Assessing the Army Brigade Combat Team GEOINT Enterprise

Are U.S. Army commanders unaware of GEOINT’s full potential?


By CPT Zach Bowers, 46th Engineer Battalion Senior Intelligence Officer; CPT Patrick Ortiz, Department of the Army G-2 (Intelligence) Initiatives Group; and Ben Gildner, formerly of the 2nd Cavalry Regimental Geospatial Cell

Army GEOINT Enterprise

From the dawn of warfare, a commander’s ability to visualize the battlefield and direct his or her forces has often meant the difference between victory and defeat. Defined as the “fusion of imagery with geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities in the battlefield,” GEOINT has evolved to help satisfy this intelligence requirement.[1] By allowing everyone to “‘see’ the map” and understand pertinent details about the enemy and terrain in time and space, the commander’s and staffs’ visualization of the battlefield is enhanced.[2] Through this enhanced visualization, commanders can make appropriate and timely decisions resulting in successful mission execution thus leading the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Director of Strategic Operations to recognize that GEOINT has become “literally indispensable.”[3] In contrast to this recognized value, the commander of the Army GEOINT Battalion recently revealed that Army commanders are still unaware of GEOINT’s full potential due to GEOINT being “underrepresented in the Army.”[4] To evaluate this claim, a current examination of the brigade combat team (BCT) GEOINT enterprise is necessary.

Staff Sgt. Christy Basden, an intelligence analyst with Company D, 150th Engineer Battalion, locates and tracks targets during a fire coordination exercise near Oro Grande, N.M., May 30, 2018. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Brittany Johnson.)

When implementing the Army GEOINT structure, military intelligence research identified the “role of geospatial engineering in GEOINT” as well as the need for “MI and engineer partnership.”[5] In response, the Army developed BCT GEOINT cells to combine the capabilities of geospatial engineers and imagery intelligence analysts into one organizational entity, but the merger was not without difficulties. Engineer officers still recommended the development of courses within the engineer school house that are nearly identical to courses already offered in the intelligence school house.[6] Military Occupational Specialties were not combined to form a holistic GEOINT position but continue to be distinct with geospatial experts remaining in the Engineering Branch and imagery experts remaining in the Intelligence Branch.[7] Finally, the lack of integration was most pronounced in comparing two leading GEOINT organizations. This lack of cohesion between the key aspects of the GEOINT discipline has and will continue to impede complete integration of the enterprise for the foreseeable future.

In order to gain a full understanding of the potential ramifications of this lack of cohesion, an objective survey of the BCT GEOINT structure must be conducted. While the Army recognizes the importance of strategic (NGA) support to BCTs—as evidenced by the Army devoting an entire chapter of only three chapters to NGA request procedures within its GIS regulation—the scope of this survey will be limited to the BCT’s organic systems and personnel.[8] With regard to necessary elements of a GEOINT enterprise, GEOINT’s Basic Doctrine: Publication 1.0 identifies three components: data, tradecraft, and products.[9] For the purposes of this examination, tradecraft will be divided into two subcomponents: data communication processes and data analysis processes. Thus, the BCT GEOINT enterprise will be evaluated based on availability of geospatial data, status of communication systems, data processing procedures, and product visualization. After analyzing these four criteria, this article will summarize its findings in a holistic assessment of the BCT GEOINT enterprise.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2019 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety. 


Geospatial Data

Geospatial references “the relative position of things … [on] our Earth.”[10] Given this definition, any information with a referenced location on Earth can be utilized for GEOINT purposes. As such, GEOINT “incorporates data from other intelligence disciplines … to corroborate and provide context to geospatial data and information.”[11] Aerial observation of enemy tanks, scout platoon identification of enemy elements, engineer reconnaissance assessments of bridges, and reported locations of friendly units would all fit within the definition of geospatial data. Given this expansive definition, the amount of geospatial data readily accessible to a BCT outside of NGA databases is immense. Identifying potential GEOINT collectors organic to a BCT is somewhat more manageable.

Historically, GEOINT can trace its intelligence roots back to the desire to “control the high ground [… as this] gave the possessor an observational advantage.”[12] This historic recognition widens the potential GEOINT sensors within a BCT to all scouts, forward observers, and additional reconnaissance and surveillance assets. Additionally, given the preponderance of GPS devices, any soldier can now determine his or her current position and report on information within their vicinity. Based on this expansive definition, BCTs appear to have a plethora of GEOINT sensors. Determining how this geospatial data is then fed into the overall GEOINT enterprise becomes imperative.

