Economic Competition and the Role of GEOINT

Exploring the use GEOINT to understand the world economic stage and predict behavior


By David Gauthier, NGA; Mark Phillips, The MITRE Corporation; and Steven Truitt, Descartes Labs

Headlines concerning the use of national levers of power are increasingly focused on economics, relationships, and nuance. While diplomatic, information, and military levers of power are often showcased for obvious effect, it is frequently the unheralded lever of national power—economic power—that has a profound global effect and is now taking its place at the forefront of national debates. With nations flexing their strength, it is vitally important for decision-makers to be fully informed of the challenges, uncertainty, opportunities, and risks inherent in this complex, interrelated world. Our leaders “must come to grips with the reality that the geopolitical landscape is populated with countries content to use the modern tools of economics and finance without regard”[1] for the societal norms we take for granted. After all, the use of these national levers of power can precipitate worldwide successes or calamities.

Likewise, in the boardrooms of the corporate world and the dorm rooms of the start-up world, the focus on the interconnectedness of the economy is proliferating. Discussions about micro-shifts in the economy, incentive hacking, and massive scaling of applications are common in the commercial world. This new focus is a direct parallel of what plays out among nation-states, and increasingly the commercial and governmental economic moves converge. However, while disruptive capabilities in the commercial world often spell financial success, disruptive events among nation-states can rapidly devolve into more overt threats to national security. And the lack of economic stability in one region can have detrimental effects to U.S. national security.

Therefore, framing the question: How does the U.S. use geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to understand the world economic stage, predict behavior, and broaden the trade space associated with national security for U.S. and partner decision-makers?

The role of GEOINT has been applied infrequently to economic analysis, especially on a global scale. Secure and masked supply chains, secretive business relationships, and illicit demand for goods further complicate the challenges facing GEOINT analysis. Maps and charts are not yet being made to reflect these global economic forces and the context that accompanies them; GEOINT services do not currently publish and update maps with detailed economic data placed in context for improved decision-making. This is a severe limitation to geospatial analysis and global understanding. However, geospatial technology is a powerful tool to assess context, monitor activity, and provide understanding—the fundamental components needed for decision-makers. Understanding impact and forecasting responses through geospatially integrated data provides a common operating picture of economic actions and effects.

GEOINT may be the new key element to enable nations and companies alike to understand the world economic stage, predict outcomes, and broaden the trade space for more diverse actions. The increased availability of GEOINT provides insights that support the integration of information and decision-making across diplomatic, information, military, and economic levers of power.

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

The Effects of GEOINT

The drivers of competitive advantage are becoming everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Whether the competition is in the boardroom or the war room, it is increasingly important to uncover this information in time to act and seize an advantage. Data is the leverage point and the greatest weapon in our arsenal. Whomever controls the right data—and knows how to use it—will have an unmatched advantage. Organizations have picked up on this trend and are learning to exhaustively mine data sources for insights. But when data is being created at a rate far beyond our comprehension, it is difficult to know how to mine the most value out of our vast data resources.

In the economic arena, our nation’s mission is to understand where to put leverage, or how to execute policies, actions, and deals for the best macro position possible. We need to discover and understand long-term financial trends hidden below the noise in the global economy. To make these discoveries a single information domain—nor a single analytic formula—is not sufficient as the complexity is too great and our natural human comprehension too lacking.

GEOINT is not simply the analysis of any particular medium such as imagery, but today refers to any data which is or can be geo-referenced. Most data, within all domains, can be both temporally and geospatially referenced, giving that data unique exploitable features and enabling it with greater context. Time scales are a significant factor since unlike the immediacy of military actions, economic actions may take years for true impact to be identified. If we apply the techniques of GEOINT collection and analysis, the analyst and decision-maker can begin to understand the impact of economic actions through time, space, and context.

Geo-referencing every piece of data and linking it with any other information contained in the data is the fundamental first step in understanding the vast sea of data available. The value of GEOINT is apparent once all available data is aligned against one frame of reference. Waldo Tobler, a noted geographer and cartographer, stated as his first law of geography:

“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”[2]

The ability to gather and aggregate data in a single environment allows one to see more connections, leading to a richer understanding of activities and events. Connected data contributes to the depth of the subsequent analysis by allowing analysts and decision-makers to examine and evaluate the data through time and space to understand the spatiotemporal effects of their actions.[3] Connected data leads us to Tobler’s second law of geography:

“The phenomenon external to an area of interest affects what goes on inside.”[4]

Here, we affirm a hidden power of spatiotemporal reasoning is to understand and predict economic action and activities across and beyond geographic boundaries. Analytic frameworks, underpinned by GEOINT, provide a unique perspective through which to understand the extended economic landscape.

