games or entertainment industries—not in defense-directed research. As the defense community’s use of GIS evolved, the private sector began to invest independent research and development funds into technologies and applications.

Throughout its evolution, however, GIS never received the government attention that it merited in terms of its potential importance to the military. And, because the government did not show its seriousness toward GIS, private sector development of tailored products and other vital elements has lagged.

Now the government finds itself needing GIS innovations, but the pipeline has slowed to a trickle. New products have tended to be spinoffs of commercial applications or the results of limited, application-specific programs. Core GIS research for defense applications remains sluggish.

Pressing needs are awakening defense planners to the importance of new GIS technologies and products. As an example, among the most vital potential capabilities is target change detection. As the intelligence community aims for near-real- or real-time delivery of imagery and related products, it requires tools that help process data and assist decision makers. Target change detection focuses on comparing two images of the same scene that are taken at different times. Changes in position can betray some animate objects or help locate others for tracking and targeting. While astronomers long have compared images to detect moving asteroids or comets, their searches can take days—an impossible luxury to military intelligence officers and decision makers who must respond to rapidly changing battlefield conditions in hours or even minutes. This type of advanced GIS tool is rapidly growing in importance—and need—as sophisticated imagery products proliferate and decision time frames compress.

Many other future GIS technologies and products loom in potential importance. However, industry need not wait for the Defense Department to formalize its requests. The private sector can take the initiative by pursuing independent research and development of these necessary capabilities. Without question, many of these ultimately will have commercial applications as well.

Now is the time for both government and industry to team in a long-term developmental program for the next generation of GIS products. While the cost will not be inexpensive, the price of a failure to act expediently may be far greater.