As data plays a bigger role in warfare, the military is building a new center to analyze it
The new western headquarters for The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in St. Louis will mainly deal with mapping and satellite imagery.
The soon-to-be western home of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency towers over north St. Louis. The building’s mix of glass, brick, and concrete is a sharp contrast to the mostly brick homes in the surrounding blocks.
The Pentagon is spending close to $2 billion on the project for this lesser known member of the intelligence community, which largely deals with mapping and satellite imagery.
NGA was the agency that identified Osama Bin Laden's compound in 2011. More recently the agency has helped look for evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
While the building’s exterior topped out in November, the agency doesn't expect to completely occupy the new facility until 2026, said NGA West Executive Sue Pollmann. She’s also the program director for the construction project, which will replace NGA’s current facility a few miles south.
“We’re in a building that’s over 100 years old,” she said. “We’ve kind of made an old warehouse work for us for a very long time.”
The opportunity to build a new facility means the agency can incorporate more for employees whose jobs are inherently stressful, Pollmann said. That includes things like a fitness center, coffee bar, and landscaped outdoor spaces, she said.
But not all the new perks are as flashy.
“We will have windows here,” Pollmann said. “We don’t have windows at our Second St. facility. So that’s a pretty big deal for our workforce.”
The 3,100 mostly civilian employees who will eventually occupy this space will pore over scores of data, such as satellite, radar, and infrared images to document what is happening across the Earth’s surface in real time.
That includes things like other countries' military maneuvers, refugee movements, retreating glaciers, and damage from hurricanes. NGA’s St. Louis location also tracks the planet’s gravity and constantly changing magnetic pull.
The agency produces reams of data, and the main challenge is making sense of it all, Pollmann said.
“It’s no longer just good enough for you to put your eyes on the pictures. We have to have ways to sift through the pictures more efficiently,” she said.
It’s a familiar challenge for other parts of the military, too.
"Data is the new oil,” said Gen. Jaqueline Van Ovost, who leads the U.S. Transportation Command, which is responsible for the military’s logistical movements. “Not just to have it, to aggregate it, but to actually have algorithms that can do the thinking for you.”
The Transportation Command is a major user of the intelligence NGA provides.
“Conflict is going to come at us at a scale and tempo we have never seen because of our ability and the adversary’s ability to sense, make sense, decide, and act,” Van Ovost said. “Whoever can do that faster on a routine basis is going to have the advantage.”
Military leaders have more information available at their fingertips than ever before, said David Luckey, a senior international and defense researcher for the RAND Corporation.
“It’s time consuming, it uses a lot of resources to go through data,” he said. “This technological period we’re in now is less gathering the data and more processing and understanding those data.”
The processing challenge comes as the nature of global conflicts is changing after decades of relative peace, Luckey said. He said the U.S. needs to take a “whole-of-nation” stance reminiscent of the world wars - blending the resources of the public sector, private sector, and individuals.
“What we’ve entered into is basically a period of competition,” Luckey said. “We are in competition with our adversaries, which is something that comes before actual combat operations.”
With that in mind, NGA designed its new space in St. Louis with an eye toward more collaboration with outside organizations, academic institutions, and private industry.
Its new innovation center will be a space where people without security clearances can work alongside NGA staff, Pollmann said.
“We could bring in new start-ups, individuals who potentially have technology or ideas to offer,” she said. “If you were to come to where we’re currently located, we really don’t have unclassified space.”
It was a deliberate choice and reflects the growing number of unclassified sources of information the military now uses, said former NGA Director Bob Sharp. The retired Navy Vice Admiral led the agency from Feb. 2019 to June 2022 and is now a research fellow at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.
“The facility design is just an acknowledgement of that reality,” he said, adding that
one potential of the new space is developing algorithms to aid with the vast scale of information NGA contends with every day.
“The algorithm doesn’t really care what the classification level of the information is,” he said. “It’s designed to automate and leverage computing and calculations.”
Given this, NGA can branch out from its traditional sources of expertise, Pollmann said.
“Our traditional sources were ourselves, the intelligence community as a whole, or our industry partners,” she said. “We would all admit we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have all the good ideas.”
Sharp agreed and emphasized the military’s need to broadly engage with the talent across the country.
“We always get enamored with the technology, but we forget it’s the people that are really at the base of everything,” Sharp said. “That’s our power and strength.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.