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Army Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), began his keynote at the GEOINT 2013* Symposium on Wednesday with an anecdote from 2001. He described relentlessly studying an image of an airfield in Southern Afghanistan where an operation was planned. In the image was an unidentified object, and he was trying to determine if it was a tank. This was back when single imagery was the basis of planning. The suspected tank turned out to be a bunch of oil barrels under a tarp.
“Looking back at that reminds me of just how much things have changed,” Votel said. “In those days, we relied on a single hard copy image to plan an assault. These days, intelligence and operations are so tightly woven together I’m not sure you could separate one from another.”
In his first GEOINT Symposium appearance, Votel talked about the significant technological advances that help inform planning, from high-definition full-motion video to LiDAR.
Despite advances, Votel said Special Operations Forces are the single most demanding users of intelligence, and they continue to require more and more tools to execute their missions.
"We want to be everywhere, know everything, and we want to predict what happens next," he said.
Another challenge is preparing to operate in different conditions than troops grew accustomed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. Votel said nearly 2,000 terror incidents occurred globally in 2001, and more than 8,000 in 2012.
"But they're so much a part of our reality that most of them don't make the news," he said.
Whether the enemy is on the battlefield or in the cyber domain, Votel said the goal is the same: finding those who may cause harm and leaving them nowhere to hide.
Yet simply having access to as much information as possible is not enough.
"Making sense of data is a huge undertaking," Votel said, stressing that technology will never replace on-the-ground decision-making or the analyst-operator relationship.
He said predictive policing—which has proven successful at reducing crime rates in some areas by increasing police presence at times when crimes tend to occur—could be a model for SOF.
Votel said he sees a strong appetite for new partners and new technology, such as sensors with extreme range and fidelity. Other JSOC needs include: the ability to be everywhere in the virtual domain, bring together data from all disciplines in real time, and the technology to see through clouds to keep track of activities on the ground.
He talked about communications support, and the ability for troops to join a video teleconference and talk to commanders, and to push large amounts of material back to experts for analysis.
Special operations have relied heavily on the Intelligence Community, he said.
"And you've delivered," Votel told the audience. "I have every confidence that as we continue to move forward, you will continue to do that."