Communications Systems

Data is only useful if it is transmitted to the appropriate individual for further processing. This analysis involves two parts: an analysis of available communications systems and an analysis of the end users of geospatial data. In terms of communication (i.e., mission command systems), the Army has a wide variety of capabilities spanning the Command Post of the Future (CPOF), Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A), Next Generation FBCB2 Joint Capabilities Release (JCR), and FM radio.[13] While each of these systems has tremendous potential, there is a significant time and resource cost associated with the communications architecture development, systems maintenance, and operator training.[14] Of particular importance to GEOINT, LTC Keith Carter, 1st BN, 26th INF REG Commander, noted DCGS-A has significant problems operating in field conditions with a high “level of austerity.”[15]

Even if connectivity is assumed to be sufficient, the question of successful receipt of geospatial data by the necessary recipient remains. Each mission command system caters to a different set of individuals. AFATDS is traditionally associated with artillerymen; DCGS-A is maintained by intelligence professionals; JCR encompasses the majority of mounted friendly forces. As each of these different systems is a conduit of useful geospatial data, the BCT GEOINT cell must have a means of accessing this data. While attempting to operate each of these systems with organic personnel would be impossible, integration of the entire Army Battle Command System would prove useful to the GEOINT cell. As a result, the Army has begun development of a comprehensive solution focused on the CPOF. Through the use of a data distribution system, the CPOF will be able to consolidate all information into one COP. Of note, the success of these efforts has been limited, and alternative approaches are already being considered.[16] In short, while geospatial data is accessible to BCTs and entered into its communications infrastructure, the probability of the GEOINT cell acquiring and fusing all of this information appears minimal in its current design.

Geospatial Data Processing

To effectively evaluate how well GEOINT analysts transform data into intelligence, two requirements are necessary: tools and knowledge. Through DCGS-A, GEOINT analysts appear to have wide variety of tools at their disposal. In 2009, analysts used at least three pieces of hardware and numerous software programs to view and manipulate extensive file formats, intel reports, data files, and imagery.[17] Software packages have since been updated with even more advanced computational algorithms and terrain reasoning tools to facilitate faster automation processes and analytic procedures.[18] Although these tools are extremely powerful, the main requirement is that data coming into the system must be in the proper format to be usable. In spite of this limitation, GEOINT analysts are fully resourced with the proper tools to provide actionable intelligence.

The second and more important factor is the degree of knowledge analysts have at transforming geospatial data into GEOINT. While this attribute is more difficult to assess given the already identified separation of GEOINT training in two different institutions—Fort Leonard Wood for engineers and Fort Huachuca for intelligence—a general assessment can be made. Given both the unified nature of NGA as the proponent of GEOINT as well as the Army’s Foundry Program, which provides commanders with outside funding to train organic intelligence soldiers, GEOINT training would appear to be well resourced and managed.[19] Outside of initial institutional training, mobile training teams, contracted system upgrade training, and additional schooling opportunities exist to ensure professional GEOINT standards and expertise are maintained.[20] While a detailed assessment of GEOINT analyst training is outside the scope of this survey, a cursory survey reveals that training opportunities both exist and are resourced. In combination with a wide set of advanced geospatial tools, the BCT GEOINT enterprise has the capability to produce relevant, actionable GEOINT.

Product Visualization

As discussed earlier, “the most important result of GEOINT [… is] situational awareness.”[21] This has led to an abundance of different types of both standard and specialized products. Many of the more recognizable GEOINT products include line of sight, cross-country mobility, route analysis, IED density plots, obstacle overlays, etc.[22] While GEOINT products may have a reasonable amount of variance, one unique aspect of these products and this intelligence discipline is the concept of “value-added.” Value-added is the process of continually updating products and databases with current information and purging obsolete information to ensure the product is as up-to-date and relevant as possible.[23] This attribute of GEOINT is exceptionally important to ensure situational awareness is maintained.

