NIMA chief maps out new goals

Retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper says that NIMA needs to change the way it operates.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper has two major challenges on his mind these days: How to get the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to stay focused on its current mission, and how to push NIMA's employees on to tackle the next and after-next goals.

Roughly a year after taking the helm of NIMA, Clapper said he wants to change the way the agency has always operated. Since NIMA was established in 1996, it has used a Cold War-era method of collecting intelligence and relying on static photographs and maps of well-known, mostly fixed targets.

But Clapper said the targets and locations NIMA is working to keep track of now often are underground, virtually invisible and able to change by the second. By using unmanned aerial vehicles, Clapper said, NIMA agents can get a view of images and targets 'as they develop. They're watching live action. That's kind of a new thing for our business.'

What also makes reform difficult is the unfamiliarity of the landscapes and environments in regions of recent military conflicts.

For example, in Afghanistan NIMA had little geographical intelligence data at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and had to work quickly with a consortium of contractors to build up information on caves, deserts and other sites, Clapper said.

'It is now more difficult than ever to predict precisely where and when American power will next be needed to protect our national interests, and where the intelligence community must focus America's eyes and ears to provide the information advantage to decision-makers and warfighters,' Clapper said.

Geospatial intelligence will give warfighters a clear understanding of an adversary's infrastructure and vulnerabilities, permitting precise strikes against strategic and tactical targets, he added.

New identity

At the heart of Clapper's transformation is a move, pending approval from the Bush administration and Congress, to change the agency's name to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Clapper is also pushing the agency to develop more unified imagery and geospatial intelligence data with the use of digital databases that will make up what he called a ubiquitous knowledge map.

'This is a continuous process,' Clapper said. 'I don't think of it as many databases, but rather the sum of them composing the ubiquitous knowledge map which has as much geospatial intelligence data as we can populate,' Clapper said.

Along that vein, NIMA is working to establish the National Geospatial Intelligence Standards center by spring. The center will focus on standards and interoperability issues relevant to enabling technologies, data architecture and software tools that are used by other Defense Department customers, Clapper said.

Creation of the center dovetails with a new strategy Clapper released last month to vendors at NIMA's Industry Day at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington. That document detailed the agency's plan to unify its assets into a series of geographic information systems accessible via Web browser.

Clapper said the plan defines geospatial intelligence as the integration of NIMA's digital information with other intelligence systems.

At the industry day, Jan Schneier, the agency's director of Asian operations, said NIMA must revamp its operations to meet the needs of the users of its intelligence products.

For example, he said, military planners are now demanding video fly-throughs of target areas in minutes instead of weeks, he said. So NIMA has begun posting Neopacks'short for noncombatant evacuation operation package'of intelligence data on secure .mil sites for all the armed forces.

Schneier said the Neopacks have hyperlinks to videos, city or country maps in various scales, plus any other digital intelligence the agency can tailor on 24-hour notice, such as highway routes, street maps, building names, digital terrain elevations, pictures and information about the personnel to be rescued.

NIMA still makes escape and evasion maps for military pilots. The maps, printed on waterproof du Pont Tyvek film, can serve as blankets, shelters or rain collection devices.

'As a bonus,' he said, 'the maps tell what is edible in a particular region.'

NIMA maintains a public site with world maps, images and links to other agencies' geographic data, at www.earth-info.org.

'We are transforming to make ourselves more relevant and responsive to our customer needs,' Clapper said. 'Actually, the transformation has been going on since NIMA stood up officially; the difference now is that the changed threat paradigm has accelerated its pace.'

So too must the agency hasten its pace, Clapper added.

GCN assistant managing editor Susan M. Menke contributed to this article.

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