Striking a Balance

As technology becomes more advanced, GEOINT analysts must move ahead while not losing sight of the basics


Pentagon leaders have been discussing certification and training of all intelligence analysts, to include geospatial intelligence analysts, for several years.

The first step toward establishing a certification program has to do with job and task analyses. Initially, the list of tasks describing what it means to be a GEOINT analyst, spanning duties from an apprentice to journeyman, included a staggering 600 items.

Although this list has since been whittled down to a more efficient approximation of 75 skills that would comprise an “uber analyst” and take the length of a career to accrue, it points to the breadth of the challenge that comes with training a GEOINT analyst.

U.S. Navy and Air Force personnel look at sectarian neighborhoods on a map of Baghdad to analyze IED activity. Photo credit: DVIDS

The amount of available data is expanding daily with the advent of resources such as full-motion video (FMV), new and diverse phenomenology such as LiDAR and multispectral, and open source information derived from social media. New technologies such as cloud storage architectures, high-speed processing, and complex algorithms have also revolutionized the analyst profession over the last decade. The data deluge and a shift in analytic methodology toward activity-based intelligence (ABI) and multi-INT strategies present new challenges for analysts as well.

As a result, the role of GEOINT analyst has grown to cross all disciplines and multiple work roles within the Intelligence Community, and now goes far beyond plotting an event on a map or producing a geospatial product. However, many of the technologies presenting new challenges for training GEOINT analysts may simultaneously be a part of the solution. Changing technologies also highlight the importance of going back to the basics when necessary.

Crowd-Sourcing Tradecraft

Lt. Col. Randy Reynolds is the U.S. Army’s GIS Officer with Army Headquarters at the Pentagon, and served as the assistant commandant for military training and education at NGA College until May 2011.

Reynolds predicts it’s not necessarily how analysts are trained, but what they will be trained in, that will change as they come to rely more on cloud computing, integrated technologies, and multi-INT strategies.

Reynolds points to the need to increase geospatial analysts’ awareness of what other disciplines do and how they do it. But more pressing, he hopes to see a change in policy and culture when it comes to how and with whom data is shared.

“In the future, it’s going to become even more important that we develop across the IC those policies that allow discoverability, and then teach people what those processes are.”

Reynolds said the Army is also concerned with maintaining skill sets as geospatial analysts return from Afghanistan. The Foundry Program, part of the Army’s Intelligence Readiness Operations Capability (IROC), is addressing this need by standing up intelligence training centers around the country. The centers provide analysts the opportunity to keep their skills sharp by producing deployable products or gathering intelligence on areas that are not current theaters of operation.

Other Pentagon intelligence leaders echoed Reynolds’ sentiments Nov. 15 at an intelligence education and training conference in Fairfax, Va. Kip Brailey, the Intelligence Community chief learning officer with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said one of his biggest tasks is coordinating training and knowledge sharing across the Community.

The 17 individual intelligence agencies often develop 17 different courses in one subject, according to Brailey, meaning that an intelligence officer on rotation to four agencies will often have to sit through four “flavors” of training.

“We have to figure out ways to take the best training and make it available to everyone in the IC,” Brailey said.

Jim Bridgham, training lead with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Denver Office, said NGA has been using aspects of ABI for the past year. This allows students to incorporate actions from many intelligence disciplines, and capitalize on the other organization’s training methods and delivery systems.

NGA anticipates employing the Integrated Analytic Environment (IAE), which is based on the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System as opposed to the NGA desktop, into its training model. IAE allows users to find applications within other disciplines that can be applied to their own. For example, an analyst who is used to studying satellite images can use IAE to gain information on ships.

“IAE potentially allows us to further incorporate our focus on activity-based intelligence, recommending analysts look beyond a specific intelligence discipline to incorporate information from other, potentially nontraditional sources,” Bridgham said.

IAE is a relatively new capability, according to Eric Hooton, NGA’s Western CONUS regional manager for IT services. Development is continuing at a rapid pace, and the most recent drop in January allows more community-wide use compared to earlier versions that were tailored to a specific capability.

Harry “Ed” Mornston, director of NGA-Denver, said IAE would soon become the analysis and production environment where all analysts work if they want to have full access to the most current integrated intelligence across the IC.

“Training on the Integrated Analytic Environment is going to be exceptionally important for analysts,” Mornston said. “And the sooner we can start with that, the better off we’re going to be as a fully integrated community.”

Mornston noted that in order to create an integrated community, the importance of collaboration needs to become a part of basic analytic training.

“Analysts who want to be more of a community officer and a community analyst are going to need to start earlier than they currently do and become even more familiar with other IC agencies’ training and tradecraft,” Mornston said.

Rick Barrowman, technical executive with NGA-Denver, said storing data on the cloud allows analysts to educate one another.

“From a training and tradecraft perspective, you’re almost crowd-sourcing the tradecraft, because it’s no longer done on a single machine. It’s done on that virtual environment of the cloud and other people have access to it,” Barrowman said.

Dr. Eileen Preisser, director of the Air Force GEOINT Office at NGA Campus East, said sharing is essential to add a level of peer review to analysis.

“The social networking of analysts is key to tradecraft, and we’re going to have to teach people to do this better in the future,” Preisser said. “That’s new in the analytic process because of ABI. You can now discuss events as they unfold versus once or twice a year at a conference.”

Services Align

Chief Warrant Officer William Jones II, chief of the Geospatial Skills Division within the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, leads the service’s geospatial engineer courses, which in January 2012 moved from the NGA College at Fort Belvoir.