While the above products and value-added concept are laudable, the COP is noticeably absent. A COP is a “single display of relevant information within a commander’s area of interest tailored to the user’s requirements and based on common data and information shared by more than one command.”[24] Scholars have already identified that “GEOINT, using multiple and advanced sensors as well as the integration of various intelligence disciplines, has proved to be able to create a common operational picture.”[25] Traditionally, the COP is “owned” by the operations section as much of the COP contains friendly locations. While JP 2-03 does recognize that GEOINT supports the development of the COP, BCT structure does not inherently facilitate this as the intelligence section is distinct from the operations section.[26] The BCT GEOINT enterprise’s role in the development of this product should be more clearly articulated by the chief of staff or operations officer.


Of the four criteria necessary for a successful GEOINT enterprise—data, communications systems, processing, and visualization—access to geospatial data was the only component clearly sufficient for supporting BCT GEOINT operations. Given the variety of advanced geospatial tools, unity of training efforts through NGA, and resourcing through the Foundry program, this cursory assessment contends that the third criteria is also satisfactory. This assessment is caveated with the acknowledgment that the full impact of GEOINT education and training being split between the engineer and intelligence branches has yet to be fully assessed. The final two criteria of communications systems and visualization products will encompass the duration of this assessment.

The most immediate issue that must be addressed is the GEOINT cell’s ability to access all geospatial information. The optimal solution would be an easy-to-implement and easy-to-maintain technological solution that both provides connectivity as well as file transformation software packages between each of the different Army mission command systems, but this does not appear to be a feasible solution in the short term. A more reasonable policy would be a structural change. As identified earlier, the CPOF system has been the focus of integrating each dispersed mission command system. It is also traditionally located on the current operations floor among the wide array of mission command systems. The GEOINT cell should maintain a presence within this space for the purposes of acquiring all relevant geospatial data. As the GEOINT cell’s personnel strength is limited, this may require education of the current system operators on what constitutes relevant geospatial data and the format that it needs to be delivered to the GEOINT cell.

The second recommendation is related to the first. The GEOINT cell’s role must be clearly articulated with relation to COP development. While this article does not necessarily advocate that this responsibility should be placed entirely on the GEOINT cell, there should be no ambiguity regarding the expectations of the GEOINT cell. As GEOINT provides indications of how friendly and enemy forces can and are using the terrain to their advantage, the GEOINT cell should at a minimum be responsible for capturing geospatial data corresponding to the enemy and terrain in a holistic visual product that the entire staff and command can use to enhance decision-making. As the COP also incorporates friendly force information, this product must be a collaborative product rather than a separate intelligence product. The GEOINT concept of value-added through continual refinement makes the GEOINT cell particularly suited for this task.

The final recommendation is much more difficult to implement. It involves cultural change and education. As the commander of the Army GEOINT Battalion pointed out, many in the Army only view GEOINT as a section that can “make me a map or […] get me a picture.”[27] Even the GEOINT cell itself often becomes fixated with “traditional” GEOINT assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles, Ground moving target indicators, satellite imagery, or existing strategic databases. Both GEOINT professionals and Army leaders need to reference GEOINT’s actual purpose: the analysis of geospatial data to “describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth.”[28] This definition is much more encompassing than what has traditionally been expected of BCT GEOINT cells. While this should not be confused with all-source analysis, which encompasses every intelligence discipline for predictive assessments of enemy actions and intentions, GEOINT still has a wide range of responsibilities. A shared understanding of this role must be developed across tactical Army organizations if GEOINT is to be fully utilized.


While the need for geospatial intelligence has always existed, the relatively recent attempt to merge the culturally distinct organizations of geospatial engineering and imagery intelligence in 1996 led to friction within the resulting organization. Given the U.S. Army’s even more recent GEOINT merger, the potential for lack of cooperation and integration is high. While the existing literature readily reveals discrepancies between the engineering and intelligence communities with regard to the discipline, a holistic assessment of the current BCT GEOINT structure was necessary to objectively ascertain the resulting inadequacies that could be improved upon.

The article analyzed the current BCT GEOINT architecture through four criteria: geospatial data, communication systems, geospatial data processing, and visualization products. While the current GEOINT architecture appears to meet both the requirements for access to geospatial data as well as to possess the appropriate tools and expertise, this survey did highlight failures in both the current communications architecture as well as product development to enhance situational awareness across the staff and command teams. Through limited structure changes, COP development clarification, and GEOINT awareness and emphasis, many of these issues could be potentially mitigated.  

