Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert “Rosie” A. Rosenberg served 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and was instrumental in the U.S. satellite program. He participated in the initial development, testing, and launch of what became National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite systems, later serving as mission controller of on orbit reconnaissance satellites. He also served as acting director of the NRO staff, and then was intelligence and space policy advisor on the National Security Council. Rosenberg was director of the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), a predecessor to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), from 1985 to 1987. During his tenure as director, Rosenberg made DMA essential to the success of the nation’s military operations capabilities. At the GEOINT 2017 Symposium, USGIF named Rosenberg the recipient of its Arthur C. Lundahl-Thomas C. Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award.
Q: How did you get involved in GEOINT and what do you consider some of your most significant contributions to the tradecraft?
I got into this business almost 60 years ago. At the beginning of the Cold War the world was a frightening place. Knowing what went on behind the Iron Curtain was critical to our survival. President Eisenhower was concerned—was there really a capability gap? Or was the military industrial complex driving us into an arms race? With the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and later its shoot down of an American U-2 spy plane, Eisenhower had no choice but to establish NRO to put reconnaissance satellites into space. We were being denied the ability to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the Soviet Union.
I was lucky to be there at the start of NRO. From ’58 to ’62, I was involved in factory testing and launching of the Samos, Midas, and Corona reconnaissance satellites. From ’64 to ’68, I was the mission controller for both the Corona and Gambit reconnaissance satellites. It was my responsibility to respond to the targeting requirements from the Intelligence Community (IC) and make sure we got cloud-free pictures of the Soviet Union. We were limited on how many pictures we could get because we used film. I did many things to establish highly efficient imagery collection to maximize the number of highest value photos on each mission.
In ’71, I was responsible for developing Hexagon satellite mission planning and command and control software based on the experiences I had in both Gambit targeting and mission control for the Corona system. Hexagon permitted us to dramatically improve our ability to rapidly cover and revisit vast areas of the communist world at a resolution previously not thought possible.
I was pulled into the NRO staff in Washington from ’73 to ’75. My contribution there included making sure DMA mission requirements were supported—while many at the time didn’t think this was important.
I moved on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff under both Presidents Ford and Carter, where I was the intelligence and space policy officer. While there, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)—in wanting to make himself look good with Carter, who wanted to reduce both the defense and intelligence budgets—suggested we cancel the Hexagon program. I argued with a four-star admiral in front of the President (I was a colonel then) and persuaded Carter to keep Hexagon operating.
From ’85 to ’87, I led DMA and with it the effort to modernize the mapping, charting, and geodesy process. Congress had passed a law making DMA a combat support agency. My job was to implement that. As director of DMA, I learned what capabilities programs like Hexagon and Gambit brought to geospatial world. This enabled us to dramatically improve our knowledge and provide combat forces with previously unheard of location accuracies that allowed the development of weapons like cruise missiles, other “smart” weapons, and medium-range ballistic missiles.
When we gave tours of DMA we would describe the digital brains of the smart weapons we made as ‘Rosie’s AAA TripTiks.’ The things we built would guide cruise missiles to their targets. Later, during the Iraq War, my son called me and said, ‘Dad, cruise missiles are flying down the streets of Baghdad using your AAA TripTiks.’ All of these things collectively helped turn the tide of the Cold War.
Q: Could you describe your role in helping to create NGA?
After Desert Storm, I served on the Gates Blue Ribbon Committee on Imagery. In ’92, we recommended to the DCI and the secretary of defense the establishment of what we called a national imagery agency, which ultimately became NGA.
Many Defense Science Board studies I served on showed a repeat of issues still unresolved from the Gulf War. The Gulf War had left in its wake a sense of dissatisfaction about imagery support to operations. DCI Bob Gates commissioned a task force to examine these issues. We carefully studied them and recommended the establishment of an agency that would include DCI requirements, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, Defense Intelligence Agency imagery analysts, and DMA. Our report recommended placing the new agency in the DoD because the Defense Department was both the primary user of imagery products and the location of major problems such as integrating the tasking of tactical assets with strategic and national assets.
I argued with those who said their job was to support the president, not military operations. And I would say, ‘Military operations are what the commander in chief is responsible for.’ I was not very popular in some arenas. Initially, a Central Imagery Office was created under the DoD on a more limited basis than was recommended by our task force. Later, in ’96, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) was established. Our badgering of DoD and DCI leadership began this process, and it matured significantly as NGA in the Clapper era.
Q: How has the creation of NGA since benefited the geospatial industry and the nation?
I want to give James Clapper a lot of credit. The various fiefdoms that had been forced to stand up NIMA still owed their loyalty to where they came from. But NGA created a true geospatial information system, so GEOINT became the cornerstone of national security through its place at the center of many diverse intelligence methods. To help all that along, NGA has established a lot of academic and business opportunities to better serve our nation’s needs that didn’t exist in my day.
When Clapper took over NGA at a very trying time, I was running an operations advisory board for him, and he said, ‘Rosie, why can’t I use Google Maps?’ And I said, ‘Because your contracts, security, acquisition people, and lawyers all say it’s in violation of DoD regulations. They come up with all kinds of reasons because they don’t want to lose control. So, tell your staff that is intolerable reasoning. Get Google Maps!’
Guess what? The DoD and IC now use Google and a whole host of other commercial applications. NGA is a leader in making that happen. Through research, grants, and small business initiatives, NGA is embracing the private sector to lead a convergence of geospatial information not only for the IC, but also for a better society.
And the creation USGIF—the only organization of its kind aimed at bringing together the GEOINT sector. As part of the Foundation’s mission, NGA leadership personally participates in the GEOINT Symposium, lecture series, and everything you do.