Jones reflected on how the course has changed drastically since 16 years ago when he went through training, much of which was still manual and involved using permanent marker on plastic overlay. Today, students use software suites to create overlay for an area of Afghanistan in a matter of minutes—a task that would have taken hours if not days when he was a trainee.

U.S. Navy sailors measure the distance between two points on a map in the chart room aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

“Now, based on the level of technology and the corresponding high resolution data sets, they’re making more accurate products much faster than we ever could have before,” Jones said. “And, within the operating environment things are happening much faster.”

Brian Daley, who serves as the lead GEOINT trainer and certification team leader for the Office of Naval Intelligence’s (ONI) Fleet Intelligence Specialist Team (FIST), said more sophisticated technology means a greater emphasis on training GEOINT analysts to handle big data and fuse multiple data layers. This means envisioning what kind of multi-layer products will most benefit customers and ensuring that students have a core knowledge in this area.

“We’re doing things like shifting trends to certain areas of the world and condensing data,” Daley said. [Students] need to take complex input and create a very easy-to-understand output from it.”

Preisser said the Air Force is placing more focus on the people-side of analysis. In October, the Air Force launched a two-week advanced analysis course in conjunction with Angelo State University in Texas to focus on the human dimension of analysis.

“It’s changing the education and tradecraft because it’s forcing us to look at the more humanistic side of things than we have in the past,” Preisser said. “ABI brings back this human component we got away from for a long time.”

Daley added that the U.S. services are starting to train more closely than they used to.

“Now, analysts are working in these joint centers, so we’re starting to train things in a similar way,” he said.

Rebalancing Priorities

Mark Lowenthal, president of the Intelligence and Security Academy, and the former assistant director of Central Intelligence for analysis and production, expresses different concerns.

“Everyone’s pushing ABI, FMV—the GEOINT of the future,” Lowenthal said. “My concern is that it might already be the GEOINT of the past, or it might not be as much of the future as it once was.”

Lowenthal said he fears the analyst community has lost its ability to conduct strategic intelligence analysis on targets such as bases and air or naval fleets since 9/11. As the U.S. rebalances toward the Pacific and begins tracking force development in countries such as China, traditional methods of analysis will be just as important as counterterrorism and counterintelligence has been over the past decade, he said.

“A good analyst will probably need to know both,” Lowenthal said. He later added, “It’s going to be more important to have a more diverse collection system, and to have analysts who can do not just ABI and FMV, but the old-school happy snaps.”

Daley said with conventional warfare, it used to be that an analyst sent to one ship performed the same tasks as an analyst on another.

“Now, there’s such a different mission based on where you go,” he said. An analyst sent to PACOM versus CENTCOM has a totally different mission, a different problem set, and different tools.”

ONI addresses this challenge by plugging lessons learned from recently deployed sailors into the training process, for an on-demand training element, Daley said.

Jones said the Army geospatial schoolhouse also recruits recently deployed soldiers to teach. As operational priorities shift, Jones said the courses have been flexible, by incorporating blocks on topics such as IED analysis.

U.S. Marines participate in an exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Service members in the command operations center track and monitor the arriving and departing checkpoints of 10 teams and plot them on a map.

Students in the geospatial engineering course receive training in both traditional techniques, as well as strategies for asymmetrical warfare using new technologies. However, another concern is that soldiers will atrophy in whatever skills they don’t apply in the weeks following training.

“If they’re not practicing it in the field, then they will lose it,” Jones said. “The challenge is with the units to still maintain that balance between asymmetric and conventional warfare.”

Preisser said the Air Force is also beginning to consider how to balance the instant gratification of the ABI environment with long-term second and third phase analysis.

“There are different analytic mentalities,” she said. “Some people, because of how their brain works, are really good at tactical and better at crisis management and multitasking. And then there are people who are just better at context and content output.”

The Air Force has discussed the possibility of testing analysts to determine what type of analytic missions they are best suited for.

“One of the things you might see in the future is to train people who have proclivities that align better with one of those two areas,” she added.

Focus on Fundamentals

Guillermo Matos, a lead GEOINT analyst with ONI’s FIST, warns that technology shouldn’t detract from the significance of the human element when it comes to training GEOINT analysts.

“We’ve gotten so caught up on products and automated systems that do everything,” Matos said. “It does not resolve the issue of validation.”

Stephen Wood, vice president of the DigitalGlobe Analysis Center, said when the company is looking for new analysts, it prioritizes skills such as the ability to write well, conduct research, and speak publicly.

“It’s great if someone is technologically very smart, but if they can’t explain what they’re doing or put it into layman’s terms for the customer, it doesn’t really do much,” Wood said. “We always have to be focused on messaging and how you take all of this great technology and apply it.”

Despite the prevalence of more sophisticated technology, Mornston said the emphasis on fundamentals should not be lost among the need to pay attention to big data and the IAE.

As analysts are presented with a growing range of capabilities and areas of interest, it will be essential to align training to keep pace with new technologies while maintaining balance by not becoming over-reliant on technology or losing sight of the basics.

“Critical thinking, DNI analytic standards and tradecraft, logic and argumentation, effective writing, source evaluation—we can never forget that those skills are really the foundation that all analysis is built upon,” Mornston said.

He added that NGA is currently emphasizing these basics of analysis through initiatives such as a clear writing campaign, analyst certification, and a review of products to ensure they are relevant to the target audience.

“Even with new, exciting techniques,” Mornston continued, “an analyst that doesn’t have the basics isn’t going to be very effective.”

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