GEOINT on the March: A French Perspective

Recommendations to address French GEOINT’s main challenges


The French Defense Situation

As a former colonial power involved in many conflicts, France has developed an important military geography culture and tradition. The end of the Cold War followed by the Gulf War in 1990 underlined the strategic role of imagery intelligence and military geography. Both marked the development of Earth observation capabilities to provide self-assessment for French defense with satellite imagery, accurate maps, and standard data products to power army command and weapon systems. When the concept of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) appeared 10 to 15 years ago, the appropriation in France came from small, independent actors who tried to combine imagery intelligence with geographic data (secret services, special forces, or industry SMEs). And French manpower were actors (and sometimes a driving force) in the development of GEOINT at SatCen (the European Union Satellite Center), which played a pioneering role in Europe since 2009. But in recent years, the growing needs of French military forces to benefit relevant and actionable intelligence products pushed the Direction du Renseignement Militaire (DRM) to get new capabilities and empower GEOINT in France. Mainly (and also publicly) carried by DRM and Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), the rise of GEOINT as a discipline in France was directly influenced by the American approach and experiences. By creating a center dedicated to GEOINT in 2014, DRM showed its will to create a joint synergy inside the French Defense and initiated a transformation of French military intelligence and geography. Named Centre de Renseignement Géospatial Interarmées (CRGI), this center intends to rationalize the institutional means and develop tradecraft for multisource data fusion, the same way DGSE has operated since 2009.

Today, French GEOINT is shared between two main structures: military geography, which is coordinated by the Bureau Géographie, Hydrographie, Océanographie, Météorologie (BGHOM), and military intelligence, which is coordinated by DRM. Paradoxically and unlike the approach of many allies, the arrival of this new center didn’t lead the French Defense establishment to merge these traditional structures. If this choice is officially supposed to preserve the autonomy of each service and provide better coordination throughout CRGI, it underlines divergences between geography and intelligence about GEOINT. Like the National Imagery and Mapping Agency—the U.S. predecessor to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), DRM faces difficulties that can be explained by cultural differences between these two traditional domains and their different methods of supporting the armed forces.

Defense Industry

For the French defense industry, GEOINT transformation was not a straightforward process. For a few actors, the change was first only cosmetic, renaming former imagery intelligence (IMINT) or GEO departments under a newly branded GEOINT flag. But for industry leaders involved in the U.S. and international market (like Spot Image, today renamed Airbus DS), the transition appeared necessary to interact with NGA, but also with Google or other commercial giants. Since 2012, we see a move with the creation of new small or medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups trying to develop dedicated offers, or existing SMEs changing their business model. But, despite actions from the Defense Procurement Agency (through its labs), the level of coordination and cooperation among large defense contractors (Airbus, Thales, Safran, Dassault Aviation) and small newcomers remains to be improved. The size of the French market is too small and pushes French companies toward servicing the European market.

Education and Training

France was a pioneer in GEOINT education with the creation of the GEOINT course at Mines ParisTech, one of the top French engineering schools, as early as 1999. The GEOINT discipline has a strong military connotation in France, which did not help its academic development. Regarding education for future GEOINT analysts, France has a strong IMINT background (through CF3I since 1993) and until now relied on classical degrees in remote sensing, GIS, economic intelligence, data analytics, or geo-decision. Terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and 2016 had a large impact on public opinion and pushed universities to reconsider the importance of intelligence as a discipline. The first French master’s degree in GEOINT started in September 2017, as a cooperation between Paris 1 University and the Intelligence Campus of the Ministry of Defense (MoD).

Research and Development

Even if GEOINT as a research topic has been seldom recognized until now in France, our country relies on its large Space and especially Earth Observation expertise (through the Spot, Helios, Pléiades, CSO/MUSIS legacy), and a strong research and development field in geographic information.

As GEOINT requires the management of huge amounts of data in various formats, contents, and big data solutions, it benefits, as elsewhere, from the incredible appeal driven by new economy professional and mass-market developments. In early 2017, the French government identified 180 start-ups and 70 academic laboratories involved in artificial intelligence (AI), and launched a national plan to develop this domain, which impacts military applications. AI seems to be a promising solution to face the challenge of GEOINT and smartly manage huge amounts of data. France has numerous assets in AI that have already attracted many corporate laboratories to the country (Facebook, Huawei, Sony, etc.). Thematic actors play an important role as well. For instance, the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel leads an impressive program to identify original information from copies and altered data, and set up both academic researches and a big data platform that capitalizes and analyzes the whole information produced by French media during a year. Such platforms match with one of the main GEOINT challenges: Enhance the automatic research, collection, and analysis of huge raw information sources, separate original from copy, capitalize it, and make them easily accessible to analysts.

