Discover the Geoint, this new military intelligence system on places and men

Knowledge of places and people in their territories has always been one of the prerequisites for all human activity, even omnipotence. It is enough to consider the war in Ukraine, in March 2022, to realize that the greatest powers are informed in real time of the operational situation of the advance of Russian troops and the Ukrainian resistance. This precise knowledge of the facts in their global environment depends on increasingly sophisticated technologies and analytical processes.

If Sun Tse, in The art of War at VIe century BC. J.-C., could already recommend "Know the Heaven and the Earth, and the victory will come", the means of knowledge remained for a long time very limited, even uncertain. The decision-maker, whether prince, strategist or merchant, most often relied on imprecise or non-existent geographical information.

However, since the First World War, these means of knowledge, such as aerial photography, have diversified and today reach an unequaled level of information precision. This dynamic takes the name of “Geint” (For geospatial intelligence, or geospatial intelligence). This term, hitherto unknown in the French language outside of a group of specialists, designates the process of merging geolocated data from all possible sensors and all available sources and, often, with very high precision. A new paradigm of knowledge is emerging for the decision maker to the point of appearing as a total discipline and convergence of all knowledge.

The rise of a new model of knowledge

As early as the 2000s, the United States defined a new strategyDominance Information. The development of new sensors, such as nanosatellites, and the adoption of a new culture of using knowledge for the benefit of anticipation and crisis management have led to the production of a new total discipline. Geoint becomes the specialty of National Geospatial Agency (NGA) created in 2003. It then designates the use of satellite imagery supplemented by other sources of information to collect, process, produce and disseminate information with high added value, in particular georeferenced and geolocated.

Originally intended for military intelligence for the benefit of politico-military units and authorities, its use has spread to all economic and public activities (health, education, etc.) as well as to the management of crisis, as during Hurricane Katrina in 2006. It then became synonymous with monitoring (descriptive approach through the production of verified multi-source data), prediction and forecasting (approach linked to anticipation), and recommendation insofar as it makes it possible to propose prescriptions .

Thanks to the progress of new digital technologies since the 1990s, knowledge capabilities have expanded to meet ever-growing needs, both for military operations (Iraq and Afghanistan, Sahel and the Middle East) and for all human activities. (management of traffic jams in metropolitan areas, monitoring of natural environments, management of agricultural activities, etc.).

Geoint has thus become a source of a new kind of power, by creating a new model of knowledge thanks to the precision of localization, the fusion of data and the performance of the analysis of the information retained. All the world powers tend to acquire it: the United States and its historical allies since the 2000s, major international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union, emerging powers since the 2010s such as India or the China.

Geolocated data and analysis, the basis of the return of geography as strategic knowledge

The advantage of Geoint is its ability to georeference and geolocate any type of information of interest to a military, economic or political decision-maker. In the military field, for example, it makes it possible to meet the needs of strategic anticipation, pre-decision planning, operational planning or the conduct of operations in real time.

Obviously, the fusion of geolocated data depends on a set of sensors, tools and techniques. For example, data processing relies on the geomatics, geographic information systems and the geovisualization of data collected in a time frame such as natural hazards over ten years or urban crime for a week in a particular district.

The question of big data has thus imposed itself in the 2010s, bringing to the fore several issues that are both technical and intellectual.

These underline the importance of mastering different key sectors of Geoint such as cartographic science, remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis. Other aspects were added at the end of the 2010s such as participatory production, human geography, visual analysis, anticipation. In 2019, the NGA strategy for 2025 accentuates its priorities towards data analysis and visualization, the exploitation of advanced Geoint (the so-called triple A: Automation, Augmentation, Artificial intelligence), the modeling of activities and the Earth and the production of data .

The interest of Geoint also lies in its use for analysis and decision support purposes. In fact, in the fusion centers Geoint, whether national or international, its activity is associated with the field of data exploitation. This is a matter of geographical and geopolitical analysis which requires specific skills in terms of methodology, reasoning and regional knowledge (the Sahel, Syria, etc.).

In other words, the Geoint discipline, which appears to be essential in many human activities, is at the source of a new science of geospatial information based on image data, but also on topography and toponymy, cartography, physical geography and human geography. Among other examples, the Geoint developed in European Union Satellite Center (SatCom), created in 2004, produces civilian crisis management products in the areas of humanitarian aid (refugee camps for example), emergency planning (natural disasters), general security monitoring (illegal migrants in the Mediterranean).

Towards a science of geospatial information

Since the end of the 2010s, Geoint has been renewing geographical and geopolitical knowledge, particularly in the context of the multiplication of crisis management operations around the world. The structuring of a reasoning/the design of an analysis methodology, which falls under exploitation in the Geoint process, takes shape to exploit the best possibilities of the tools and extract the essential information, most often centered on the human geography.

The fields of “big data analytics” (data analyzed following the merging process) and visual analytics (visual interface combining geomatics, big data and analysis) are emerging as professional specializations.

At the same time, the development of the current Geoint tends to decompartmentalize knowledge to the point of becoming a total discipline beyond what was previously called “the Ints”. The Osint (open source) is, for example, one of these "Int" which appears as a part of the Geoint, itself located at the center of the process of global data convergence.

The Geoint tends to be constantly renewed by the profusion of accessible data and by the increasing technicality of the tools. It supposes meeting technical challenges related to the exploitation of data, the saturation of information networks, the interoperability of systems as well as the transmission capacity. One of the solutions provided concerns the use of artificial intelligence, deep learning and machine learning.

These new technical means improve the quality and performance of Geoint in a number of activities such as decision support for companies in terms of knowledge of a site of interest (geospatial business intelligence or research market) or crisis management (Geoint Strategic or the study of the geopolitical risks of a site). However, technicality does not replace the skill of the analyst to meet the purpose of Geoint, which remains decision support.

Another major challenge relates to the question of the training of analysts, which often remains the most misunderstood and most strategic subject in the development of this new science of geospatial information.

The NGA's strategy makes it one of its priorities for the 2020s. In France, at Sorbonne Université Lettres, a master's Geopolitics-Geoint, open since 2020, aims to train future analysts through the hybridization of knowledge. In partnership with the Ministry of the Armed Forces, this training prepares executives in the field of spatial imagery, the fusion of geolocated data and geopolitical analysis.

The use of Geoint also raises many other issues, both ethical (intrusion of Geoint into privacy, for example), legal (access to data, data sovereignty) and economic (profitability, structuring of the ecosystem). Initiated in the United States in the 1990s, Geoint is gradually establishing itself as a global science based on the process of merging multisource geographic information. It is becoming central far beyond the intelligence from which it stems, and essential for States aspiring to become or to become world powers again.

Philippe Boulanger, University Professor of Geography, Sorbonne University

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