The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA): Pentagon’s Vision

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the Pentagon’s chief provider of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). The NGA is classified as a ‘combat support agency’: effectively, an organization which is tasked with providing tactical-level intelligence support for US combat operations all around the world.

Although the NGA is a relatively recent creation, it can trace its roots back to the earliest efforts by the United States to place eyes in the sky during the Interwar Period. Tracing the historical roots of the NGA is a relatively easy task. Explaining why the NGA developed into what it is today is slightly more complicated. This is because the meaning of geospatial intelligence has changed over the years with the progress of technology, end use and user demand.

1. What is the NGA?

As stated previously, the NGA is a ‘combat support agency’. So what does that look like in practice? Unlike, say for example the CIA, the NGA is a sub-service within the Pentagon. The NGA is tasked by the Department of Defense with providing geospatial intelligence used to support the military’s combat operations. In some sense, thinking of the NGA as an agency purely involved in combat support is a slight misnomer.

The NGA has been known to provide GEOINT in support of civilian disaster management as well [source]. In a time where the climate has become a national security risk, geospatial intelligence will likely become even more crucial to crisis response and emergency planning. Broadly speaking however, the NGA can be seen as the GEOINT specialist of the Federal Government.

2. Symbology, Motto and Patches

The NGA uses a typical US Government roundel type seal. The seal is ringed by a dark blue band containing the words National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at the top, interspersed by two dark red compass like stars, with the words United States of America at the bottom. An offset view of the planet dominates the center of the seal, focused on the continental United States, Caribbean Sea and Mesoamerica. Tilted on its axis, the glow of the Sun breaks the inky blackness of space. Latitudinal and longitudinal grid lines are overlay onto the surface.

The 2008 version of the NGA Seal
The 2008 version of the NGA Seal

2.1 Motto

The motto of the NGA does not appear on the seal. It is easy to see why that is, given the length of the motto. The motto is intended to reflect the guidance provided to the great explorers Lewis and Clarke by the Lemhi Shoshone native woman Sacagawea [source]. Sacagawea’s understanding of the landscape and the languages spoken by uncontacted bands of indigenous tribes directly impacted the success of the expedition. Indeed, it was an early example the value of geospatial intelligence, in that Sacagawea knowledge of the terrain provided foresight to the explorers. The motto today is thus:

“Know the Earth… Show the Way… Understand the World.”

Another, newer variant reads:

“Know the World, Show the Way…from Seabed to Space.”

2.2 Patches

The NGA has its own police force that patrols its extensive campus’ and provide access control and security for NGA personnel. The patch for the NGA Police force is a regular law enforcement shield that simply contains the NGA seal under “Police” in gold stitching.

The NGA Police Patch
The NGA Police Patch

2.3 NIMA Livery

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) was the precedent agency prior to the authorization of NIMA. Its seal is ringed by a red band incorporating the words National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The head of an eagle dominates the center black roundel, regarded sinister (heraldic term for facing left). 13 stars evoking the original 13 Colonies ring the eagle’s head, which is sat onto a light blue globe with latitudinal and longitudinal lines. A bed of laurels with three vertical arrows mantles the eagle on top. A blue banner contains the NIMA motto: “Tempestivum, Verum, Definitum“, meaning “Timely, Accurate, and Precise“. The flag of NIMA is the seal set into a light blue backdrop.

The Flag of NIMA

3. Mission of the NGA

According to the NGA, various elements of its mission support operations of the US Defense Department and the wider Intelligence Community. The NGA maintains [source]:

  • 196 million sq. km. of imagery encompassing over 200,000 unique maps
  • 5,000 nautical charts containing 70 million hydrographic features which aid civilian maritime navigation
  • 4 billion aeronautical data elements comprising of 48,000 airfields in the Automated Air Facilities Intelligence File, managing 3,000 Department of Defense flights per day
  • 11 million toponyms and 125 million unique scientific records

This immense amount of data is fed into the NGA’s various departments which in turn provide strategic intelligence, warfighter support, indications and early warning for global threats, safety of navigation, humanitarian and disaster relief and homeland defense initiatives spanning counter-terrorism to counter-narcotics operations [source].

