Lessons from comparing U.S. and Russian geospatial intelligence
By Dr. Todd Bacastow, Penn State; Dan Steiner, Orion Mapping; Stephen Handwerk, Penn State; Dr. Dennis Bellafiore, Penn State; Dr. Greg Thomas, Penn State; and the Penn State Comparative Geospatial Intelligence Seminar
Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) is known to be practiced by nations other than the U.S. but not called by the same term. These nations might be partners, friendly competitors, or threatening foes. GEOINT’s intent is to disadvantage your opponent with information they do not have or they do not know you have. Sun Tzu, an ancient military strategist, writer, and philosopher, articulates the notion as the principle of knowing your enemy while knowing yourself:
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
This article speaks to the necessity of a comparative view of yourself and an opponent in GEOINT. We illustrate the need for a comparative approach in education by examining GEOINT in the United States and the Russian Federation (RU). Our example is to illustrate that reliable GEOINT demands knowing both your opponent and yourself. The results of the study are more relevant to GEOINT educational goals and the comparative process than informative of RU GEOINT capabilities since there is little open source and explicit information about RU GEOINT doctrine.
- This article is part of USGIF’s 2019 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety.
Identifying Geospatial Intelligence
GEOINT is easy to distinguish in the U.S. (it’s called GEOINT by law) and its governmental structures. Since few other countries have such openness, use similar definitions, or mirror the U.S. structure, it is essential to identify the reasoning and basic behaviors of people performing GEOINT.
Research suggests that GEOINT reasoning uncovers how human action is constrained by the physical landscape and perceptions of the Earth. As such, GEOINT has the organizational behavioral characteristics of being polymorphic, metadisciplinary, craft-based, and competitive. The polymorphic nature of GEOINT is apparent in RU’s different organizational forms. In RU, there is not an agency whose primary mission is GEOINT as with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in the U.S. Metadisciplinary appears as expertise from two or more disciplines around a shared problem. In both nations, GEOINT encompasses many disciplines to answer basic questions. The U.S. and RU utilize craft-based processes in which thinking is through the senses and deeply entangled. Such craft practice creates knowledge from the researcher-practitioner’s experience. Competition is when one entity seeks to gain an advantage over a rival. Applying these concepts, we found that RU performs GEOINT.
As part of a summer 2018 research seminar, Penn State graduate students and faculty applied comparative methods to examine GEOINT in the U.S. and RU. Our process was modeled after that used in comparative education, which is a long-established academic field that examines abstract units of a system of systems. Our units of comparison were aspects of the GEOINT Community and work. A nine-cell table was used to compare the work of GEOINT communities. The major aspects of community that were examined included mission, organization, and business processes. This was compared in the table to GEOINT work, which included tradecraft, people, and technology.
Oversight of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is shared by both the elected executive and legislative branches of the government to ensure public accountability. Transparency is a key policy and goal of the U.S. GEOINT Community. Transparency includes the legal, political, and institutional structures that make information about the internal characteristics of government available to those inside and outside the political system.
Congress created the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) to integrate GEOINT within the U.S. IC. The Geospatial Intelligence Basic Doctrine Publication 1.0 defines NGA’s mission and the agency director’s role as functional manager of the NSG and coordinator of the global Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence (ASG). NGA is responsible for managing the GEOINT Enterprise with a mission of acquiring, developing, and maintaining the proper technology, people, and processes to produce GEOINT.
A key goal of U.S. GEOINT is to enhance geospatial situational awareness. Consumers of GEOINT include the military, policy-makers, the IC, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, law enforcement, allied countries, and other federal agencies and civil authorities. Through NGA, GEOINT supports humanitarian assistance, disaster recovery, land reclamation, historic preservation, and domestic security at special events. U.S. GEOINT is a unique intelligence discipline. As a metadiscipline it includes geodesy, geophysics, photogrammetry, remote sensing, human geography, physical geography, GIS, geospatial analysis, cartography, data fusion, crowdsourcing, visual analytics, and forecasting. These varied disciplines influence the U.S. GEOINT tradecraft.
The U.S. GEOINT Community is comprised of varied professionals, most of whom have college degrees. NGA and industry contractors train their GEOINT analysts, require certifications, and provide professional development. Geospatial foundational knowledge, as well as an ability to apply emerging technologies, are important, as are soft skills such as cognitive thinking, creativity, and communication. The cultural diversity of the U.S. GEOINT workforce is valued to maintain varied perspectives.
