From the American project Homefront:
The soon-to-be western home of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency looms over North St. Louis. The combination of glass, brick and concrete in the building contrasts sharply with the predominantly brick houses in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Pentagon is spending about 2 billion dollars for the project for this lesser-known member of the intelligence community, which is mainly involved in mapping and satellite imagery.
NGA was The agency that discovered Osama bin Laden’s residence in 2011.. Most recently, the agency helped search for evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
While the building exterior peaked in November, the agency does not expect to fully occupy the new facility until 2026, said NGA West chief executive Sue Pollmann. She is also program director for a construction project that will replace the current NGA facility a few miles to the south.
“We are in a building that is over 100 years old,” she said. “We kind of put the old warehouse to work for us for a very long time.”
Pollmann said the opportunity to build a new facility means the agency can include more employees whose work is stressful. That includes things like a fitness center, coffee bar and landscaped outdoor areas, she said.
But not all new perks are so bright.
“We’ll have windows here,” Pollmann said. “We don’t have windows in our facility on Second Street. So that’s a pretty big deal for our workforce.”
The 3,100 mostly civilian employees who will eventually occupy the space will study a wealth of data such as satellite, radar and infrared images to document what is happening on the Earth’s surface in real time.
This includes things like military maneuvers by other countries, displacement of refugees, retreat of glaciers and damage from hurricanes. The NGA’s location in St. Louis also tracks the planet’s gravity and constantly changing magnetic pull.
The agency produces a huge amount of data, Pollmann says, and the challenge is to make sense of it all.
“It’s not enough for you to just look at the pictures. We need to have ways to sift through photos more efficiently,” she said.
This is a familiar task for other parts of the armed forces.
“Data is the new oil,” said Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who heads the US Transportation Command, which is responsible for military logistics. “Not just to have it, to aggregate, but to actually have algorithms that can think for you.”
Transportation Command is the primary user of the intelligence provided by the NGA.
“The conflict will hit us on a scale and pace that we have never seen before, because of our ability and the ability of the enemy to feel, understand, decide and act,” Van Ovost said. “Whoever can do it faster on a regular basis will have an advantage.”
According to David Luckey, senior international and defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, military leaders have more information at their disposal than ever before.
“It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of resources to process the data,” he said. “This technological age that we’re in right now is collecting data less and processing and understanding that data more.”
The problem of data processing is emerging as the nature of global conflicts is changing after decades of relative peace, Laki said. He said the US should take a “nationwide” stance, reminiscent of world wars, mixing public sector, private sector, and individual resources.
“What we have entered is basically a period of competition,” Lucky said. “We compete with our opponents, which precedes the actual fighting.”
With this in mind, the NGA has designed its new space in St. Louis with an eye to greater collaboration with outside organizations, academic institutions and private businesses.
Pollmann says his new innovation center will be a space where people without security clearance can work alongside NGA staff.
“We could bring in new startups, people who could potentially come up with technologies or ideas,” she said. “If you were to come to where we are right now, we really don’t have an unclassified location.”
It was a conscious choice and reflects the growing number of unclassified sources of information now being used by the military, said former NGA director Bob Sharp. The retired Navy vice admiral led the agency from February 2019 to June 2022 and is currently a fellow at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
“The design of the facility is just a confirmation of that reality,” he said, adding that
One of the potential opportunities of the new space is the development of algorithms that help to cope with the huge amount of information that the NGA faces every day.
“The algorithm doesn’t really care what level of classification the information is,” he said. “It’s designed to automate and use computing and computing.”
With that in mind, the NGA can go beyond its traditional sources of expertise, Pollmann said.
“Our traditional sources have been ourselves, the intelligence community at large, or our industry partners,” she said. “We all admit that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have all the good ideas.”
Sharpe agreed and stressed that the military needed to engage broadly with talent across the country.
“We are always fascinated by technology, but we forget that people are at the heart of everything,” Sharpe said. “This is our power and strength.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a collaborative public media project that highlights American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.