4. A Brief History of the NGA

Since at least 1794, militaries across Europe and North America had a fairly good understanding of aerial reconnaissance. The very first attested use of areal reconnaissance, using balloons, came during the French Revolutionary Wars with Austria. During the Battle of Fleurus, French engineer Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle deployed his balloon design as a means to assess enemy strength and direct artillery fire.

The use of these balloons is believed to have contributed at least somewhat to the eventual French victory [source]. Ground features had previously obscured enemy movements, but General Morlot, stationed at a range of roughly 18 miles to the horizon, now had a clear view. They fed communications to him via cable, and he returned his orders.

4.1 Early Pioneers

Although no examples survive, Union and Confederate armies made use of balloons as platforms for areal photography [source]. The nature of geospatial intelligence, however, changed dramatically in the First World War. During the roughly 100 year period between Fleurus and Sarajevo, geospatial technology remained virtually unchanged. But as the armies of European empires became stagnated in trenches along the Western Front, an intrepid British engineer devised a game changing solution.

4.2 America Takes Notice

Prior to the outbreak of war in Europe, Frederick Charles Victor Laws, a young officer in the Royal Flying Corps, began experiments with areal photography from rigid airships. Going into the war, his superiors did not understand or care to investigate the value of those experiments. But the First World War was equal parts bloody and earth shattering, a truly paradigm shifting conflict. By 1917, Laws was the premier aeronautical photographer of the RFC. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the US Army already had a unit dedicated to lithography and map production, the Central Map Reproduction Plant (CMRP).

This image was captured at 7.15 pm, 22 July 1917 over Loos, France showing a German trench system.

But when Captain Laws demonstrated the usefulness of areal photography in 1917, there was a sudden explosion of the number of cartographic records. That sheer volume presented some issues, drowning the US Army Corp of Engineers in layer upon layer of lithograph.

4.3 The Engineer Reproduction Plant and the Army Map Service

The Army began a process of centralizing map production into a single unit. The Engineer Reproduction Plant (ERP) was consolidated by the Army in order to manage the collection of maps held by the War Department. The unit was not all that large. As America’s military needs drew down during the Interwar Period, so too did the Army’s need for mapping. The ERP thus played only a moderate support role to the peacetime standing army [source]. When the United States was thrusted into the Second World War, this mapping capacity needed to be rapidly spun up.

RAF officers at RAF Benson inspecting various types of F24 cameras in front of a PR Mosquito.

In 1942, the ERP was merged with the Cartographic Section of the War Department General Staff to become the Army Map Service. The AMS remained in existence until 1962. The original status of the ERP and AMS as outgrowths of the military likely directly influenced the position of the modern NGA under the umbrella of the Pentagon.

5. The NPIC and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Besides Kennedy, there is perhaps no other US President other than Eisenhower who directly molded the current landscape of the Intelligence Community. In January of 1961, Eisenhower ordered the creation of the National Photographic Interpretation Center. The NPIC was itself an early progenitor of the National Reconnaissance Office.

5.1 Early Stages

The NPIC came to prove its value during an episode of severe tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1961, the Soviet Union undertook an honest assessment of its ballistic missile capabilities and discovered that it came dramatically short of what it had claimed publicly. In the 1960’s, Soviet ICBM technology was in its infancy. It was neither reliable nor terribly accurate.

Compared to America’s highly effective and reliable ICBM stock, this presented a problem to Soviet deterrence and first-strike doctrines. One solution was simply placing Soviet MRBMs and ICBMs closer to the US homeland. Cuba seemed to be the most obvious candidate. In that very same year, the tenor for Soviet protection grew after the CIA’s failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April [source].

5.2 Khrushchev’s Gamble

Soviet leadership, particularly Khrushchev, made several assumptions about President Kennedy and the United States at large. These assumptions came into play once Khrushchev finally managed to convince Castro that stationing missiles on the island was in his best interest and that of ‘socialist’ revolutionary internationalism.

  • Khrushchev believed that the Bay of Pigs invasion had greatly unnerved Kennedy and the wider US Intelligence Community.
  • Soviet military intelligence officials placed a large degree of confidence in the effectivity of their Maskirovka programs designed to conceal missile transfers to Cuba.
  • Both the Soviets and the Cubans under-appreciated the presence of US HUMINT assets present in Cuba.
  • The Soviets in turn underestimated the areal reconnaissance capacity of the United States.

