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Flexibility & Effectiveness of GEOINT Training

Contingency Planning for the Future


Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) is truly multi-faceted, encompassing every domain of military activity from space to the depths of the oceans, and involving just about every person in our armed forces in one way, shape or form. It has given birth to new military career specialisations and an entirely new ‘language’ of acronyms and abbreviations. Books are being written about it, conferences on the panoply of subjects it covers are multiplying at a bewildering rate and specialised agencies to focus on and exploit it effectively are being created in an increasing number of nations. It is also, arguably, the single most important activity in which a military force seeking the Nirvana of 21. Century development – transformation – can invest its resources.

So what challenges are faced by this ‘new breed’ of operative – the GEOINT professional? This is not a discipline in which serried ranks of individuals learn processes, procedures and policy hunched over computer terminals in hushed classrooms. The overarching necessity is to ensure that teams of individuals, working in intimate collaboration and harmony and supported by the best, most effective and fastest acting technology money can buy, have the capacity to position as many pieces of the intellectual jigsaw in a sensible arrangement in the shortest possible timeframe.

One of the areas on which considerable hope is being placed for the future success of GEOINT training relies on the natural propensity of enthusiastic professionals to network and share their knowledge, expertise and perspective – even their uncertainties. Conferences focused on aspects of GEOINT training and education (and do not make the mistake of ignoring the last of those two words) are growing in number and complexity.

Education also features high on the agenda of another branch of training GEOINT operatives, especially in the US, where a variety of courses are being offered – and heavily promoted – including certification programmes from the US GEOINT Foundation, a Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security and a Master of GIS programme, all available from Pennsylvania State University with GEOINT major options.

Admittedly these latter programmes are aimed at individuals rather than teams, but this highlights the challenge of integrating skilled individuals into effective teams. As an operational issue this must be key – and therefore it is even more important from the perspective of those who plan, design and implement the required training. ImStrat, specialising in GEOINT training, emphasises the necessity for individuals to develop unique skills and have the opportunity to practice the development of actionable intelligence product from analysis of multiple sources but then, under the rubric “Exercise, Exercise, Exercise,” highlights the essential nature of team development to harness and leverage specific skillsets. Which raises another question.

Are GEOINT professionals born, or are they made? The answer, unsurprisingly, is both – or neither, exclusively. Certainly, they are made, otherwise all the training planners might as well go home. Making a professional is what the training programmes are all about. But, in the same way a potter will make a far better pot using high quality clay, so a nascent professional meeting a certain threshold of intellectual and instinctive capability will turn out to be a more competent and effective intelligence operative.

Here one of the societal developments of the last three decades or so is paralleling (indeed, is partially created by) the burgeoning technology that ‘enables’ modern GEOINT. The training world abounds with discussions of ‘the Nintendo generation,’ by which we are meant to understand the issue of today’s youth growing up in a technology-dense environment in which educational, recreational and occupational digital devices are the norm. Having been used from an early age to virtual worlds, digital manipulation, high fidelity computer imagery and, increasingly, environments such as augmented reality, the argument goes that these young people are better suited to the type of discipline required and more familiar with the type of digital tools they will have to work with – and are therefore a couple of steps ahead of the curve at an earlier point in their training programme. But (there’s always a but) there’s a problem here, too.


Creative Solutions, Multiple Contingencies

Before examining the way in which better solutions can be crafted, it is worth reflecting for a moment on another societal issue. Education systems tend today to produce people good at passing exams and with a background in analysis of original source material from which fresh insight can be derived. The one thing they tend to lack, though, is experience. Even a PhD in a specific discipline in his or her twenties will have to make a great leap of faith to be able to apply unique skills to the creation of a complex construct such as actionable intelligence without at least some experience of the operational environment in which that intelligence will be applied. Which is an underlying challenge for trainers.

In the so-called Good Old, Bad Old Days, commercial apprenticeships tackled this conundrum by passing future leaders through a variety of disciplines: time on the shop floor, in the sales office, in customer service, shipping, etc. By so doing, organisations inculcated a broad base of knowledge in the individual – knowledge which would be of great assistance in maximising their contribution and making it more applicable to the output goal.

There is an argument, therefore, that effective training of geospatial intelligence professionals will be infinitely more effective if they spend time in other disciplines to gain similar levels of experience. Collective training in other military activities – tactical engagement, equipment maintenance, expeditionary warfare, joint operations – could have a dramatic effect on the eventual contribution these professionals could make.

The fact that GEOINT depends on the synthesis and fusion of data from multiple sources makes training solutions potentially difficult and expensive. The use of virtual reality in these solutions is one answer that is being pursued with great enthusiasm, as is the use of immersive training solutions derived from serious games and ‘best of breed’ practices from other, civil, domains.

Which is an important point to consider when one recognises the fact that GEOINT is no longer purely a military preserve. Agencies such as homeland security, law enforcement, civil emergency planning and disaster relief are all climbing on the GEOINT bandwagon as demand increases for accurate, timely and actionable intelligence product in all aspects of organised activity.

Making better use of GEOINT will revolve around training. And better training will require planners and implementers to make increased use of collective, virtual and immersive training solutions. A start has been made – but the story continues to develop at a pace that threatens to increase exponentially.

Tim Mahon

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