During a keynote address Monday at GEOINT 2022, outgoing NGA Director Vice Admiral Robert Sharp illustrated and emphasized the many ways in which GEOINT is “The Foundation of Intelligence.”
In the face of grave national security threats, the Intelligence Community (IC) stands tall and strong like a skyscraper in the wind.
But skyscrapers are deceiving. The things that are most impressive about them—the gorgeous façades, the sharp angles, the impossible heights—add much in the way of form, but little in the way of function. Instead, what makes the world’s tallest buildings actually stand is something onlookers can’t see, and therefore rarely appreciate: their deep and sturdy foundations.
GEOINT is the deep and sturdy foundation on which the rest of the IC stands. Which is why “The Foundation of Intelligence” not only is the theme of the 2022 GEOINT Symposium in Aurora, Colo., but also was the theme of a keynote address delivered there Monday morning by Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, outgoing director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
“At NGA, we like the word foundation,” Sharp declared at the start of his 45-minute address to the GEOINT Community, during which he said the word foundation nearly 20 times in multiple contexts—the first of which was the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“GEOINT has been foundational in understanding and dealing with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine,” continued Sharp, who praised media reports about Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the “big green map” that he carries with him everywhere he goes. “There’s far more than just GEOINT on it. It’s a product that’s been thoroughly coordinated with the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community and our allies. But GEOINT is its foundation—providing context and clarity to the chaotic, complex battlefield.”
It’s not just maps that have been useful in Ukraine. It’s also government and commercial satellite imagery, which has given Western allies an effective and transparent means with which to counter Russian disinformation.
“Publicly available imagery of Ukraine is now providing unprecedented public insight that until recently would’ve been only available through government agencies and officials,” said Sharp, who noted the long history of using unclassified satellite imagery to discredit false Russian narratives—like the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. “When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded…the Soviet Union was forced to retract their denial about it, thanks to imagery that clearly showed burning graphite from the damaged reactor. Of course, Chernobyl was, and is, in Ukraine. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ and the value of broadly sharing foundational GEOINT truth is proving to be timeless.”
Although Ukraine is a hotbed of GEOINT activity and a top IC priority, it is not NGA’s only focus. Even as the war rages in the present, NGA continues to focus on ways to strengthen GEOINT in the future.
One way it’s doing that, Sharp said, is by improving foundation GEOINT—the foundation of the foundation. He offered several examples, the most significant of which might be a backup to GPS called Magneto, which uses the magnetic field that’s frozen in the Earth’s crust to provide location information in GPS-denied environments.
Although GPS is at the heart of innumerable GEOINT products and services, new and emerging technology is becoming equally foundational, according to Sharp, who noted that NGA has been granted operational control of Project Maven’s GEOINT artificial intelligence (AI) services and capabilities, and will soon deploy complementary computer vision efforts that deliver automated GEOINT detections to both intelligence analysts and warfighters.
“In the not-too-distant future, these efforts will help give us our ‘millions of eyes’ to see the unseen,” Sharp said.
And yet, the real foundation of GEOINT isn’t technology, Sharp stressed. Rather, it’s people and partnerships—including partnerships between federal agencies, like NGA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO); between government, industry, and academia; and between the United States and allied nations.
“Our partnerships are the very foundation of what makes NGA—and the entire GEOINT Community—work so well,” Sharp said. “Our partnerships are our strategic competitive advantage…Working together, we all make each other much more effective.”
As for people, NGA’s workforce has never been stronger, according to Sharp. “They’ve now been through the crucible of COVID, and have emerged stronger, smarter, and better from the experience,” he said, noting that NGA staff are more collaborative, innovative, inclusive, and agile as a result of their experiences during the pandemic.
To make its human resources even stronger, Sharp promised that NGA is redoubling its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. “We’re so much more effective when our team is made up of people coming from a variety of backgrounds, possessing a wide spectrum of skill sets and experiences,” he said. “This is not just a good and right thing to do. It’s about warfighting excellence, and being the very best we can be.”
It’s exactly that kind of perspective that has made Sharp himself foundational to NGA since assuming leadership of the agency in 2019. As he prepares for retirement this summer, however, the vice admiral promised the GEOINT Community will be sturdy enough to stand without him.
“It’s been my experience throughout my career that as you lose talent, you gain talent, and the team continues to get stronger,” said Sharp, who concluded his speech by playing the 1976 Eagles hit “Hotel California.” “This song emphasizes something I tell everyone who departs NGA, and something I’ve been telling people departing commands I’ve been at throughout my career: We’re like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. That applies to everyone on the team—even the director.”