An examination of geospatial intelligence in selected NATO countries and NATO itself


By Dr. Todd Bacastow, Penn State; Dan Steiner, Orion Mapping; Stephen Handwerk; Dr. Gregory Thomas; and the Penn State Comparative GEOINT Seminar [1]

Research for this article was completed as part of Penn State’s Comparative GEOINT educational series during the summer of 2019. The course included scholars from Penn State University and NOVA Information Management School (NOVA IMS), the School of Statistics and Information Management of Universidade NOVA de Lisboa.

This article is an examination of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in selected NATO countries and NATO itself. The acronym GEOINT is used throughout this paper as an abbreviation for “geospatial intelligence” and is not intended to connote a particular national definition, business process, or tradecraft. The research is multifaceted because of the two distinct parts examined. The first is a study and summary of GEOINT in the individual NATO countries of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The second examines GEOINT in NATO as an organization. Each NATO country researched has some capability to produce GEOINT-like products, but the GEOINT that NATO produces is largely a product of the NATO Intelligence Fusion Centre (NIFC). The key takeaway here was that the production of GEOINT in a NATO member country is not necessarily the same as GEOINT in NATO. “National” and “NATO” GEOINT are fundamentally different phenomena. In fact, probably only a few NATO nations have GEOINT tradecraft that resembles that of the NIFC. Our research found good reason for this; a country’s GEOINT tradecraft belongs to the nation’s history, culture, and available resources. NATO GEOINT tradecraft belongs to NATO’s history, diplomacy, and the U.S. support of the NIFC. We believe an understanding of both the individual countries and NATO are essential if one is to fully understand GEOINT in NATO.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)/Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique nord (OTAN) is a military alliance that has two official languages, English and French, as defined in the Articles of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO/OTAN was founded in 1949 and today is a group of 29 countries from Europe and North America organized to mutually protect its members. By explicit policy, a “NATO decision” is a collective decision and the expression of the shared will of all 29 member countries since all decisions are made by consensus. This “NATO decision” is not reflective of GEOINT produced by the NIFC.

The task of researching NATO was unexpectedly challenging. Despite the right-to-information laws of many NATO member nations, their laws do not supersede long-established and highly restrictive NATO Security of Information (SOI) requirements that the participant countries must meet for membership.[2] There is also the tendency in NATO to defer to the most restrictive SOI requirement. NATO’s web of intergovernmental agreements further restricts even basic information.

GEOINT in the NATO Member Countries

Communicating and researching GEOINT concepts is easier for English-speaking countries because the predominant conferences (USGIF GEOINT Symposium and Defence Geospatial Intelligence) and literature are conducted in and published in English-language journals, magazines, conference proceedings, and books. However, many NATO member countries are non-English speaking, and the literature that originates within the country is not published, and, where it is published, the terminology is not consistent from a linguistic point of view. Since language and culture are intertwined, one cannot understand GEOINT in a culture and tradecraft without accessing its language. For example, the specific search terms used in researching a nation’s GEOINT culture were a problem. Incorrectly, our researchers often assumed they would find information using the search term “GEOINT.” Such searches were unproductive for many NATO countries, such as Turkey. To solve this, the researchers explored parallel topics such as mapping, imagery, and military geography and often found a wealth of information. But this gave rise to another question: “Now that we know what’s happening, how do we determine if the country does GEOINT?”

Answering this question is a particular challenge when a nation does not explicitly use the term “geospatial intelligence.” In the U.S., geospatial intelligence is defined by law, but in some countries, such as France, there is no specific term.[3] Addressing this problem, our research used a “three-way test” to determine if a nation developed GEOINT as an intelligence product.[4] The three-way test asks the following questions:

  1. Does the result pertain to events that occur in time and space in relation to the Earth?
  2. Does the result inform a decision-maker of human actions, objectives, or capabilities?
  3. Does the result provide an advantage over a competitor or adversary that might withhold or offer deceptive information?

For the purposes of this study, if the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then the country, agency, or product can be said to be using, producing, or containing GEOINT. As stated in the introduction, each of the NATO member counties researched had some organic capability to produce GEOINT-like products.

Each of the NATO member countries listed was examined with regard to their community, business process, and work. While they all produced GEOINT, no two countries approached GEOINT exactly the same way. The countries were remarkably similar in GEOINT missions, supporting military/national defense, public safety/law enforcement, disaster response, peacekeeping, and, occasionally, less common missions like cyber geography and meteorology. All of the countries had a history of geographic studies and mapping with the strongest legacy of GEOINT-like practices in the U.K., Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Portugal.

