Safe Passage

NGA’s Safety of Navigation mission provides critical guidance to mariners and pilots


While in the Navy, Ray Chartier, Jr. was the officer of the deck leading a submarine through undersea canyons using only instruments, training, and paper charts. He was also the officer of the deck navigating an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and back to the United States with faith in digital and paper charts to guide the ship through challenging areas of the world.

“I didn’t know where those charts came from,” Chartier said. “I didn’t really care as long as they were accurate, I could do my mission, and I could get back home.”

Overseeing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Safety of Navigation (SoN) mission as its Senior GEOINT Authority, Chartier cares passionately now. While most know NGA for imagery and mapping, few know SoN is also a core mission for the agency. Mariners and pilots invest trust in NGA’s SoN products to help them make decisions—sometimes life-or-death ones—but few understand their origin.

The SoN mission is charged with ensuring the Department of Defense’s 13,000-plus aircraft and the U.S. government’s 16,500-plus ships, submarines, and other vessels have the geo-referenced data and charts necessary to operate safely around the globe. The mission has received more resources and attention in recent years following the grounding of the USS Guardian, a mine countermeasures vessel, in January 2013 on Tubbataha Reef off the Philippine coast. The after-action report cited inaccurate digital navigation charts as contributing to command errors in the incident.

In 2017, Chartier led a team in developing a 10-year Safety of Navigation Strategy that offers insight into mission products and a way to streamline their creation.

“Not only is it the first strategy that’s ever been written for Safety of Nav, we also have performance metrics in our oversight with the Pentagon,” Chartier said of biannual combat support agency readiness reports. “We’ve shared [the strategy] with our customers, and they’re holding us accountable and we’re holding ourselves accountable to produce what we need to meet the requirements.”

Those requirements include meeting the global needs of customers and embracing digital while continuing to ensure the accuracy of SoN data and charts. The strategy pushes data-centricity to enhance timeliness and increase productivity.

NGA’s Safety of Navigation Strategy, October 2017. (Image credit: NGA)

What is SoN?

Perhaps the best way to understand SoN is through examples of its products in action.

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, military and civilian agencies galvanized relief efforts. But before sending supplies and repair equipment, their delivery needed security assurance.

Capt. Brian Connon assessed Port au Prince and other Haitian harbors aboard the USNS Henson, an oceanographic survey ship, one of the service’s six charged with a daunting mission: measure the world’s oceans and harbors and verify existing charts, some of which date back to primitive sonar instruments and the practice of sounding bottoms with lead and line. Only about 15 percent of the world’s oceans are mapped to modern standards, according to Connon.

“We were surveying anchorages in Haiti, and the hospital ship (USNS Comfort) was coming in,” said Connon, who now commands NGA’s 300-person Maritime Safety Office, one of three SoN components at NGA.

“The anchorage [Comfort] was supposed to go to actually had several containers on the bottom that had been knocked off a pier by the earthquake and sunk,” Connon continued. The anchorage was cleared and once Comfort was able to arrive safely, its crew treated 1,000 Haitians and performed 850 operations.

The Maritime Safety Office used the Navy-collected data and generated safe, up-to-date charts within a week for Haiti relief operations.

Overhead, NGA’s Aeronautical Navigation Office assessed the capability of regional airstrips to receive relief supplies by helicopter and plane. Data and charts that included airfield vectors, potential vertical obstructions such as cellphone towers, and instrument flight procedures were verified and certified.

“Some of the safety data had changed. There were areas that had flooded and others that had shifted because of the earthquake,” said Air Force Col. Timothy McDonald, who is well qualified to head NGA’s Aeronautical Navigation Office. While in the Navy for 10 years, he flew S-3 Vikings off aircraft carriers. After switching to the Air Force, he flew the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane.

Within days, relief supplies were arriving in Haiti by air.

While those missions were event-generated, the third leg of NGA’s SoN responsibility, the Office of Geomatics, performs one of the world’s most important tasks daily. It provides data to ensure the accuracy of the World Geodetic System (WGS-84), the foundation of geospatial referencing.

“Anyone who uses GPS is depending upon our products,” said Richard Salman, Senior GEOINT Authority for NGA’s Office of Geomatics, which combines aspects of photogrammetry, elevation, geometry, geophysics, GPS, and mathematics into an engineering discipline. “When you’re driving around in your car … when you’re [flying] in a commercial aircraft … when you’re on a smartphone, our data is supporting that activity.”