Looking at the diversity of research initiatives, one of the key challenges will be to organize connections between domains and to allow defense and GEOINT to benefit from those technological assets and more globally share the costs of the essential and expensive infrastructure, enhance the skills, and develop the required tools. The Intelligence Campus, the new intelligence innovation cluster started in 2016 by DRM, aims to provide a common ground for defense contractors, innovators, researchers, academics, and students willing to embrace intelligence careers. That kind of initiative should help create a synergy and raise awareness of start-ups with potential interest in the Intelligence Community.

International Cooperation

For France, international cooperation is advanced and fruitful in the main GEOINT elements of geography and intelligence.

For geography, it is first and foremost focused on co-production programs that allow the sharing of a heavy workload that no individual country, not even the U.S., could achieve alone. These co-productions have also been a driving force for standardization and normalization, with positive consequences for interoperability. But working on joint programs in the long run also has multiple positive impacts on geospatial operational exchanges.

Intelligence relies on two main mechanisms:

  • Bilateral exchange in which each partner benefits from its counterpart’s areas of expertise. Africa is a good example for French strengths. Here, exchanges are on a give-and-take basis.
  • Multinational intelligence exchanges under NATO, the EU umbrella, or through international coalitions gathered for military operations.

In both cases, national sovereignty supersedes international cooperation.

Allied cooperation in GEOINT is ongoing and will be bred from GEO and INT cooperation expertise and procedures. The French involvement, although new, allows the country to join a restricted club. SatCen played a decisive role in the process of sharing tools, methods, and training at the European level, and French cooperation with this center helps national progress.

But this positive view must be balanced, as we already see negative factors. First, for allies/partners, U.S. investment and seniority in the field creates fears they will not catch up on the technological side and will be forced to use U.S. turnkey solutions without being able to develop a national (or even European) industry. This feeling seems to be shared by European countries that developed a strong defense industrial policy to protect their national companies. Concerns cover new technologies such as big data, AI, data mining, robotics, and massive intelligence. Currently, required human and financial resources could seem out of reach for European budgets, if only to be able to exchange information. The same fears appear between major European partners (like France or the UK) and smaller European partners. GEOINT as a discipline, using all these new techniques, could lead to a new divide between countries, while one of its goals is to reinforce information sharing.

Civilian and Business Appropriation

Considering the GEOINT field in its largest definition (production of relevant information and geospatial analysis for decision-makers), most French companies are “dealing” with GEOINT. Insurance, (geo)marketing, logistics, finance, social networks, advertising, security, defense, etc., know the benefit they can gain from the discipline. Consequently, many companies in France are seriously pursuing GEOINT, but most of the time without naming it such. And those businesses seldom interact with defense contractors, handling most of their needs with ICT companies or GIS software providers.

Civilian and business community investment in the GEOINT field is proportional to potential returns on investment. When a financial trader invests in geospatial insight superiority tools, it should be able to quantify precisely the benefits gained from this competitive edge.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety and to read this article with citations. 

French GEOINT, Main Challenges

Words, Their Translation, and (Lack of) Definition

Since the 16th century, intelligence has developed a double meaning in English: capacities of the mind; and information, information processing, and espionage. In French, there are two different words: “intelligence” for the capacities of the mind; and “renseignement” for information. Hence, the use of “geospatial intelligence” or “GEOINT” in French leads to multiple misunderstandings. Additionally, most early adopters in France were defense contractors eager to describe their former GEO and IMINT business under a fancier name. The translation issue, paired with the lack of formal education and definitions, led to use of the term GEOINT, without a clear and shared meaning. This has evolved since 2013, with the organization of seminars gathering military, academic, and business experts on GEOINT issues and the first French “Convention GEOINT” in June 2016 at Creil Air Base. But we still lack a French “GEOINT for Dummies” book allowing everybody to share the same definition.

Cultural Differences

GEOINT is about understanding the human landscape and activities. This understanding is influenced by French culture, education, history, and relationships with former French colonies.

The history of social sciences shows large differences between the French track and English or U.S. tracks. For decades in France, physical geography was the main preoccupation of surveyors and Army geographers while human geography was the preserve of universities with limited connection between universities and intelligence topics, contrary to England or the U.S.

Cultural differences are also linked with political and military history. Each colonial power had its own methods and interactions with local populations, which led to specific ways to understand, model, and describe the physical and human environment. This leads today to different views on those territories as well as different views of their GEOINT puzzles. These cultural differences should be viewed as an opportunity, with each partner bringing its specific knowledge and assets, as long as the common model does not erase those cultural gems.

Human Resources

The biggest challenge for French GEOINT may be to educate and maintain its workforce as much as recruiting new analysts and system experts. The national Intelligence Community needs to hire experts able to support the growth of agencies and to fulfill future requirements. The small size of DRM and DGSE in the field of GEOINT compared to an agency like NGA forces French Defense to explore different strategies and take direct benefit from operational experiences, improve information sharing between agencies, focus on areas of interest, and develop automation to improve data processing. The priority for intelligence agencies is also to recruit educated experts in new jobs such as big data engineers, database experts, or data scientists, which is challenging today because of great demand in these areas.

