IC GEOINT Support to USAF and USSF

Panel highlights how commercial GEOINT contributes to mission success


At USGIF’s 2022 GEOINT Service Day: Air Force and Space Force, a panel of Intelligence Community (IC) leaders discussed how U.S. intelligence agencies support the operational Air Force and Space Force with GEOINT collection, data, and analysis, and how commercial GEOINT plays a role in these efforts. Panelists touched on the current issues in the world that greatly influence the strong, collaborative efforts between the Air Force, Space Force, and the IC.

Phil Molle, Senior Defense Intelligence Expert for Space Technical Collection at the Defense Intelligence Agency opened the discussion with comments on DIA’s space and counterspace all-source missions, noting, “For the policy side, trying to establish, or reestablish, different norms of behavior on how you operate in space” poses challenges moving forward. Leading with the example of debris mitigation in space as something that the international community will need to think about, Molle mentioned future trends of worldwide space and counterspace threats as growing more “congested, competitive, and contested.”

Dave Gauthier, Director of Source Commercial and Business Operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, followed Molle’s discussion with remarks on the commercial side of remote sensing satellite efforts in space. Using various examples of commercial electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar imagery and commercial GEOINT analytic services related to Ukraine, he highlighted that this data is crucial to making time-sensitive decisions for the efforts in the region.

Didi Kuo, Ph.D., Chief Architect in the Geospatial Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate at the National Reconnaissance Office, emphasized how NRO meets the needs of Air Force and Space Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, whether through government or commercial systems. He posed bottom-line questions they seek to address for Defense customers: “Where is the data needed, what type of data is needed, and how fast does the data need to be there?”

Jennifer Krischer, Vice President and General Manager of NGA Programs at Maxar, moderated and asked how are the three agencies supporting the Air Force and Space Force? Gauthier outlined myriad ways the IC can support the space domain, but addressed the reality of collecting data from space, noting, “Space domain awareness is hard. It’s a big domain…We’re trying to figure out how we apply the craft of GEOINT and geography to a domain that is a little different than most domains, like air, land, and sea.”

Dr. Kuo pointed out the challenges of commercial GEOINT expanding and the push for government to use these resources. As IC agencies also support the Air Force and Space Force, there are challenges there as well. Gauthier discussed that trying to understand exact needs and requirements, words used interchangeably, leads to issues in how straightforward data collection can be: certain data needs to be as precise as possible and other data does not. Dr. Kuo agreed and said the process of meeting these requirements can be lengthy due to government standards that need to be met.

Molle gave a different perspective: the level of classification is another thing to consider since a lot of the government information collected is non-releasable and classified. Using open-source, commercial data is necessary for giving a level of understanding to all the customers involved. “Commercial is absolutely critical to us to convey that message,” Molle said, “and also to get a better understanding of exactly what’s going on in space beyond just what we have from traditional means.”

On the topic of data, panelists were asked about the volume and variety of data available, and how different data is prioritized to ensure it’s available to analysts quickly. Molle answered that the way data is prioritized is based on the question, and the processing of data can lead to domains outside of GEOINT. Dr. Kuo added to the discussion by saying that it depends on how much data the user can process, one type of intelligence versus multiple types, all at once. It takes more time to compile multiple types of intelligence, as opposed to an analyst asking for only one piece.

Krischer asked what happens when a corporate shareholder is uncomfortable with use of their imagery, and can the panelists envision a future in which commercial imagery or data is all that is used for targeting? Molle noted that would depend on what the goal was. “It’s always going to be a blended solution” he said, due to things like timing, sensitivity, and precision.

Gauthier added, “We’ve been having a lot of conversations in the community regarding resiliency, and what does resiliency mean?” Diversity and proliferation of companies and shareholders is necessary to give agencies the ability to go in other directions if needed, he said.

All panelists discussed current U.S. commercial data processing and how it’s going to look in the future, and the question arose amongst the group: What level of confidence or quality is good enough for the work to proceed? There are many ways to check the quality of data, but when in doubt, going back to the source and discussing the gaps is an efficient way of continuing the conversation between government and industry collaboration.

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