By Ray McNulty
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 19, 2008 - Multinational Division Center formed in spring 2007 as part of the U.S. troop surge. The progress made since then has been well-documented, as soldiers have built a network of patrol bases covering the "belts" of suburbs and agricultural communities surrounding southern and eastern Baghdad. What is less well-known is the surge in support required from other U.S. government agencies in bringing about those gains. In Multinational Division Center, one of the most significant of those surge partners is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The NGA – a Defense Department support agency and a member of the U.S. intelligence community - is a silent partner in the Iraq fight.
"When the fog of war thickens, as it always does, geospatial intelligence creates a vivid visual picture of the battle space," NGA Director Navy Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett said.
Murrett explained that the mapping and imagery his staff produces gives commanders on the ground a forward look into enemy territory.
Based in Bethesda, Md., with locations around the globe, the NGA's mission is exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth in support of national security needs.
Over the past year, coalition forces in central Iraq have launched a series of combat offensives, each targeting a small geographic region around towns and villages deemed strategic for their location relative to Baghdad or their status as enemy sanctuaries. These were areas where coalition forces had not sustained a presence for years; Multinational Division Center was a new creation under the U.S. troop surge, and information on the area was slim.
Enter the NGA.
"When the mission enters unfamiliar territory, geospatial intelligence shows the way with maps, charts and imagery," Murrett said.
Partnered for the last 12 months with the division G2's Analytical and Control Element, NGA's GEOINT Support Team 29 provides 24/7 support to the ACE. Analysts work shifts, while the team leader supervises operations and works with the G2 and ACE leadership to focus geospatial analysis where it is most effective in supporting the mission. The team also acts as a conduit for customized reach-back support from NGA's U.S. headquarters.
An NGA official said the group's mission is highly collaborative, complementing the division's other intelligence feeds to give a more complete picture of the ground situation.
"GEOINT is collaborative. It fuses with information from other intelligence analytical tradecrafts answering the questions, 'When, where, and how often?'" the official said.
Taking advantage of the visual medium, he explained, GEOINT uses geospatial data to display volumes of information, forming a bridge from raw data points to a refined intelligence picture.
"In Iraq, we have used GEOINT to effectively pinpoint insurgent locations, identify trends and assist in reducing their effectiveness to conduct operations against coalition forces," the official said.
As surge operations gained momentum through the summer and fall, al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents saw attack numbers and effectiveness diminish, leading coalition officials to suspect al Qaeda was either shifting locations or slowly declining as an effective adversary. Multinational Division Center has kept up offensive operations since then, but with an increasingly sharper focus, to wipe out remaining pockets of insurgent resistance. In these later operations, the NGA's support comes into play more than ever.
"When the enemy tries to hide, geospatial intelligence makes pinpoint-precision targeting possible," Murrett said.
According to their counterparts, the NGA staff is critical to mission success because they allow soldiers to operate more efficiently in a massive battle space.
"They have been a critical force multiplier, and their presence has exponentially increased our GEOINT capacity," said Army Warrant Officer Scott Potter, ACE GEOINT branch chief, G2 section, 3rd Infantry Division. "The depiction and associated analysis of the spatial relationship of events is key to the accomplishment of our mission in Iraq."
On a day-to-day basis, the NGA team assists MND-C units with analytical intelligence assessments, exploitation of imagery, production of graphical analytical products depicting weapons cache finds and roadside bomb attack trends, force protection planning and, more recently, general infrastructure repair support.
After months of intense fighting in areas that once represented the heart of the Sunni insurgency, coalition forces are beginning the transition to stability operations. While the potential for physical harm is reduced in the shift from kinetics to capacity-building, officials said, the need for real-time intelligence and ground visibility is unchanged and situational awareness remains a critical factor in success.
As a result of the shift, support to infrastructure and reconstruction projects is becoming a higher priority for the NGA team.
One example of that shift involves exploring the potential use of geospatial analysis and advanced technology to assist in monitoring and depicting the health of agriculture and the status of the irrigation canal network in the division's area – crucial capabilities in supporting a region of Iraq that is heavily dependent on agriculture for its livelihood.
(Ray McNulty serves with the Multinational Division Center Public Affairs Office.)