Despite its goal to increase its workforce in coming years, DRM faces a lack of academic training in GEOINT and other emerging areas. This situation may have heavy consequences on recruitment and may push the agency to find other solutions such as outsourcing. In today’s context of growing big data, this may be a solution to face critical issues of the future.

Budget Constraints

In recent years, the budgetary pressure on the French Armed Forces has relaxed due to the evolving international situation. This led in 2008 to the “knowledge and anticipation function” among the five strategic functions of the White Paper on Defence and National Security. According to the 2013 White Paper, “this function has particular importance since a capacity for autonomous assessment of situations is key to free, sovereign decision-making.” The recently published French Strategic Review confirms those priorities.

GEOINT capacity is at the core of this knowledge and anticipation function and therefore has been in some ways preserved. Development of intelligence-gathering capabilities, notably for space programs, is a priority for the next programming and budgeting period up to 2025, and is illustrated by the scheduled launch in 2018 of the first French CSO satellite, an optical component of the European MUSIS space imaging system.

However, traditional armament programs do not easily suit GEOINT, which requires more innovative and agile solutions, geared by military operational constraints and experience feedback through short evaluation cycles and evolution of French and allied joint operations doctrine.

This pragmatic approach is illustrated by the new Laboratoire d’Innovation Spatiale des Armées (LISA), co-chaired by the Joint Space Command and Procurement Agency. While not dedicated only to GEOINT, it will address most of the relevant GEOINT issues. 

Making a Difference in Operational Support Improvement

Intelligence is essential for planning, command, and control of military operations, but is also the cornerstone of crisis prevention. GEOINT should bring a better understanding of an operational environment and the ability to evaluate efficiently a situation’s potential at all decision levels.

The ambition of DRM/CRGI is to maintain a connection between tactical, operational, and strategic levels by deploying GEOINT expert teams on battlefields. It has two main advantages; it allows tactical units to easily access GEOINT products and helps GEOINT experts develop a better understanding of operational needs and conditions. But it is still difficult for units at operational and tactical levels to have access to good levels of intelligence, notably because neither their analysts nor their systems are adapted to the GEOINT approach.

Agencies need to improve their operational support means and develop new capabilities to provide deployed forces with an on-demand and near real-time access to relevant intelligence through an integrated geospatial environment.

Moreover, French GEOINT should shift priorities to include a more “bottom-up collaborative” approach to allow decision-makers with precise situational awareness and warfighters to share relevant information.

French GEOINT, Our Recommendations

In France, if the community now shares the basic goals of GEOINT, the U.S. model cannot be transposed directly. To bring a useful contribution, France has to develop its own GEOINT, based on its culture and adapted to its resources and assets (scientific, technical, human, budgetary, organizational) to create innovative interactions with its defense partners and with a globalized industry.


If French GEOINT size and ambitions are not comparable to those of NGA, it faces similar issues on the need to develop new solutions and processes, to increase human resources, and to keep pace with the huge amount of data to be processed.

As for geographic data production and services, partnerships and outsourcing can be applied to intelligence to monitor permanent infrastructures or large areas. This approach can bring flexibility to help armed forces to focus on hard problems and operational support.

Organizational Challenges

The relationship between institutions, industry, and academics does not allow France to directly transpose U.S. initiatives and practices. At best, industry researchers are driven with academic laboratory support. There are few industrial interactions and it limits the short-term emergence of this market. Another challenge is to merge different cultures, especially when they are not scientific or technological. However, GEOINT needs this crossing between various domains. Cultural change within companies is needed.

Normalization Challenges

If normalization has been one of the big successes of the past 30 years for the exchange of geospatial information, the cultural differences have a big impact for the normalization of information describing populations, religions, or activities. It will be an important challenge for all allies.


French GEOINT is in a transition phase and faces huge and exciting challenges. A necessary cooperation must be stimulated inside industry, between industry and academics, and in various fields mixing social and technical sciences. The main success criteria will be related to processing of huge data flows and dissemination to decision-makers and users with decisive support and relevant situational awareness, anytime, anywhere.

France must create a GEOINT Community to accelerate the development of the discipline inside and outside of defense. A multidisciplinary national organization dedicated to GEOINT is necessary to set goals and continuously develop the discipline, animate the community, and facilitate exchanges between agencies, private companies, and academics. French academics have also a role to develop GEOINT culture and educate the future workforce. New courses must be adapted to train future GEOINT experts.

Initiatives such as the Intelligence Campus or LISA are a necessary first step, but need to include—as soon as possible—ancillary activities such as accurate education of human resources on new intelligence matters: GEOINT, of course, but also automation of processes, open-source data mining, and more. And those initiatives must motivate schools and universities to join and invest in the domain. With strong coordination of these entities rather than creating a unique one, integration of GEOINT as a foundation of all intelligence disciplines would lead to higher efficiency and a new edge in French Intelligence.

Headline Image: A French soldier works with African military leaders as part of Operation Barkhane. Photo Credit: French Ministry of Defense


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