This visualization of a gravity model, created with data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, shows variations in the gravity field across Africa and Europe. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Texas Center for Space Research)

How SoN Works

To perform NGA’s SoN mission, the Maritime and Aeronautical offices cull data from monthly reports delivered by 100-plus nation-partners as well as by domestic agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Office of Geomatics contributes specialized surveys and other technical products, such as reports based on its Earth Gravitational Model—which acknowledges that gravity varies around the globe and, thus, requires data adjustment—and World Magnetic Model, which chronicles migration of the Magnetic North Pole toward Siberia at about 65 kilometers a year.

Industry partners contract with NGA to generate products issued under SoN auspices and with SoN review and certification. Formats generally adhere to international and community-driven standards.

SoN staff analyzes incoming data and extracts that which it considers new and relevant to the mission. It issues reports—most of them every 28 days, others ad hoc—of changes and additions to existing data, publications, and charts.

Accuracy is paramount. Without it, the trust that Chartier invested while at sea and that McDonald had when piloting planes could not exist. And that trust has many levels, beginning with determining the quality and validity of the sources that provide data.

All data is geo-referenced, catalogued, and preserved—ready for retrieval in case of incident investigations.

Events such as the Maersk Alabama piracy in 2009 off the coast of Somalia generate additional data. Though the SoN customer base is the military and federal government, the mission offers commercial ships as many as 800 event messages a month, including incidents such as a craft lost at sea, a man overboard, iceberg travel, and pirate activity. In October, the message system led the USS Ashland to rescue a disabled sailboat in waters off Japan after the hobby mariners were lost at sea for months.

NGA’s SoN leaders meet quarterly with combatant commands and other stakeholders to determine upcoming needs, and there are standard reviews of frequently visited ports and airfields. Ad hoc requests are handled through special priorities. For example, when the USS Oscar Austin, a guided missile destroyer, was dispatched to Klaipeda, Lithuania, in July 2014, Cmdr. Brian Diebold, the ship’s skipper, declined to enter the harbor and tie up at a new pier until he had official charts from NGA to guide him.

Those charts, normally generated in three to four months, were provided in two days using high-resolution imagery and existing information to verify Lithuanian government data.

What’s Ahead

NGA’s SoN offices acknowledge some of their tools are antiquated. Part of the timing of the 10-year SoN strategy is federal budget-driven. “The strategy should influence the next three [Program Objective Memorandum] cycles for funding,” Chartier said of an early step in the budget process.

The strategy emphasizes new, modern means of collecting and analyzing data and disseminating results. Paper, for example, is downgraded in priority. Automation and digitization are the tools of tomorrow.

“As the world changes, there are ways in which we can get information quicker than in a paper chart or an old standard publication,” Chartier said. “We also can get that information digitally to your system so you can make better informed decisions, faster.”

For instance, SoN would like to see its data overlaid with other operationally relevant data on the Electronic Chart Display and Information System on a ship’s bridge. Technology at both ends of the delivery process is stalling the effort for now.

The Aeronautical Navigation Office needs to become more digitally enhanced to meet paperless cockpit advances such as those of the Air Force Air Mobility Command, and the performance-based navigation aims of the FAA concept of operations.

To meet its goals, NGA’s SoN offices need modernized IT infrastructure to collect, organize, analyze, and deliver data digitally. Likewise, customers need to update their systems to receive data in new and faster ways. And a culture change needs to happen.

“The old way is not going to get us to the new way,” Chartier said. “We have to update infrastructure and tradecraft.”

The Maritime Safety Office is already working toward the new way, hiring graduates of maritime academies that bring blue-water experience and the latest Geospatial Information System knowledge to the job.

“It’s going to take a large muscle movement from industry, other agencies, other governments, and us to be able to meet (paperless goals),” McDonald said. “It’s really taking up a large part of our efforts, staying ahead and making sure we get there to meet the warfighter needs for less paper.”

Salman said the Office of Geomatics is developing a new system for collecting magnetic data in anticipation of the end of life for Europe’s Swarm satellites in the early 2020s. Swarm, a European Space Agency constellation, measures the Earth’s geomagnetic field.

The SoN mission pushes new goals, but with caution.

“We can’t trade quality for automation and speed for higher production capacity,” Chartier said. “At the end of the day, it’s got to be safe for navigation and trusted.”


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