Plenty of Eyes in the Sky, Not Enough Minds on the Ground

The U.S. Intelligence Community must address a workforce gap in remote sensing analysis


In today’s world of light-speed satellite communications, advanced remote sensing, and supercomputers—and the mega-data they produce—we seldom think about who is applying all of this technology to meet our national security needs. It’s easy to act as if all available data is put in one end of a computer with the necessary information emerging at the other end.

While the Intelligence Community improves the technology needed to interpret this high volume of data and information, the sheer volume of data being consistently collected around the world mutes our existing analytic capability. At the intersection of technology and human intelligence are the GEOINT analysts who pore over the data retrieved by our increasingly sophisticated remote sensing technologies, assign the data context, and create actionable knowledge. GEOINT analysts regularly apply their skills to multiple national and international threat scenarios, military operations, and natural and manmade disasters. Without these dedicated GEOINT analysts we would have eyes (in the form of satellites and UAVs) on our tumultuous world but would not understand what the images they produce mean.

7747506622 b6642404a7 fmt1

Daniela Moody is a postdoctoral fellow with the Intelligence and Space Research Division, Space and Remote Sensing Sciences at Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. Her team develops and applies remote sensing instrumentation, analysis, modeling, and machine learning to problems of national security and related sciences. Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The Intelligence Community faces a rising demand for highly trained geospatial and remote sensing analysts. At a time of burgeoning and unprecedented threats including terrorism, asymmetrical warfare, and social unrest across the globe, the GEOINT Community is especially challenged as its workforce ages at a rate much faster than qualified analysts enter the workforce. Steps should be taken immediately to address this widening GEOINT analyst gap. Further delay will only make this current staffing problem more difficult and costly to address in the future.

Historical Precedent

The problem is simple to explain. In the aftermath of World War II and with the onset of the Cold War, the United States realized the pressing need for intelligence gathering. Aerospace and satellite technology developed in the ’50s and early ’60s gave the U.S. the necessary tools for this effort. Addressing the need for a highly skilled aerospace and intelligence analyst workforce, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. The act provided U.S. universities with resources to improve technical education and graduate programs in order to produce an engineering workforce for the aerospace and intelligence gathering units of the federal government and commercial industry. This workforce was developed to observe and—more importantly—interpret the data that was just becoming available.

These first generations of intelligence analysts did a superb job during the Cold War and subsequently developed many of the remote sensing methods and technologies still used today. However, a large number of these pioneering geospatial analysts are heading into retirement and are not being replaced at a rate sufficient to bridge the mission performance gap.

A 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences on the Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence claims qualified “GIS and remote sensing recruits are already hard to find.” It concluded that the nation needs to ensure an environment exists to create a STEM workforce trained specifically in remote sensing—with remote sensing being identified by the academy as one of the “five core areas on which the current production and analysis of geospatial intelligence relies.” An earlier report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence came to the same conclusion with respect to the projected analyst gap and recommended the U.S. government partner with universities to prepare more students for space and remote sensing analysis careers.

060710-F-8769P-001 fmt

Airman 1st Class Melissa Beecher uses a combat mission plotter to diagram enemy threats on a map. Beecher is assigned to the 48th Rescue Squadron as an intelligence analyst. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte

Positioning universities to produce more GEOINT engineers and remote sensing analysts is a national security imperative. A new national strategy is needed to ensure the health of U.S. GEOINT analyst education. However, any amendments to the National Defense Education Act to recognize the modern challenges facing the GEOINT Community and our universities would require substantial financial support. Universities should be incentivized, as was done in the ’50s, to greatly expand education and training programs and work with NGA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.


At USGIF, we strongly believe, given the current state of global security, that maintaining and expanding our nation’s GEOINT capabilities is critical—and addressing the GEOINT analyst workforce shortage is essential to doing so. We support the strengthening of the strategic relationship between the U.S. defense and intelligence communities and the U.S. academic community, particularly in STEM disciplines focused on addressing the technical collection and analysis efforts required by our nation.

To that end, I am in favor of a STEM-to-remote sensing pilot program focused on doubling the number of remote sensing analysts entering the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community within the next five years. This program could include tuition funding for up to four years, be open to both undergraduate and graduate students, and offer funded summer internships with industry, during which exposure to and work on hard problems should be the focus. All selected participants should also receive security clearance during their second program year, which would allow them to work within government facilities and on classified projects at their home school. When shown to be successful, such a program could be expanded to other geospatial intelligence sub-disciplines to develop cross-cutting, broad-based GEOINT analysts capable of producing finished intelligence products derived from a combination of remotely-sensed data, geographic information systems data, and open-source information.

Though some may argue such an initiative is not possible, similar programs have already been established in pockets around the globe. As our nation’s needs and priorities change, a STEM-to-remote sensing program could become a STEM-to-GEOINT program, which would include a strong and flexible remote sensing component.

Additional Resources

Read about the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) on Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Download a free PDF of the report, Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence, from the National Academies Press.

Strength in Numbers

Open Source software is defined by the community as much as it is by the code

OSINT Goes Social

Social media presents new opportunities and challenges for deriving open source intelligence


Privacy policies threaten advances in geospatial technology