In the summer of 1962, US Intelligence agencies began receiving reports from HUMINT sources in Cuba of suspicious trailers passing through towns in the dead of night. To some extent, Soviet assumptions proved correct. In an interview many years later, the Chief of the Missile and Space Division Sidney Graybeal said [source]:

“Now most of us in the intelligence community, CIA, myself included, did not believe the Soviets would put offensive missiles in Cuba. We explained this extensive surface to air missile deployment and this coastal defense missile deployment as the Cubans and the Soviets preparing Cuba in case there was ever another Bay of Pigs, another attempt to invade Cuba. And these surface to air missiles would shoot the B-26’s and airplanes out of the air and the Cubans knew very well the Bay of Pigs failed, at least in part, because Kennedy did not authorize air support to that operation.

Interview with Sidney Greybeal – George Washington University

There were, however, five separate intelligence reports which gave analysts at the CIA pause for thought. One was rather striking. Assets reported that these trucks did not need to preform three point turns around corners or back out of corners. The analysts assed that the only type of truck capable of carrying such a load was a missile transport.

5.2 CORONA and U-2 Overflights

Due to unrelated, albeit impactful events in Taiwan and the North Pacific, the US government stymied U-2 flights over Cuba. Thus, the CIA attempted to grab photos over the island using the newly minted CORONA photo reconnaissance satellite. Cloud cover made any photographic interpretation impossible. Yet, going into 1962, more evidence back to stream in:

  • A naval reconnaissance aircraft snapped photos of the Soviet cargo vessel Kasimov [source].
  • The Kasimov was transporting containers with the dimensions of an Il-28 fuselage [source].
  • An Air Force U-2 took off from California in October and captured footage over Cuba, showing SS-4 missile batteries and confirming the presence of Il-28’s [source].
  • The USAF began to fly regular overflights of Cuba, discovering SS-4 launchers and SA-2 SAM sites. A nuclear bunker was also detected [source].

At every point in this process, the NPIC was at the forefront providing GEOINT interpretation of the U-2 photos. After landing in Orlando, the team rushed the U-2 footage to the NPIC via air delivery in the first instance of U-2 reconnaissance flights. [source]

Tragically, on 27 October, Maj. A Soviet SAM crew shot Rudolf Anderson down over Banes while conducting reconnaissance. The Air Force attempted to launch an overwhelming retaliation but Kennedy axed the plan before the situation escalated [source].

USSR Ship Kasimov as seen from a USN recon aircraft.
USSR Ship Kasimov as seen from a USN recon aircraft.

6. NIMA Becomes the NGA

In 1972, the US Government wanted to further condense military cartographic record keeping. Thus, through DoD Directive 5105.40, the Defense Mapping Agency came into being. As far as DoD agencies went, it was the smallest with only 190 HQ staff present in Washington [source].

6.1 National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA)

The DMA underwent another round of consolidation in 1996. Geospatial intelligence providers in the DoD would experience a significant reorganization for the fourth time in its entire history. Despite being under-funded, NIMA intelligence products were widely considered to be of the highest quality [source]. Within in the agency itself, however, there was a constant tug and pull.

At least one cohort of NIMA employees felt that prioritizing combat support intelligence detracted from the longer term strategic intelligence that GEOINT could provide [source]. Moreover, the employees of NIMA felt that the 2-3 year term provided for the Directorship was too short to implement any meaningful upgrades or internal reforms. [source]

6.2 Enter the NGA

On November 24, 2003, Congress established the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency by passing the National Defense Authorization Act 2004. To be clear, between the shift from NIMA to NGA, nothing really changed other than the name. Under the stewardship of Gen. James Clapper (who may be familiar to our readers acquitted with the political drama of the Trump years), NIMA transitioned into NGA with seamless ease.

One major change, however, was the adoption of non-combat support geospatial tasking. For example, according to Clapper at least, the NGA would strive to assist with Iraq’s ecological recovery and infrastructure revitalization following the 2003 invasion [source].

