Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines discusses the improvement and expansion of GEOINT—and where we go from here
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines is a GEOINT superfan.
That much was clear on Wednesday morning when Haines delivered a keynote address on the main stage at GEOINT 2023 in St. Louis. The seventh Senate-confirmed DNI in America’s history and the first woman to lead the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), Haines spent the first 15 minutes of her 30-minute appearance delivering prepared remarks about the importance of GEOINT both to the IC and to the nation at large.
“What I want to tell you from my perspective is how critically important GEOINT is to the national intelligence mission, and why I see that as only increasing over time, and how fundamental our partnerships are in achieving our vision for the future,” Haines told a packed room of GEOINT leaders, practitioners, and partners. “In short, I cannot overstate how fundamental your collective work is. You’re absolutely at the forefront of our competitive advantage, and one that we must retain if we are to remain capable of addressing the national security landscape we face today.”
To illustrate not only how important GEOINT is, but also how much it has evolved and improved, Haines called out some of the cutting-edge technologies that were on display at GEOINT 2023, and recalled the antiquated state of GEOINT just a few short decades ago.
“Many of the topics and challenges that you’ve talked about this week were only ideas and concepts in the not-too-distant past. Technologies like generative AI and advanced machine learning, 3D geospatial and onboard real-time motion visualization, and quantum sensing—these were just some of the many ideas that you all turned into reality,” Haines said. “And some here remember that during the first Gulf War, it took hours and sometimes days to get data from overhead reconnaissance to commanders in the field, with those images far inferior to what is commercially available today. Since then, we’ve come a long way.”
It’s not only remarkable that GEOINT has changed so much, Haines indicated, but also fortunate.
“Today, we find ourselves at another inflection point in history, one where our choices and our ability to maintain our advantage will have global and even generational consequences,” continued Haines, who noted that the national security landscape has evolved along with technology, pivoting from one that revolves primarily around terrorist threats—as was the case when the Office of the DNI (ODNI) was established in 2005—to one whose principal concerns are Great Power Competition and “shared global challenges” like climate change.
What makes the modern threat landscape so challenging, Haines proposed, is that it’s incredibly diverse and increasingly unpredictable.
That’s where data comes in: The more information the IC has, the more likely it is to foresee the unforeseeable.
“A fundamental element of our capacity to do our jobs is the extraordinary degree to which we are integrating and fusing data from every corner of our intelligence enterprise—especially GEOINT,” Haines said. “Our support to policymakers, operators, and warfighters is critically dependent on our ability to look beyond the immediate horizon to ensure the Intelligence Community is well-postured to address emerging threats, promote national resilience and innovation, defend our competitive advantage, and promote shared prosperity.”
Given the number and severity of national security threats today, and the limited size and resources of government, the IC cannot see “beyond the immediate horizon” without help from commercial industry, Haines said.
“The kinds of information, technology, and relationships that are needed to be effective in the future have expanded, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” she said. “We simply cannot do what we are doing today, nor can we evolve as we need to into the future, without the commercial sector.”
Haines called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) a leader in the area of commercial partnerships thanks to programs like its Global Enhanced-Geospatial Delivery (G-EGD) program, which brings time-sensitive information to more than 400,000 users and 125 programs across the U.S. government.
“Balancing tasks between commercial and government systems, sharing information more easily with allies and partners, and supporting both foundational and crises operations with commercial GEOINT has never been so good as it is today,” said Haines, who cited hyperspectral imagery and 3D immersive GEOINT products as commercial capabilities that she’s looking forward to in the future.
In the immediate term, however, she said the IC’s top priorities include the shift from air-to-space-based platforms and “improving interoperability amongst systems that collect data across domains, fusing them into integrated products” that are tailored to the needs of IC customers.
“These trends are key to the Intelligence Community’s future architecture,” continued Haines, who said talent acquisition and workforce development also are key to IC success. “In this dynamic and competitive threat environment, I believe it is crucial that we develop the right relationships; inculcate the diverse, inclusive, and equitable talent that we need; and establish integrating mechanisms to support them.”
Talent was a point Haines doubled down on during the second half of her appearance, which took the form of a Q&A with U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation CEO Ronda Schrenk.
“Recruiting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce is the absolute top priority,” Haines said. “Because we all recognize that our success is fundamentally attached to the people that we have.”
During her 15-minute exchange with Schrenk, Haines also touched on the IC’s Annual Threat Assessment and on the importance of multi-INT fusion. Of the former, she said a key takeaway from it is the importance of allies and partners to U.S. interests. Of the latter, she said intelligence integration is a “constantly evolving process” that has come a long way, but has a long way yet to go.
Haines’ parting words were directed at the next generation of Team GEOINT—in particular, the young women who will follow the path that she has trailblazed as the IC’s first woman leader.
“Don’t be afraid to fail and make mistakes,” she said. “What I have seen is that great people who I respect…also make mistakes. They also fail. And what is most extraordinary about them is the way they react. When they do so, they acknowledge it, they try to learn lessons from it, and they move on.”