GEOINT practices in the individual NATO member nations have evolved from centuries of interrelated geographic thought and often confrontational histories. In recent years, the influence of the U.S. is evident in the technology, systems, and tradecraft. Clear collaboration occurs within the boundaries of established bilateral and multipartite agreements. The commoditization of GEOINT tradecraft and technology, such as high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, has created much more of an environment of parity among the NATO countries. Yet, research found there remains a diversity of technology and level of program development within NATO members.

A Critical View of Our Findings

In our goal to identify the process, methods, and products of GEOINT for selected member countries and NATO, three archetypical national structures emerged:

  • Project: An example is France’s Centre de Renseignement Géospatial Interarmées (CRGI), where GEOINT is developed in service centers that are oriented around project-based work.
  • Distributed: An example is Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) working with the Strategic Surveillance Command (KSA). Work is characterized by horizontal information and data flows created to take advantage of competencies across organizations.
  • Federated: An example is the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where there is unity of authority for the production of GEOINT.

These three structures can be more generally expressed as enterprise and ad hoc GEOINT organizations. An enterprise organization, as illustrated by the distributed and federated structures, is subdivided into various units, which are grouped together specifically to produce GEOINT products. The ad hoc organization, as shown by the project structure, organizes for a specific problem and is often not intended as a permanent grouping of dedicated units to produce GEOINT products. These structures may bear little relationship to the quality of the GEOINT produced. We also suspect there is an undescribed “X factor” that seems to make some ad hoc organizations exceptionally good.

Some countries (e.g., the U.S. and U.K.) had strong affiliations with industry. Here, contractors worked alongside government employees and across the intelligence enterprise. This included consultancies, integrators, and software developers. Affiliations with academia are more limited, and the U.S. seems to have led in promoting a relationship with academia. Many countries have international bilateral and multipartite agreements (e.g., FVEY, Multinational Geospatial Co-production Program, European Union Satellite Centre).

Recent history and intelligence oversight were linked. In several countries, intelligence services that exist today were only created after the fall of recent dictatorships. While these nations have moved toward intelligence practices similar to the longer established and democratic NATO member nations, there is still a particular cultural resentment and distrust in the former one-party states toward intelligence due to the history of oppression.[5]

It was difficult to identify the business process of particular countries beyond that of the U.S. The most commonly referred to high-level business model was the intelligence cycle. Often cited in the U.S. was the TPED (Task, Process, Exploit, Disseminate) process, but the TPPU (Task, Process, Post, Use) is also found. In all countries, the overall business process was a “system of systems” including people, systems, and subprocesses that provided context and meaning to the raw data. There was an identified trend toward technology to process the massive amounts of available geospatial data, creating a demand for workers with technical and analytical skills. Some nations, such as the U.S., fill the need with public-private partnerships between the government’s GEOINT Community and academia. Other countries, such as the U.K., prepare workers both “in-house” and in public academic institutions.

Using the definition of tradecraft as a set of methods, techniques, and skills that form the science and art of producing GEOINT, the nature of tradecraft in the NATO countries we examined was difficult to identify. While it can be said that each country was unique, we also observed that emerging tradecraft is influenced by NGA in the U.S. There is also evidence of a general movement toward viewing GEOINT in the character of all-source fusion. In the acquisition of technology, there was a movement away from government off-the-shelf (GOTS) and NATO off-the-shelf (NOTS) toward commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. Where present, the expansion of national space and UAV programs are points of pride and provide a source of independence and economic opportunity (e.g., Canadian RADARSAT Constellation, Belgian Helios, German SAR-Lupe, Portuguese PoSAT, and Turkish Türksat6A).

This experience suggests replicating our examination of NATO GEOINT using an evaluation model based on a systems science approach. The systematiska utvärderingar (SUV) (systematic evaluations) model is a framework based on systems thinking and examines the span of activity. The SUV model partitions an evaluation into seven categories and three levels. The seven categories, selected based on systems science and systems thinking, are goal-seeking, hierarchy and relations, differentiation and entropy, inputs, transformation process, outputs, and regulation. The model also provides an evaluation at the three levels of organization, technologic, and individual.[6]


In 2008, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released an unclassified version of a 1984 article titled, “Design for Dysfunction, NATO Intelligence: A Contradiction in Terms,” in Studies in Intelligence. As the title suggests, it described NATO Intelligence as dysfunctional, highlighting the lack of intelligence integration in NATO.[7] Since then, NATO adapted to the challenges with the creation of the NATO Intelligence Fusion Center (NIFC) at RAF Molesworth, U.K. The NIFC allows NATO nations to jointly develop, fuse, and share information in support of NATO out-of-area operations.