The U.S. uses technology to achieve an advantage, continually seeking to gain more information than opponents. A critical task is to disseminate GEOINT products to decision-makers in advance of events. Important technologies are military Distributed Common Ground Systems (DCGS), aircraft and onboard sensors, secure servers and computers, and Earth orbiting satellites. The loss of secure communications, precise positioning and navigation, and intelligence and surveillance would dramatically affect U.S. ability to conduct GEOINT operations. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is being increasingly applied to activities such as image object analysis, processing raw data into usable imagery, and GIS data collection, management, analysis, and dissemination. Future mission success suggests extracting intelligence from large volumes of inconsequential data and images. The application of emerging technologies complements commonly and widely used active and passive sensors.
Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, RU geography has experienced new borders, political leadership, security challenges, an economic crisis, degradation of infrastructure, privatization, globalization, de- and reindustrialization, demographic changes, and migration. This chaos notwithstanding, in 2016, RU had more billionaires than the United Kingdom. RU has a free education system with a literacy rate of more than 99 percent, and competitive entry makes advanced schooling some of the world’s best. Politically, RU faces challenges to Moscow’s rule in the majority-Muslim North Caucasus region including Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetiya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia. All these changes impact RU GEOINT. The effect is difficult to determine since RU intelligence organizations work under conditions of strict secrecy because of the tendency to treat the outside world with “maximal suspicion.” Add to this RU’s history of fabricating events to serve political goals, and the challenge of understanding RU GEOINT is significant.
The RU GEOINT community appears to be substantial. Since the 1970s, the Soviet Union progressed from making cartographic products using human intelligence to electronic processes. RU has a strong legacy of geographic thought and cartography, compiling detailed maps for its global sphere of influence. The RU GEOINT community employs the same academic disciplines as the U.S. but lacks the same organizational concentration in a single agency such as NGA. Their use of GEOINT provides RU ministries, agencies, and directorates with information to mitigate and respond to natural disasters, civil matters, and perceived military threats.
In RU, GEOINT appears to be an amalgamation of defensive and proactive missions performed within military intelligence, federal security, and interior ministry organizations. The goal of RU GEOINT, in addition to providing geographic information, is to modify the human landscape. This mission is the result of the internal political culture and the perceived threats to the state. The scope of RU activities is further motivated by the perspective that peripheral countries of the former Soviet Union have limited sovereignty. High priority is placed on economic and technological development to counter Western actions.
RU intelligence leadership includes government officials, heads of state-owned enterprises, and private corporations. The Ministry of Defense answers to the RU president. RU Foreign Intelligence Service is comparable to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, relying on its Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) to collect foreign military intelligence. The Federal Security Service (FSB) is a domestic security and counterintelligence agency. Also under Ministry of Defense control are the Aerospace Defense Forces tasked to launch military and civilian spacecraft using separate integrated satellite systems to provide RU Armed Forces with military-related information.
RU collects imagery from satellites, manned aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles using electro-optics, LiDAR, hyperspectral and multispectral, full-motion video, and various other sensors. RU has more than 130 civilian and military spacecraft performing communication, Earth observation, navigation, geodetic survey support, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering missions. RU’s current systems provide an array of capabilities including high-resolution imagery, terrestrial and space weather, missile warning, electronic intelligence, and scientific observations to develop detailed GIS and GEOINT products. RU uses international open-source and commercial vendors to supplement imagery requirements.
RU has identified the need to keep pace with other modernized countries’ GEOINT communities. A specific RU goal in future war scenarios is to eliminate an opponent’s satellite systems. RU is modernizing its space capabilities and has developed new counterspace weapons, including direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic anti-satellite systems, an airborne lasing platform, advanced jamming and spoofing capabilities, and formidable cyberattack capabilities.
RU’s goal to once again become a world power has shaped RU GEOINT tradecraft, seeking to achieve an advantage over opponents who threaten the balance of conditions. RU’s operational philosophy promotes using propaganda, disinformation, denial, and deception to influence internal, regional, and global political actors. The RU doctrine of maskirovka—denial and deception—includes measures such as concealment, decoys, denial of information, and disinformation. Maskirovka causes confusion, doubt, and mistrust.