7. Agency Structure

The NGA has a typical Director/Deputy Director leadership structure along with a Chief of Staff who is responsible for logistics, agency support and employee well being. They sit at the top of several directorates:

  • Analysis Directorate
  • Source Operations & Management Directorate 
  • Plans and Programs Directorate
  • Enterprise Operations Directorate
  • IT Directorate
  • Research Directorate
  • Security and Installation Operations Directorate
  • Human Development Directorate
  • Acquisitions Directorate
  • Financial Management Directorate
  • At least 3 unnamed directorates

8. Success and Failures

If you have ever used Google Earth, you have the NGA to thank for the quality of that product. The NGA granted Google the ability to use reduced-resolution captures from its GeoEye satellites on the Google Earth platform in 2008 [source]. Moreover, the NGA has:

  • Provided GEOINT in support of hurricane relief after Hurricanes Katrina and Ian. NIMA previously provided geospatial analysis to the USGS after 9/11.
  • The NGA provided early investment to the company whose service later became Google Earth, Keyhole Inc.
  • GEOINT provided by the NGA was instrumental in planning the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
  • The NGA partnered with Conflict Observatory to provide satellite imagery confirming Russian warcrimes in Ukraine.
The bin Laden Compound – Morning After

8.1 Assorted Controversies

The NGA and NIMA have been involved in a number of controversies over the years, some more serious than others. For example, in 2016, a former employee who alleged racial discrimination sued the NGA. The plaintiff, Nathan Mowery, professed himself as a Muslim and had applied to work in an NGA program requiring a security clearance. Mowery was a decorated US Army veteran (Bronze Star) who first applied to work as a contractor with the agency in 2014. Initially, Mowery had no issue obtaining a “Top Secret security clearance with Sensitive Compartmented Access approval” [source].

8.1.1 Religious Discrimination?

Two years after entering, Mowery received an offer for a contractor position assigned within the CIA. An additional round of screening was required, screening which Mowery failed. Both the NGA and CIA claimed that Mowery failed additional screening due to mental health concerns. Each claimed that religious views played little to no part in considering him for additional clearance. In 2022, the 4th circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case due to a lack of subject matter jurisdiction and case law precedent which shielded the CIA from judicial review [source]. Mowery’s case raises some interesting questions that bear upon the wider Intelligence Community:

  • Was Mowery using his newfound religion as a crutch in order to save his job?
  • Was the CIA and NGA using mental health concerns as a crutch to get rid of Mowery, simply because they didn’t care for his religion?
  • If Federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over issues of employment discrimination, what body does?
  • Should we shield the CIA or NGA from judicial review in cases where they violate civil rights?

8.1.2 Nautical Mishap

In January of 2013, the USS Guardian, an Avenger Class Mine Counter Measures Ship, foundered on top of the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. This of course was somewhat scandalous. US Navy ships are obviously not supposed to beach themselves on shallow reefs. Unfortunately, the minesweeper damaged almost 1,000 sq. meters of reef in the process [source]. Even though the Guardians four main officers were relieved of duty, the ultimate fault rested not with the Navy, but with the NGA.

The USS Guardian beached on a reef, pushed farther in by waves.

While it was the responsibility of the commanding officers to cross reference other nautical charts, the NGA had provided the navy with an inaccurate Digital Nautical Chart off by over 15 km [source]. Ultimately, they decided to cut the ship into three sections and scrap it.

8.1.3 Privacy, Who Needs It

In 2013, a man and his elderly mother in Pretoria, South Africa began receiving hundreds of random visits. Each visitor had a different story. They were looking for lost devices, accusing the homeowner of having stolen them. One private investigator turned up looking for an abducted girl and refused to leave until he had looked inside. The man’s elderly mother blamed her son for bringing the internet into her home [source]. The reason for this was bizarre as much as it was unfortunate.

MaxMind, a company specializing in IP tracing, set the home address as the default location for South Africa [source]. It had done the same in Kansas and Georgia, to similar results. The database used to feed into MaxMind’s tracing efforts came from none other the NGA.

8.1.4 Rumors Abound

Naturally, other assorted controversies have become almost concrete fact about the NGA, but a few persist despite lack of clear evidence. For example, it is often said that the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by a US B-2 Spirit was due to faulty maps provided by the NGA [source]. Unfortunately, the claim lacks proper sourcing and is likely not entirely accurate.

9. Conclusion

Despite undergoing several mutations throughout its history, the NGA has always been the government’s chief map maker and master of cartographic record keeping. It has been at the forefront of major flash points in recent American history and plays a major role in both military and civilian planning. Countries like South Korea and India have standing agreements with it to provide these products and training because they highly desire its products. Through its extensive network of partners, it truly is the Pentagon’s eyes in the sky.

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