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Global Defence Geospatial Intelligence (DGI) 2020: A Report From A Maritime Viewpoint

The island of Mauritius in the Western Indian Ocean. Photograph courtesy of NASA.
By Guy Thomas
The annual Defence Geospatial Intelligence (DGI) 2020 conference is now history. Every attendee I spoke with, and that was most of them, seemed to agree it was one of the best in the last 10 years. I concur, and I have been to most of them.

Over 700 people from all aspects of the geospatial world–and from nearly all corners of the globe– attended. The speakers were first rate, with Lt. Gen. James Hockenhull, British Army, Chief of Defence Intelligence for the UK, Vice Admiral Bob Sharp, US Navy, Director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and Brigadier Chris Middleton, MBE, the Commander of the UK’s National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence leading off. Admiral Sharp’s immediate predecessor, Robert Cardillo, with his vast experience, was a super master of ceremonies. I was a bit dismayed to learn that I was already a commander in the Navy with 18 years of experience when he joined what is now NGA.

As a person who has focused on the maritime/space interface for some years I was a bit disappointed that there was no space-based maritime awareness track. When I asked one of the organizers why there wasn’t a maritime track this year, they said only about 20 people attended the last one. I missed that one, but the first several we organized, especially after Vice Admiral Bob Murett, US Navy (retired), ex-Director of NGA, took over, were sellouts. Our first one, organized by Colonel Neil Thompson, Canadian Forces (ret.), and me about eight years ago, was standing room only.

Still, there were several briefs on space-based maritime awareness, including excellent ones from John Serafin, CEO of Hawkeye 360, and John Beckner, CEO of Horizon Technologies. Because the maritime world was not organized into a track, I missed all but the last few minutes of Joerg Herrmann’s excellent brief on Capella. But it will, according to the brief, have excellent maritime surveillance capabilities.

Despite its lack of a maritime track, DGI 2020 was a very worthwhile conference offering a great deal of information exchanged at many levels. Two common threads ran through all three days. One was the discussion about how and why to build “foundation” information. I have always described that type of information in the maritime world as “the Pattern of Life at sea”. It was one of the primary reasons we built the Satellite-based Automatic Identification System (S-AIS). The data provided by S-AIS gives a very good picture of what is “normal” on the world’s oceans, and you have to know what is normal before you can understand what is abnormal. This topic was a central theme, but no one discussed how to do this at sea, although many of the companies there have tools to assist in this important task. I am sure of this because I polled every exhibitor: indeed, I have polled ALL exhibitors on this question at every show I have attended for the last 20 years. I mean this literally. It has been part of every job I have had since January 2000.

The second thread was about how commercial space systems could assist the classified ones. What might innovation in this area do for all of us in the Defence Geospatial Intelligence community? This too is a subject I have been looking at for 20 years, but in three conference sessions I turned this question around to ask other questions I worked on for the Department of Homeland Security. How good a border (land and maritime) surveillance system could you build using just commercial systems? Could it meet our tactical needs? Another related question is: What advantages could be gained by forming an international collaboration, especially in the maritime world as the oceans are, arguably, the most important global commons?

I realize that this description of the oceans as the most important global common is now up for revision due to the explosion of capabilities in the cyber world, the newest and most rapidly expanding global commons. The coalescing of all four global commons, maritime, air, space and cyber—caused by new cyber capabilities—is generating new capabilities in all of them, for those of us who are members of the world community of nations of good will, and for those nations of the world who are not. This idea was of concern to several speakers, including the leaders. 20 years ago, NATO had a huge intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) advantage. Now NATO and our friends in Asia have significant challengers. The reactions to my questions were very satisfying. About 20 individuals from many different countries expressed their appreciation for my questions.

Most of the attendees were interested in how geospatial intelligence could assist in the conduct of land, war, and related air combat. These are the valid concerns of those who are tasked with protecting their nations, as well as their allies, but I kept looking for discussion on how we could use these great new systems to protect the maritime environment and its resources, as well as improve security from illegal acts such as smuggling (of people, drugs, weapons, trade goods) and increase safety at sea. To be sure, there was some discussion—but in my view it was not nearly as much as is needed for these crucial topics. This is probably why the maritime track was cancelled. DGI attendees are mostly warfighters and those that support them. Safety and counter smuggling operations while protecting the environment and its resources are not as sexy as war. Come to think of it, I cannot remember anyone ever telling me I was sexy.

Guy Thomas is the President of C-SIGMA Ltd.

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