RU’s First Deputy Minister of Defense expects AI to aid RU military to obtain a “library of goals,” which will help supplement weapons recognition and guidance. Specifically, AI is intended to:
- Automate the analysis of satellite imagery and radar data by quickly identifying targets and picking out unusual behavior by enemy ground or airborne forces.
- Perform change detection, predictive analysis, and real-time weather and ocean monitoring.
Comparing GEOINT in the U.S. and RU
The U.S. and RU have obvious similarities in their GEOINT activities. Both countries use GEOINT to achieve a decision advantage. Both the U.S. and RU use GEOINT to reveal how human action is constrained by the physical landscape. Both have craft-based approaches. There are, however, striking differences:
- RU performs GEOINT in the environment of “maximal suspicion;” the U.S. performs GEOINT under a policy of transparency.
- RU has no single identifiable agency responsible for GEOINT; the U.S. has NGA.
- RU applies GEOINT in an environment of protracted political control; the U.S. adjusts objectives with election cycles.
- RU proactively uses GEOINT to influence the human landscape; the U.S. views GEOINT as a situational awareness tool.
- RU’s GEOINT activities are limited by internal leadership; in the U.S., oversight is driven by public sentiment.
These differences are manifested in a nation’s tradecraft. Since RU tradecraft is guided by political goals, RU is using GEOINT not only for military and humanitarian purposes but to achieve economic and geopolitical goals. This includes using GEOINT to reshape the human landscape to their advantage. This is contrasted with the U.S. GEOINT tradecraft, which is focused on providing information about environmental elements to project their future status.
Maskirovka belies the RU GEOINT tradecraft and provides a range of preemptive, non-kinetic actions. RU tradecraft furthers goals by distracting an opponent’s attention to other geographies, disguising what is happening on the ground, and creating confusion with false information. RU’s leverage of proxy governments and their military forces in Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan are working examples designed to undermine Western objectives. In Syria’s civil war, RU-backed, pro-regime forces threaten to attack U.S. and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. RU appears to be shaping post-conflict negotiations over Syria in line with RU geopolitical goals. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) researchers observe “these condition-setting activities would allow Putin to escalate militarily to challenge U.S. interests in multiple theaters simultaneously if he so chose.”
Implications and Recommendations
In summary, RU understands the competitive nature of GEOINT. However, this research also showed the importance of understanding the GEOINT capabilities of competitors. This essential element of comparative advantage must be incorporated in the U.S. GEOINT educational community’s body of knowledge. Without it, the U.S. educational community is limiting its effectiveness. The U.S. GEOINT educational community needs to adopt a view embodying the philosophy of knowing your opponent while knowing yourself.
U.S. academic institutions awarding GEOINT certificates through the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) use USGIF’s GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) to guide teaching and learning.  The current EBK does not explicitly address the competencies where a student would learn and practice the skills of analyzing the GEOINT capabilities of a competitor or foe in another country. Without this, students in the U.S. are open to falling into the intelligence trap of assuming that the people being analyzed think like they do. This is not to suggest that some or most of the USGIF-accredited programs do not teach about understanding an opponent. This is to suggest that the way the EBK is structured and was implemented does not emphasize understanding an opponent. Specifically, the EBK has seven core competencies—four technical and three cross-functional knowledge areas. The technical competencies were implemented first, and the cross-functional GEOINT knowledge, skills, and abilities, which generally reflect the human aspects of the discipline, are just now being realized. This fosters an impression that GEOINT values technology over the human cognitive thought process.
Based on this research, the U.S. GEOINT educational community should use the comparative approach to give equal balance of the human geographic aspect of GEOINT with that of the technologic aspects of the discipline. The following recommendations are made to achieve the balance:
- Represent and teach GEOINT as a discipline focused on rendering advantage over an environmental or human opponent.
- Develop and share with the community a method of teaching comparative GEOINT that instills the philosophy of knowing your opponent while knowing yourself.
- Balance the learning of GEOINT’s technical and non-technical knowledge, skills, and tradecraft by emphasizing how the technical tools are explicitly applied to examine and understand the interrelationships among people, place, and environments.