The nature of GEOINT enables cross-domain analysis so experts from diverse fields can easily work together. The differences among them lies in the application of the data analytics and the skill sets of the analysts. Data scientists, regional experts, traditional geospatial analysts, and most significantly economic analysts can collaborate to create information advantage. These teams must explore the data for causality and trends, the goal of which is to provide decision-makers with a superior understanding of the economic environment, a perspective on the impacts and implications of economic actions, and the ability to see global effects. By gaining global geospatial and temporal understanding of an economic action, the government can realize a multitude of options. For instance, we might predict a response to an economic action, understand systematic weak points to stimulate a “telling” action for future exploitation, or build resilient economic systems that benefit multiple parties through long-term prosperity.

No one nation can do this alone; the U.S. must work with partners and allies who have access to data and analytic skills otherwise unavailable. Other entities will have different economic concerns and levers which may be in alignment or in contention with others’ policies and action. Regardless, the benefits far exceed the disadvantages when economic insight is the shared goal.

The World Economic Landscape

The nature of the world today, especially in the economic realm, is summed up in two words: “global interconnectivity.” Changes in economics on a local scale can have regional or global effects while global changes can have real, and often detrimental, effects on a local level. The world saw this global effect several years ago as the collapse of the economy in Greece almost brought down the economic stability of the European Union. World economic systems are changing; some collapse and are reborn with new partners, some are founded from whole cloth as a technology or service appears. U.S. ability to understand, engage, and influence these economic systems is vital to national interests.

As the nation looks at economics as a means of projecting national will, we must be able to detect and understand the context within which a nation’s actions will be taken and the global and local implications for those actions. As futurist Parag Khanna writes in his book Connectography, “Economic coercion precedes military hostilities in today’s geopolitical maneuvering. Even though interdependence can be weaponized through financial sanctions, cyber-attacks, and supply chain disruptions, escalation is far costlier for both sides today than a century ago because they immediately harm one’s own businesses operating in the rival country.”[5]

The understanding of context, be it local, regional, or global is fundamental to understanding the influences of diplomatic, information, military, and economic levers of national power. Context is defined as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.”[6] The underlying nature of the human domain (who we are, what we do, who we do it with, and under what conditions)[7] so permeates decision-making that it cannot be ignored.[8] The global context for economic activity is inextricably tied to the application of the other levers of national power, and most commonly to shifts in military preparations and action. Using GEOINT analysis to understand these global shifts is important as it indicates changes in regional context; context that has the potential to alter the desired effect of an economic action on the part of a nation-state.

By way of example, the analytic team will assess the economic impacts of over-population, resource constraints, and climate change. The geospatial analyst needs to be aware of local violence, disease, and famine. As the population shifts to urban areas and megacities, the geospatial analyst will need to quantify the local effects of sanctions or tariffs—will the population shift elsewhere if a factory closes or reduces production? Finally, with China, Russia, and other nation-states taking economic and military action in the “gray zone,” the state between peace and war, it is even more important that geospatial data be analyzed for adversary effects and for counteractions to help protect the economies of the U.S. and its allies.

The World Economic Landscape: The Security Perspective

The U.S. National Security Strategy[9] and National Defense Strategy[10] both emphasize nations are part of a competitive space; not at war and not at peace. A whole of government approach leveraging the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments of national power must be considered to gain an advantage. The fact of continuous competition somewhere between peace and war now more than ever demands an outsized emphasis on the understanding and use of deliberate economic actions to further national strategy. Frequently underutilized, GEOINT is vital to providing options to decision-makers as they pursue different courses of action, frequently with unintended consequences.

As economies change, so do the power structures within a country or region. Shifts in traditional regional boundaries, demographics, and opportunists are all manifest in economic forces. As Khanna also writes in Connectography, “Countries run by supply chains, cities that run themselves, communities that know no borders, and companies with more power than governments—all are evidence of the shift toward a new kind of pluralistic world system. The ranks of such global authorities that belong on our maps.”[11] 

The situation has only become more exasperated in the new global economy, where everything from blood diamonds, coffee, munitions, computer software and hardware, prescription and illegal drugs, retail goods, and organic foods are traded globally. This creates immense challenges as the U.S. and its partners attempt to understand these activities.

Within the competitive space, the U.S., our partners, and allies face new threats, old threats in disguise, and complex new classes of threats behaving in unexpected ways. Threats take on new meaning in the world of economic influence. The recently released Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff[12] provides the following example as an illustration of how the levers of power are employed:

“Russia’s aggressing against Ukraine in 2014 highlights how Moscow employs a combination of diplomatic, informational, military (both conventional and irregular), and economic means to achieve its aims, the precise mixture varies with the situation but seems calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response by the West.”

