The GEOINT-SOF Relationship

Synergy between geospatial intelligence and special forces is critical to combat emerging threats


An evolving relationship between the Geospatial Intelligence Community and Special Operations Forces serves as a key mechanism to help the U.S. function within a changing world, Theresa Whelan said in her keynote address Tuesday at GEOINT 2015.

“In many ways, we are in a back-to-the-future mode,” said Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict. “We’re confronting variations on Cold War challenges, but with a more sophisticated set of adversaries. Fortunately, we are in a better position to cope.”

Whelan has largely dealt with special operations forces (SOF) in regional terms as an Africa specialist throughout most of her 28 years in government service. She is expanding upon that expertise in her new role, and in preparation said she has been researching SOF writ large.

“A collateral benefit of the intense [counter-terrorism] fights in Iraq and Afghanistan is a finely tuned, hand-in-glove GEOINT-SOF relationship,” she said. “This relationship will be critical to leverage as we deal with newly emerging state-based conflicts.”

This will require synergy between both parties. Intelligence analysts and field operators must collaborate to determine how to mesh warfighter needs with technological possibilities. It’s less a matter of “stuff and tools” than of “cooperation,” Whelan said.

“The operations side owes the intel side feedback information from what they’re doing on the ground so it can further enhance the Intel Community’s ability to refine its products,” Whelan said. “They have to understand the dynamics of each others’ roles—the strengths, but also the limitations.”

Insatiable demands for situational awareness can only be satisfied through a coupling of both open-source and classified data to create a product that isn’t just data, but the story it tells.

Referencing her experience in Africa, Whelan told about U.S. support to the recent Ebola outbreak. Looking beyond the map was key to understanding a region in which borders are fluid and frequent migration across them a way of life—and sometimes death.

“When you looked at Ebola and looked at a map that showed the outbreak was really in a remote corner of Guinea,” there was a tendency to believe “it would stay in a remote corner of Guinea,” Whelan said. “But when you looked past the lines, you were able to realize it might have been in a remote corner of Guinea, but it was not in a remote corner of the region.”

That realization aided the U.S. in its efforts to marshal aid—especially geospatial tools and technologies—that helped quell the outbreak.

It’s also a lesson in a problem both the defense and intelligence communities must address: risk that stems from the ebb and flow of areas of interest. Whelan cited an emphasis on Somalia that waned, then picked up again while she was an Africa specialist.

“This ebb and flow is one of our greatest challenges,” she said.


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