While this article limited the scope of its research to an exploratory survey, some insights developed here should be further explored by future research projects; for example, a more thorough assessment of geospatial tools and expertise concentrated on the separation of elements within the GEOINT Community between differing Army branches. Additionally, given the expansive role of GEOINT, research should be conducted on the feasibility of expanding the GEOINT cell’s role within a BCT given personnel and resource constraints. Through continued research and analysis into this area of research, the BCT GEOINT enterprise can be more effectively realized and reach its full potential.


  1. CW4 Thomas R. Dostie. “USAIC&FH Geospatial Intelligence Enterprise Initiatives,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, 2006:32(1):44.
  2. LTG Michael T. Flynn and BG Charles A. Flynn. “Integrating Intelligence and Information: Ten Points for the Commander,” Military Review, 2012:4.
  3. Alderton. “The Defining Decade of GEOINT.” 36.
  4. Quinn, “Army GEOINT: A Team Sport.” 13.
  5. COL Thomas R. Crabtree. “The Role of Geospatial Engineering in GEOINT,” Military Intelligence, 2007:16-18.; Dostie. “USAIC&FH Geospatial Intelligence Enterprise Initiatives,” 44-47.
  6. Jared L. Ware. “Developing a Tactical Geospatial Course for Army Engineers,” ESRI, 2016:1-10.
  7. U.S. Army Recruiting Command. “Career and Jobs.”; 2018. Accessed April 8, 2018.
  8. United States Army. “AR 115-11: Geospatial Information and Services.” Headquarters Department of Army Washington D.C.; 2014. 10-16.
  9. Cardillo. “GEOINT Basic Doctrine: Publication 1-0.” 2018. 1-2.
  10. Keith J. Masback, State of GEOINT Report. United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation; 2015:9.
  11. Conway, Cromer, and McDonough. “Leading the Way in Geospatial Intelligence.” 9.
  12. 12 Robert M. Clark and Mark M. Lowenthal. The 5 Disciplines of Intelligence Collection. London: Sage Publications; 2016. p 121.
  1. John Bolton. “Overkill: Army Mission Command Systems Inhibit Mission Command,” Small War Journals. Accessed November 1, 2018.
  2. Gary Lawrence. “A Layered Approach for Training Battle Staffs within Digital Tactical Operations Centers,” Infantry, 2013:34-38.
  3. Jen Judson. “Rethinking the Battlefield: Army Drives Toward Lighter, Smaller, Mobile Systems at NIE,” Defense News, August 1, 2017. Accessed April 20, 2018.
  4. Devon Bistarkey. “The Big ‘Common Operating’ Picture,”, May 6, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2018.
  5. Conway, Cromer, and McDonough. “Leading the Way in Geospatial Intelligence.” 14-15.
  6. Intelligence Support for Military Operations Using ArcGIS Platform. Redlands, CA: ESRI; April 2016. 5-8.
  7. United States Army. AR 350-32: Army Foundry Intelligence Training Program. Washington D.C.: Headquarters Department of Army; 2015. 1-29.
  8. Conway, Cromer, and McDonough. “Leading the Way in Geospatial Intelligence.” 15.
  9. Clark and Lowenthal. “The 5 Disciplines of Intelligence Collection.” 132.
  10. Richards. “Integrating the Army Geospatial Enterprise: Synchronizing Geospatial-Intelligence to the Dismounted Soldier.” 56.
  11. JP 2-03, IV-8.
  12. Keith Hibner and Mike Previous. “The (Un)Common Operational Picture,” Connected 3, 2011(3):1.
  13. Roberto Mugavero, Federico Belloni, and Valentina Sabato, “Geospatial Intelligence, Technological Development, and Human Interaction,” Journal of Information Privacy and Security, 2015:11:244.
  14. JP 2-03, I-2.
  15. Quinn. “Army GEOINT: A Team Sport.” 13.
  16. Murrett. GEOINT Basic Doctrine: Publication 1-0. 5.

Headline Image: A dismounted squad from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division plans for enemy contact in the Donnelly Training Area Oct. 19, 2018, during Arctic Anvil 19-01. (Army photo by John Pennell.)

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