Success in GEOINT is to combine the utilitarian aspects of technology with a sophisticated understanding of ourselves and our rival. Knowing these things, we can develop and apply GEOINT based on knowledge and skill rather than on speculation and blind action. Since comparative studies are neither common in U.S. GEOINT curriculum nor is there a specific competency pertaining to the skill of knowing an opponent, the community cannot be certain the advancing student has the skills to understand their opponent. Without the depth and agility of this comparative thinking, the U.S. GEOINT Community is opening itself to failure. Not knowing how to examine an opponent, the analyst cannot penetrate their “geospatial mind;” the analyst cannot anticipate how the opponent might attempt to stymie their progress. Until we formalize the competency of analyzing how others think and/or act geospatially, GEOINT education in the U.S. is incomplete.
- The Penn State Comparative Geospatial Intelligence Seminar participants included Ericka Kato, Raven Bowden, Scott Kanzelmeyer, Cathryn Sacs, Joshua Smith, and Jonathan Thompson. July 23, 2018.
- Todd Bacastow (2016a). “Viewpoint: A Call to Identify First Principles.” NGA Pathfinder, January 2016. https://medium.com/the-pathfinder/viewpoint-a-call-to-identify-first-principles-d5e21cb2ce40.
- Lionel Giles. The Art of War by Sun Tzu (1910). Allandale Online Publishing; 2000. p 45.
4.Todd Bacastow (2016b). “Comparative Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Professional Communities.” European Conference of the International Association for Intelligence Education, Netherlands Military Academy, Castle of Breda, The Netherlands on June 23, 2016.
- GEOINT is polymorphic, meaning that it occurs in different forms in difference organizations and might not use the same lexicon.
- Metadisciplinary is a discipline that transcends traditional field boundaries to create an integrated discipline uninhibited by familiar academic limits and barriers. Instead of merely linking fields at their margins, metadisciplinary means working simultaneously in multiple fields both theoretically and practically.
- Nithikul Nimkulrat. “Integrating Craft Practice into Design Research.” International Journal of Design,.2012:6(3):1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278367044_Hands-on_Intellect_Integrating_Craft_Practice_into_Design_Research.
- Todd Bacastow, Stephen Handwerk, Gregory Thomas, Dennis Bellafiore, Susan Coster, Larri Rosser, and Mark Tapee (2016c). “Bringing Transparency to Transparency” 2016 State of GEOINT Report, The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.
- Bernard Finel and Kristin M. Lord. “The Surprising Logic of Transparency,” International Studies Quarterly, 1999:43(2):315-339.
- National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG): Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Basic Doctrine Publication 1-0. NGA. 2018.
- Robert Cardillo. Statement for the Record Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. September 2016.
- National Research Council. Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2013. p 146. https://doi.org/10.17226/18265. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18265/future-us-workforce-for-geospatial-intelligence.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. National Security Space Defense and Protection: Public Report. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2016. p 28. https://doi.org/10.17226/23594.
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- Margaret Mead. Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Problems of Soviet Character. New York: Schocken Books; 1966. p 38.
- ibid. p 44.
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- Mark Galeotti. “Russian Intelligence Is at (Political) War.” NATO Review Magazine, 2017. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2017/also-in-2017/russian-intelligence-political-war-security/EN/index.htm.
- Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation. 2018. Mil.ru.
- Defense Intelligence Agency. “Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations.” DIA-11-1704-161. 2017. http://www.dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/Russia%20Military%20Power%20Report%202017.pdf
- Timothy Thomas. “Russia’s Military Strategy Impacting 21st Century Reform and Geopolitics.” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Foreign Military Studies Office. 2017. p 55. https://publicintelligence.net/fmso-russian-military-strategy/
- Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, and Thomas Robert. Space Threat Assessment 2018; A Report of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Center for Strategic & International Studies. 2018. p 12-13. https://www.csis.org/analysis/space-threat-assessment-2018
- Emilio Iasiello. “Russia’s Improved Information Operations: From Georgia to Crimea.” Innovations in War & Strategy; 2017. p 55. https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/Parameters/issues/Summer_2017/8_Iasiello_RussiasImprovedInformationOperations.pdf
- Timothy C. Shea. “Post-Soviet Maskirovka, Cold War Nostalgia, and Peacetime Engagement,” Military Review, 2002:82(3):63-67. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/225321191?accountid=13158.
- Samuel Bendett. “In AI, Russia Is Hustling to Catch Up,” Defense One. 2018.
- Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Mason Clark. Russia in Review: August 28 – September 13, 2018.Institute for the Study of War. 2018. http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/search?q=russia+in+review
- United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). “GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge.” 2015. http://usgif.org/system/uploads/3858/original/EBK.pdf. Accessed on July 20, 2018.