Another example was recently published in a U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network Advisory indicating how GEOINT analysis could take a primary role in generating understanding of the economic impacts of a nation-state’s actions:

“The Iranian regime has long used front and shell companies to exploit financial systems around the world to generate revenues and transfer funds in support of malign conduct, which includes support to terrorist groups, ballistic missile development, human rights abuses, support to the Syrian regime, and other destabilizing actions targeted by U.S. sanctions.”[13]

Another recent advisory stated:

“Red flag of illicit activity: Inconsistencies between shipping related documents and maritime database entries that are used for conducting due diligence. For example, the maritime database may indicate that a vessel is docked in an Iranian port, even though this information is not included in the shipping documents submitted to the financial institutions for payment processing.”[14]

The U.S. Intelligence Community needs to detect and understand the shifts in demographics, loyalties, and resources in the virtual and physical world that are frequently the first indicators of the long-term implications of a nation’s economic actions. It is also vital that GEOINT be used to unmask economic activities and reveal deception in the economic space when it occurs. Finally, the government needs this visibility for clarity to provide decision-makers with the understanding needed to take additional actions or to assess the effects of a recent action. It is within this economic landscape that GEOINT can be most powerful.

The World Economic Landscape: The Growth Perspective

The counterpoint to the security perspective on economics is one of growth and general improvement. The underlying thesis of a competitive environment stays constant, however, the outcome of multiple parties competing can result in universal improvements. In market competition, the steady tide of improvement stemming from this competition lifts everyone over time, even if the relative successes change.

This view of the world economic landscape is as a game with relative scoring and universal successes. There is incentive to win and out-compete other players, as the winner is first to newfound riches, comforts, and experiences. However, all other parties also benefit as evidenced by the near elimination of extreme poverty,[15] the increasingly rapid adoption and diffusion of new technologies, and progress eradicating or mitigating many diseases. At first glance, these may seem the accomplishments of governments and nonprofits, however at the core they have all been driven by technologies made inexpensive and easily available through profit-seeking behaviors.

To see the effects of technology, demographics, and overall context on the economy and regional stability, Africa is a prime example. In order to increase communications and speed the stand-up and stability of businesses, nations in Africa are using technology to great effect. For instance, rather than install traditional phone lines, many nations have skipped several iterations of technology and installed cellular service. African nations have rapidly moved toward digital currency in order to participate in the global market. African nations are also making strategic moves with regard to their natural resources with nation-state partners, increasing regional stability, solidifying trading partnerships, developing infrastructures, and increasing quality of life for their populations. These actions, which also reduce the loss of skilled populations to other nations, has placed these regions on the world stage as global strategic influencers, something unthinkable 15 years ago. The use of geospatial analysis to monitor and assess these changes is an obvious choice.


In the era of great power competition, the U.S. and its allies increasingly face a wide spectrum of threats across political, military, and economic elements. Today, more than ever before, macroeconomics and microeconomics are levers of national security that can be influenced by nation-states, corporations, and illicit networks. Subtle changes to global economic systems and power structures may work in favor of malicious actors and undermine democracy and the free action of the people. We must be increasingly vigilant with respect to economic indicators and activity at both the national and local levels. These threats may only become visible through the lens of geospatially integrated data. It is vitally important that the whole of government apply the discipline of GEOINT as part of their normal processes to shed light on underlying relationships, to understand the nature of supply lines fueling the global economy and military operations, and to discern shifts in economic power, addressing dangerous threats to our livelihood and national security.


  1. Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris. War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2016, p 13.
  2. “Tobler’s first law of geography.” Accessed December 6, 2018.
  3. Patrick Biltgen and Steve Ryan. Activity Based Intelligence: Principles and Application. Boston: Artech House; 2016.
  4. “Tober’s first law of geography.” Accessed December 6, 2018.
  5. Parag Khanna. Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 2016. p 150.
  6. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Accessed October 16, 2018.
  7. The Human Dimension: Analyzing the Roll of the Human Element in the Operational Environment. Arlington, VA: United States of America: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; 2010.
  8. Activity-Based Intelligence Knowledge Management. Arlington, VA: United States of America: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; 2011.
  9. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Office of the President of the United States. Government Printing Office; December 2017. p 2.
  10. A Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy., Office of the Secretary of Defense. Government Printing Office; December 2017. p 2.
  11. Parag Khanna. Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 2016. p 58.
  12. Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; March 16, 2018. p 3. Approved for Public Release.
  13. FinCEN Advisory, FIN-2018-A006. October 11, 2018. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. U.S. Government. p 1.
  14. FinCEN Advisory, FIN-2018-A006. October 11, 2018. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. U.S. Government. p 13.

Headline Image: U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael G. Dana and members of the U.S. Armed Forces ring the opening bell to commemorate Veterans Day at the New York Stock Exchange on October 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Dario Cantatore/NYSE Euronext.) 

Posted in: Contributed   Tagged in: 2019 S&FOG Report, Analysis, Civil, Intelligence

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