Seeking Synergy

September 9, 2008  - By
Image: GPS World

By Art Kalinksi, GISP

Three weeks ago, I attended the Second Annual Synergy Conference and Expo in southern Florida. The operations and intelligence conference was organized by Nancy Wheeler and Brigadier General Billy Bingham, USAF (Ret). Although both are retired from intel, they continue to work in the community through their support of the Government Emerging Technology Alliance and the conference co-sponsor, the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).

The conference was very well organized and was a superb opportunity for civilians, contractors, and all ranks of military personnel to interact freely. Junior enlisted personnel, such as Air Force Sergeant Barrett and Senior Airman Roach, who had hands-on Predator image analysis experience, were given as much attention as their senior counterparts.

I’m writing this column not as a knowledgeable intel guy, but rather as an intel outsider with a GIS focus. Although I served 20 years in the Navy, my experience with the Navy intel community was very limited. The “spooks,” as we called them, were usually cloistered behind cipher-lock security doors in rooms that were impervious to electronic spying, where disruptive background music thwarted any eavesdropping. Occasionally, someone reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz door guard would open a security window and pass us a scrap of classified paper telling us to do something or sharing some very limited information. We “ops pukes” would then act on the intelligence, sometimes blindly depending on the source. At the time, that was the model common to all branches of the military, with its origins going back to Napoleon’s army.

At Synergy, I learned that the old Napoleonic model is changing dramatically; the conference title confirmed the evolution in thinking and action. Synergy refers to the merging of Operations and Intelligence divisions, and is spurred by changing operational needs — specifically, the increasing need for speed. According to General Bingham, gone is the time when operational forces reacted to intelligence within days. Now, even a reaction time of hours is not good enough; instead, it must be measured in minutes. Additionally, many of the operational forces are also major intelligence collectors.

In the old days, the need for security trumped the need for fast response. Information was secured through multiple layers of security and compartmentalization. Even if there was a bad apple who leaked information, very few individuals possessed enough information to cause serious damage.

Today, that model is changing because of the rapid changes to the operational situation. However, much of our satellite imagery, sources, and methods are still carefully protected, with limited access by our operational forces. That’s the key reason I joined my current employer: to get very high-resolution, but unclassified, oblique imagery into the hands of our operational ground troops quickly. (In fact, I attended the conference because Pictometry will be an exhibitor next year, partnering with Lockheed Martin to install oblique imagery cameras on the Predator and perhaps the Osprey.)

The keynote speaker, Lt. General Mark Owen of USSTRATCOM, discussed the evolution of the command’s mission. Historically, USSTRATCOM was primarily involved in strategic nuclear deterrence, but its mission has been extended to cover all WMDs, space warfare, and cyberspace.

Colonel Stuart Maberry, USAF, addressed the problems associated with irregular warfare. His presentation reminded me of a visionary Naval War College Review article written back in 1989 by CDR Steven Rose that described the array of threats we would face, including chemical weapons, biological attacks, and even nano-technology. Rose mused that one day we might long for the “good old days” when all we had to worry about were nuclear weapons. I can relate to that, having served in sensitive weapons assignments. Nuclear weapons require significant technical skill and ongoing maintenance if one hopes to achieve nuclear yields, as opposed to just a dirty bomb. The other dubious upside of a nuclear attack is that you know that you’ve been attacked, as well as when and where. This information may then point to the attacker.

That may not be the case with cyber, chemical, and biological attacks that could seem like accidents or natural outbreaks. Add to that the relative simplicity of creation and delivery, and the fact that some of our enemies have no concern for collateral damage — or even their own lives — and the problem gets very serious. The only effective defense seems to be very good intelligence and constant vigilance.

Major General Michael Ennis USMC of the CIA discussed current intelligence efforts, with a focus on human intelligence collection. It was interesting to note how valuable he considered open-source information as a way of confirming intel collected from other sources. He indicated that Internet blogs and Web sites, because of their numbers, are sometimes a superior source of information. He also expressed concern over the chasm between the ops and intel groups, and the walls that still exist between domestic and overseas collection, as well as the cultural differences between military and homeland agencies (such as the ATF and FBI).

The vendor expo section had a strong focus on data management and data mining; countless products addressed the complexity of managing a flood of data. I observed numerous products and services that were not easily understandable. In many cases I couldn’t tell if I was looking at vaporware or I just wasn’t smart enough to understand that I was looking at a marvelous new development. After talking to some attendees, I suspect that it was a little of both.

Of course homeland security agencies, all the military branches, and the intelligence community are big users of GIS technology, so one would expect ESRI to be an exhibitor. Indeed, ESRI had a booth demonstrating ArcGIS and ArcGIS-related products, including custom applications, but I didn’t see anything new other than some statistical analysis packages and discussions about Image Server. Spatial Analyst seems to be more important to the intel community than to most other GIS users I’ve seen, who are more involved in cataloging than analysis.

ERDAS demonstrated its wide array of GIS data and image processing software, including the universal data translator TITAN. Adobe demonstrated its geo-referenced PDF maps, as well as publishing and collaboration tools. In the coming weeks I’m going to learn about (and report on) the differences between PDFs and the capabilities of TerraGo Technologies’ GeoPDFs.

Zebra Imaging showed examples of its 3D holograms of buildings and neighborhoods. Although they looked very impressive, it was difficult to assess the benefit holograms offer over other visualization tools. I believe that we are still early in the life cycle of this promising technology, and I look forward to seeing how it will evolve.

In one of the closing plenary sessions, LTC Casey Carey discussed the Sons of Iraq program, which (along with the surge) changed the entire dynamic in that country. By enhancing community relations and bringing Iraqis into the fold, intelligence gathering and the effectiveness of all coalition forces was greatly improved. This was a complex effort that required imaginative thinking. Life was simple when all we asked the military to do was kill people and break stuff. Now they also have to be military tacticians, spies, intelligence analysts, public works engineers, economic developers, diplomats, and even social workers. As if that isn’t enough, most of them are very young, without the benefit of college degrees or years of experience.

As part of a panel discussion on mega-trends, Bob Gourley of Crucial Point, LLC, talked about the convergence of PCs and cell phones; there will be more than 6 billion G3-type phones in use worldwide by 2014. Add to that the changing rules governing domestic origins of calls, and we have a very daunting surveillance task. The panel also discussed In-Q-Tel, the nonprofit incubator for CIA support companies. One of In-Q-Tel’s success stories was the creation of Keyhole, which was later acquired by Google as Google Earth.

There are three themes of the conference that I can’t overemphasize. First of all, GIS and related image processing software, along with data mining software, are growing in importance as the environment of the intelligence community grows increasingly sophisticated and complex. Second, there are many more people, military and civilian, involved in this work than the average person would imagine. Third, if you know any new graduates with GIS or computer science backgrounds, let them know that there are some very interesting career opportunities in the intel communities — the work is serious and significantly more interesting than printing road maps or maintaining a parcel tax map.

My hat is off to the legions of military and civilian workers that are currently operating to keep us safe. They need all the support we can provide, and I hope our leaders keep politics out of these profoundly important issues. My overarching impression is that we have a lot of very smart military and civilian people spending countless hours to protect our interests. It’s very hard work in a constantly changing environment of one-upmanship. The classic Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy cartoon serves as a good analogy, and I saw the cartoon included in several presentations. The difference is that the stakes are very high, and the results of failure not funny.

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