NATO’s Military Committee chartered the NIFC in October 2006 as a military-led, U.S.-sponsored “NATO Military Body with International Military Headquarters Status” to improve operational intelligence cooperation and support the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The U.S., as a framework nation and the provider of classified and open-source information, integrated non-U.S. personnel into the NIFC and incorporated intelligence input from member states to produce non-agreed all-source intelligence.[8] The goal was expressed by Gen. James L. Jones when he opened the NIFC as, “to share, not to protect” information.[9] Significantly, if NATO did not support the NIFC’s creation, the U.S. was prepared to establish a center as a U.S. initiative.

Then, as it is today, not all NATO nations are integrated among the NIFC elements. The U.S. holds leadership. The various nation elements are dispersed with no compartmentalization in the NIFC building. However, there are “National Rooms” outside the NIFC building for secure communication with their respective national assets, supporting the necessity and value of reachback while formalizing the process of intelligence sharing. By charter, the NIFC does not produce “agreed intelligence.” This is to say that an “NIFC analysis” is not necessarily the shared expression of all who contribute to the NIFC’s work since the analysis does not represent total agreement. However, NIFC’s products are shared with all NATO members as an incentive for NIFC personnel to cooperate and member countries to provide professional staff.

Joseph Gordon, in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Intelligence, states that “perhaps the biggest volume of Request for Information (RFI) responses has been for various geospatial products, an excellent example of the NIFC’s ability to harness U.S. intelligence support directly to NATO.” Again, according to Gordon, the “U.S. [NGA] works closely with the NIFC supplying analysts and data to support the mission.” NGA views the NIFC as an organization, “where analysts from NATO nations work together on critical GEOINT products, an excellent environment in which to teach each other and develop tradecraft.”[10]


To understand NATO GEOINT, it is essential to understand two distinct parts. One part is GEOINT conducted in NATO member countries. The second is GEOINT produced in NATO. In studying the NATO member countries of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.S., we found that “national” and “NATO” GEOINT are fundamentally different phenomena. We found that a country’s GEOINT tradecraft belongs to the nation’s history, culture, and available resources. This is contrasted with NATO GEOINT tradecraft, which belongs to NATO’s history, policies, and the U.S. support of the NIFC. The work illustrates how studies of GEOINT organizations have important value. Above and beyond this, the impact of a mixed group of international researchers was strategic and enlightening. One of the primary outcomes of the course was to break down the boundaries between academic institutions and reveal cultural insights among the international GEOINT community.


There are three primary recommendations that emerge from this work. First, educators need to promote the study of GEOINT organizations to better understand their behaviors, practices, and processes. Second, a mixed group of international learners and researchers should be encouraged. The international mix of students that participated in the course created relationships among academic institutions and developed shared cultural insights. Last, there is a need to improve the means of investigating GEOINT organizations and capabilities. A systems science approach might better capture the set of methods, techniques, and skills that form the tradecraft of producing GEOINT.

  1. The Penn State Comparative GEOINT course included participants from Penn State University and NOVA Information Management School (NOVA IMS) of Universidade NOVA de Lisboa. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government or NATO.
  2. Alasdair Roberts. “NATO, Secrecy, and the Right to Information.” East European Constitutional Review. 2003:Vols. 11.4/12.1, Fall 2002/Winter 2003. Available at SSRN:
  3. Frédéric Hernoust, Thierry Rousselin, David Perlbarg, Nicolas Saporiti, Jean-Philippe Morisseau, and Jean-Daniel Testé. “GEOINT on the March: A French Perspective.” 2018 State and Future of GEOINT Report, 5-9.
  4. Todd S. Bacastow. Comparative GEOINT Seminar. Penn State University. 2019.
  5. João David. Personal communications. 2019.
  6. Paivi Jokela, Peter Karlsudd, and Martin Östlund. “Theory, Method and Tools for Evaluation Using a Systems-based Approach.” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems Evaluation. 2008:11(3):197.
  7. Edward Atkeson. “From the Archives-1984: Design for Dysfunction—NATO Intelligence: A Contradiction in Terms.” Studies in Intelligence. Volume 53, Number 1. (CIA: 2009). center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/ (accessed October 16, 2012), 1.
  8. Jan Ballast. “Merging Pillars, Changing Cultures: NATO and the Future of Intelligence Cooperation Within the Alliance.” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 2018:31(4):720. https://
  9. Bryan Mitchell. “NATO Intelligence Fusion Center opens in England.” Stars and Stripes. 2006.
  10. Joseph Gordon. “NATO Intelligence Fusion Centre (NIFC),” in Gregory Moore, ed., Encyclopedia of U.S. Intelligence. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014. Vol. 2, pp. 647–648.

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