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The role of geospatial engineering in GEOINT.

In today's rapidly-changing environment of geospatial technology and services within a net-centric environment, the warfighter can access numerous geospatial products across a sea of platforms and formats. The extensive inventory of imagery and "map-like" products available to users in this environment can give the impression that technology has made obsolete the traditional disciplines of mapping, charting, and geodesy. But to the contrary, the age of GEOINT is validating and expanding the need for geospatial engineering to produce high-quality digital terrain products as the foundation upon which GEOINT is achieved.

One of the dangers in the digital age is that products can be digitally created, combined, and modified with a resulting end-product that is difficult to trace as to origin. How can I know that the digital map I'm looking at is accurate, and to what degree is it accurate? I see a target on a video feed. I know (from experience) that the building I see on video is located at the intersection of two known streets. I can locate the same intersection on a map product and pull a 10 digit grid coordinate. But is this grid accurate to 1 meter (m), 10m, or 200m? The answer has to be traced to the origin of the geospatial product. This problem grows when I really want to target the second story window using a three dimensional (3D) image. Today, any user with the right software can build a 3D model and save it on a server for others to use. But it takes a geospatial engineer or National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) geospatial analyst to create products with known accuracy and manage this data in such a way that supports analysis and targeting. How are geospatial product standards enforced in today's net-centric and ever changing TOC environment? It depends, and this is one of the growing challenges facing geospatial engineers in today's GEOINT environment

What is Geospatial Engineering?

Given that GEOINT consists of Imagery, Imagery Intelligence, and geospatial information, then where does geospatial engineering come in? Geospatial engineering is the discipline practiced by MOSs 21U, Topographic Analyst and 215D, Terrain Analysis Technician, that takes raw imagery and geospatial information and turns it into maps and terrain products useful to warfighters in a military context. Under GEOINT, the NGA name for this discipline is "geospatial analysis", but engineers prefer "geospatial engineering" because it's clearer as to who performs this role in the Army. This discipline is also referred to as Geospatial Information and Services (GI&S). Here's a definition of geospatial engineering from the soon-to-be-published FM 3-34, Engineer Operations:

"Geospatial engineering is the art and science of applying geospatial information, to enable understanding of the physical environment for military operations."

The art is to the ability to understand the mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available, and civilian considerations (METT-TC) and the geospatial information available, in order to explain the military significance of the terrain to the commander and staff, and create geospatial products for decision making. (This art is essential to Steps 1 and 2 of the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield process.)

The science is the ability to exploit geospatial information, producing spatially accurate products for measurement, mapping, visualization, modeling, and all types of analysis on the terrain. (The science really precedes the art--it's the foundation for further exploitation.)

Producing a Common Operational Picture

One of the key roles of geospatial engineers for the future is to manage the geospatial foundation of the common operational picture (COP) for battle command. The scope of battle command in this context is inclusive of operations, intelligence, modeling and simulations, and training, since all these functions depend on sharing the same geospatial data used on operational command and control (C2) platforms. Without deliberate management (collecting, processing, updating, conflating, deconflicting, and disseminating), there will be no unified COP. This point is hugely significant, because today we have many "operational pictures" but not a "unified COP" due to the plethora of platforms and incompatible formats which prevent systems interoperability. Deliberate management of the COP, along with adoption and integration of geospatial data standards across battle command systems and staffs, will solve this for the future. And who's responsible for this management?--geospatial engineers!

Now, what does this have to do with GEOINT? Traditionally, the COP is in the G3/S3 domain, but the future platform for managing the geospatial foundation of the COP is the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A), a GEOINT platform. We've always used the phrase "intel drives operations", and this illustrates how intelligence and operations are increasingly linked as we move to the future. It's the geospatial information foundation that allows the merging of GEOINT with operations, with all events being tied to their spatial location, and able to be displayed on the COP or analyzed using geospatial information shared across the warfighting domains. This concept describes the synergy of GEOINT. It is also highly dependent upon the ability to achieve a true COP, and not attainable without the science of geospatial engineering.

GEOINT Cells and the Way Ahead

The concept of GEOINT cells is emerging through collaboration among NGA, the Joint community, and the Army Intelligence and Engineer communities. GEOINT cells are formed when Imagery Analysts and Geospatial Engineers work together at a given echelon. Their purpose is to manage and update GEOINT data for their units' area of interest, and to create mission-specific GEOINT products to support planning and operations. Based on echelon and unit size, GEOINT cells may be permanent or temporary. Generally, GEOINT cells should operate continuously at division level and above.

In emerging doctrine at the Joint task force (JTF) level, the GEOINT cell process is called the JWIG (Joint Warfighter Interoperable Geospatial Intelligence) process. As such, it would supervise all spatially referenced functions, data, and activities within the JTF. Additionally, the GEOINT cell must establish relationships across the JTF to enable the Joint warfighter to define requirements; discover and obtain GEOINT; put it into usable form; and then use, share, and maintain GEOINT with mission partners. Joint Publication 2-03, Geospatial Intelligence Support to Joint Operations, 22 March 2007, describes the steps of the Geospatial Intelligence Preparation of the Environment process, and gives GEOINT cell responsibilities for each phase of contingency planning. Both National System for Geospatial Intelligence publications and Joint doctrine recognize that GEOINT data and processes provide the foundation for all fusion, analysis, and visualization activities, especially in the development of the COP.


The emerging Joint doctrine forces us to further define how GEOINT cells will operate at each echelon within the Army. A conceptual diagram depicting the relationship of Army engineers and intelligence Soldiers in GEOINT cells is shown above. Since GEOINT cells are currently only described in concept, continued collaboration between Military Intelligence (MI) and Engineers is required to refine this concept; develop tactics, techniques, and procedures and doctrine; revise Tables of Organization and Equipment to document cells as organizational elements, and then obtain resources to fully achieve the capabilities envisioned.


Geospatial engineers perform a critical role in producing the high quality digital terrain foundation products on which the COP and GEOINT depend. This geospatial information allows GEOINT to merge with operations. Understanding accuracy, data types, correct usage of data, and data exploitation to enhance mission readiness and execution are all functions performed by the geospatial engineer. Additionally, DCGS-A is the future platform that engineers will use to manage the COP; it's not solely an intelligence platform. Engineers and MI must continue to work together to realize the full benefits of GEOINT for the warfighter.

Colonel Thomas R. Crabtree is currently the Director of the TRADOC Program Integration Office (TPIO)--Terrain Data, at the Maneuver Support Center, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He is also chair of TRADOC's Geospatial Integrated Capabilities Development Team (ICDT), responsible for geospatial solutions that will enable battle command interoperability. COL Crabtree is an Engineer officer with experience from platoon through battalion command, and staff assignments from company through HQDA level. He previously served as the chief environmental analyst on the Army's

basing study for BRAC 2005, with oversight of geospatial analysis for the BRAC team. COL Crabtree is a 1982 graduate of USMA and holds an MS in Computer Science from the University of California, San Diego.
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Author:Crabtree, Thomas R.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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