Tracing GEOINT's Evolution

by | Apr 9, 2014

By S. Eugene Poteat, president, Association of Former Intelligence Officers (, Falls Church, Va.

From its early beginnings, technology has been the common thread that has advanced geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to where it is today. The CIA's U-2 photoreconnaissance airplane was shot down on May Day, 1960, over the Soviet Union, ending its four-year career. However, the plane's aerial photography had answered the critical intelligence question of the day: Was there a bomber and missile gap with the Soviet Union?

Aerial photography confirmed there was no gap and that the United States had military superiority over the Soviet Union. That critical knowledge led President Kennedy to call Khrushchev's bluff, which ended the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962”without a nuclear war. Overhead photography had more than proved its intelligence value.

The CIA then succeeded, after nearly a dozen failures, in getting its U-2 replacement”the CORONA satellite”into orbit and successfully recovered its film bucket, bringing home more photo coverage of the Soviet Union from its first mission than the U-2 did over its lifetime. But with no U-2 photography and months between CORONA missions, the light tables at the CIA's National Photo Interpretation Center (NPIC) were dark, with little to do”or so it seemed.

Entering a New Era of Intelligence

The U-2 and CORONA photography clearly demonstrated the incredible value and contribution future spaceborne reconnaissance could make to U.S. defense, national security and safety. Behind the scenes, the air was alive at departments and agencies in the intelligence community. Intensive research and development was under way on the next generation of satellites and sensors, as the intelligence community and military establishment recognized high-tech systems were the wave of the future.

The CIA's new Directorate of Science and Technology would take the lead in developing unbelievably advanced, real-time aerial and space reconnaissance platforms and sensors, often requiring inventions and technologies not yet available; development of new orbits; and new sensors for day, night and bad-weather collection systems. The U.S. Navy, Air Force and National Security Agency were on parallel tracks to develop those platforms and sensors for future national defense missions.

NPIC staff knew they had to develop equally advanced capabilities to interpret and analyze the coming flood of collection from all the new reconnaissance platforms and sensor technologies under development as well as determine how best to package and distribute these future products to end users, especially U.S. warfighters. No longer would intelligence analysts, policymakers and warfighters have to rely on estimates alone; soon they'd have timely intelligence from new and improved overhead sensor systems. NPIC would never be the same.

An Evolving Discipline

After some difficult wrangling between the Defense Department and the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was created in the early 1960s as the central organization to coordinate and better manage the exploding new world of high-tech, overhead intelligence collection and analysis systems”with equal representation by the Air Force, CIA, Navy and NSA. There were no more than a dozen scientists assigned to the new NRO when it finally came together. I was one of them, having been seconded from the CIA; others came from the Air Force, Navy, NSA and the Army Map Service”later known as the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA).

For a while after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, the defense and intelligence communities relaxed, and NPIC morphed, in 1996, into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). NIMA went on to combine America's most advanced imagery and geospatial assets, including those of DMA, with a critical mass of special skills and technologies under a single mission umbrella.

Sept. 11, 2001, brought home to U.S. citizens what before had seemed merely distant terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. With attacks suddenly occurring on U.S. soil, they took on new significance, arriving in the face of a new enemy”radical Islamic terrorists in the United States.

The intelligence community and military establishment responded with a new war-fighting capability, integrating intelligence with special operations forces as the best approach to engage this enemy anytime and anywhere in the world. This new network-centric warfare meant getting the right information, in the right format, at the right time, to the military shooter who needs it.

Planes and Predator drones would need targeting information. The tools of warfare became known as C4ISR”Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Network-centric warfare sought to translate an information advantage, enabled in part by information technology, into the robust networking of well-informed geographically dispersed forces.

This networking, combined with changes in technology, organization, processes and people, allowed new forms of organizational behavior for our policymakers and officials at the highest levels of government. This new warfare would need more than just maps, requiring new targeting and more details previously unavailable.

GEOINT Enters the Fray

By 1993, it was obvious NIMA's expanding capabilities and resources were called on more and more to support the intelligence community and warfighters as well as the Department of Homeland Security and first responders during a variety of natural disasters. NIMA acquired a new name to match its new roles; in 1996, it became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

This area of intelligence took another leap forward, integrating multiple sources of information, intelligence and tradecraft to produce an innovative and sophisticated new discipline that then NGA Director James Clapper formally christened geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.

Now the intelligence community is better able to exploit and analyze imagery and geospatial information to visually depict physical features and human activity on Earth. Today, NGA continues to deliver these vital intelligence products for military, civil and international needs. More than ever, NGA puts GEOINT rapidly in the hands of its customers”when, where and how they need it.

Editor's Note: This column was excerpted from SIGINT, HUMINT and Now GEOINT, which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies.


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