Q: You have a reputation for not being afraid to “break the rules” in the name of progress. Could you provide some examples of instances in which this approach served you well?
Well, I’ve got a long list! I guess that’s why I only made two stars instead of four. [Laughs]
Some of my proudest moments are when I was working on the NSC. I had discovered a program called GPS, which the Air Force was not interested in and which wasn’t included in the Secretary of Defense’s budget to the White House. I snuck it in, and that originated the funding of GPS. After it went to Capitol Hill, I got a phone call from an Air Force three-star saying, ‘I don’t know who you think you are but your career is over, you put that useless piece of space junk in the budget.’
That fight was not over when I left the Pentagon and went back to the Air Force. I ran the Air Force operations research organization as HQ USAF assistant chief of staff and forced the full funding of GPS even though the air staff was not all that excited about such a program. My operations research analysis led the chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force to overrule the naysayers and approve the program.
GPS is now a critical element of the geospatial information foundation and it was essential to make our military and intelligence programs far more successful.
Later, I was running a GPS advisory board for the Air Force. In Afghanistan, the Air Force only supported requirements for 24 GPS systems around Earth. There were several hours per day in which GPS was not available to our military because of the wicked, mountainous terrain that interfered with having three satellites in the line of sight, which is mandatory to get a GPS signal. We had six spares in orbit. I led an operational analysis that showed if we changed the orbital structure to 27 it would dramatically improve the availability and significantly improve the accuracy. And, by the way, our enemies in Afghanistan knew when we didn’t have coverage and that’s when they did their critical operations.
I took this study to Space Command leadership who in turn shared it with Strategic Command, which challenged my recommendation. I said on the day before Christmas, ‘Move them now or my next call is to the Sec Def!’ That Christmas Eve, the order was made to start moving the extra satellites, and soon the commanders of both Space and Strategic Command were briefing the press about how they were dramatically improving the availability of GPS and its precision to our warfighters in Afghanistan.
It’s our job to ensure our GPS is the gold standard rather than a foreign technology. It’s also important for the national economy and for U.S. leadership in technology around the world. America’s advanced GPS is now the international gold standard for space-based positioning, navigation, and timing. I’m proud to have been a part of that.
Q: What do you think are promising future applications of GEOINT that benefit not only national security, but society as well?
I prefer to call it geospatial information rather than GEOINT. It’s much broader than just national intelligence. Human trafficking, animals, criminals and parolees, equipment, disease, shipments and containers, vehicle fleets, and railroads. Tracking these things using all the information flow we have over time and location presents tremendous opportunity for improvement in all areas.
The most important thing to do with that tracking is threat prediction. The world is such a more dangerous place with terrorist threats, crazy things going on inside our country from radical groups right here—not overseas. We need to do a far better job of integrating what are currently stray pieces of information.
Another area I think has a lot of future applications is safety of aviation operations given the proliferation of robots in the air. We’re going to have a wreck if we don’t get this straightened out.
Geospatial information can also affect emergency services, earthquake prediction, and weather prediction. Here in the U.S., we already apply GPS to farming, and there is a lot of improvement to be made internationally. It’s better for our society to make other countries better.
GIS capabilities will help fulfill transformational needs to protect the homeland. It provides human assistance and disaster relief. GIS will also serve a central role as the government leverages information technology.
When I was director of DMA, I visited the Combatant Commands we supported. When I went to see the leader of Special Operations Command, I told him, ‘You’ve got so many requirements for immediate production of updated maps and charts—can’t you slow this down?’ He said, ‘When the President calls me and says your job is to get our people out of harm’s way in an embassy overseas I have to deploy SOF forces right now whether I have any maps or charts from you or not!’
The better our exploitation of geospatial information, the stronger our military operations are.
Q: Given your successful career of more than 50 years, what advice do you have for future GEOINT leaders?
While it may sound like advice just for military folks, this is intended for civil servants and future commercial world leaders as well. Focus first on mission. That’s what you are here for. Make sure what you do is right, not what is the rhetoric of flawed, outdated policy. Demand that such be changed.
The mission is not to follow the regulation book but to provide operational military capabilities vital to our nation’s survival and freedom. Break down barriers that prevent sensible solutions.
Focus on those whom you serve. Make them understand the right way ahead. Your boss is not always right—as matter of fact, he or she is wrong a lot of the time. Earn the trust of your bosses. I was fortunate to have bosses who tolerated near anarchy from their smart people, and I adopted that style the rest of my career.
When I took over DMA, I met with my leadership and told them we were going to turn DMA into a combat support agency under the proposed new legislation. I said, ‘I cannot stand yes men’ and told the story of Aesop’s fable and the king who had no clothes. A senior civil servant at DMA came to me afterward and said, ‘You’ll probably fire me, but you have no clothes.’ He gave me list of things that needed to be done at DMA to become a successful combat support agency. I did everything he suggested and made much more effective operations as a result.
Focus on the future. You are responsible for the freedom and good life of future generations, not just your own. As you climb the ladder, remember good managers only do things right. Good leaders do the right things. You have to operate outside the box. You have to take risks. Followers never fail. It’s only people who take risk and fail that learn how to become leaders. As a leader, don’t issue orders and expect to be followed. Roll up your sleeves, get your fingers dirty, and lead by example. People will understand you mean business. Empower people. Make change the baseline. Never be satisfied with the status quo. You need to be able to look in the mirror and be proud of what you’re doing. You must never think about what to do to get promoted. Do the above and you will serve your business, country, and society best. Promotions will follow.
I like to quote President JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”