ISR: It's Not All Airborne

01 May 2014 by Anthony Quartararo

Last month, I attended the USGIF Africa Working Group event at the GEOINT 2013* event in Tampa, Florida. A panel of distinguished experts from a variety of domains addressed a packed room to discuss “Taking GEOINT Beyond the Intelligence Community: Illicit Wildlife Trade and Terrorist Financing in East Africa”. On the panel were Hector Cuevas of PIXIA, MG(R) John Custer of EMC, Pat Awori, Trustee at Kenya Wildlife Service and Peter LaFontaine of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The panel was organized by Faye Cuevas, PIXIA and moderated by Elizabeth Lyon, USACE.

Each panelist spent a few minutes sharing their respective experiences in Africa and highlighted some of the issues related to poaching and other illicit wildlife trafficking issue. Specifically as it relates to terrorism financing and how the application of geospatial technology and intelligence can be applied to mitigate, if not counteract this ongoing, illegal activity. What became very clear to me during the panel / social discussions that unfolded were the following:

  • illicit trade in wildlife, particularly big-game and endangered species was still very much a profitable enterprise
  • new actors were getting involved in the supply chain
  • these new actors were seeking to siphon funds from illicit trafficking of wildlife (typically body parts), to various local, regional and international terrorism related activities to fund weapons acquisition, training, recruiting and other infrastructure necessary to carry out terrorist goals and objectives
  • a significant amount of money has been spent in the past few years on Airborne ISR (A-ISR) capabilities with a nominal impact on the real problem
  • the demand signal is overwhelmingly international and involves arms dealers, consumer demand, security and anti-poaching organizations, local businesses, banking institutions and organizations ranging from the LRA, Al Qaeda to Al Shabaab as well as local warlords and oddly enough, conservation groups.
  • as mentioned by several members of the panel during the presentations, a White House Task Force for Combating Wildlife Trafficking has been established to devote considerable energy and resources to this issue. The Task Force has significant potential to make major impacts on the global illicit trade in ivory and other endangered species trade. However, there is no single entity in the USG that is “owning” this entire problem or applying a more strategic vision necessary to remedy the problem as a whole (that is, both the illicit wildlife trafficking and links to terrorism financing or other illegal activities that are part of the wider economic subculture).

It would appear we have, as a community and as an act of Congress, spent north of $30,000,000 on technology in the form of Airborne Intelligence-Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and associated infrastructure and services, according to the 2014 NDAA. This technology was made part of the lexicon during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. All those videos (referred to in the lingo as FMV for full-motion-video) have advanced the state of the art enormously, but at an equally stunning cost. We’ve unfortunately fallen into the trap of thinking “if some is good, more must be better” in terms of airborne ISR, and that at some amount of spending and coverage, we can solve all of our knowledge gaps, remotely, by joystick. This was apparently not lost on certain members of Congress, as noted in the 2014 NDAA, “The committee notes that this capability is of limited utility in regions where there is dense canopy, and believes that the Department is paying more than it should for this capability.

This is a fool’s errand in fact. Airborne sensors are certainly a powerful capability in the USG’s extensive portfolio, but it cannot answer the question many people want to know after staring at hours of FMV - “whats on the ground and why?”. The disproportionate funding for airborne ISR leaves little room for complimentary capabilities to help answer the most critical of questions that really can impact decision-making well “left of the boom”.

When it came time for some audience Q&A, I didn’t really have a question, but I offered a comment. I said, “Not all ISR is Airborne” and while I had a few quiet “atta boy” comments, smiles and nods from some in the room and even on the panel, there was far more snickering from some in the room, behind me, and as I turned to leave a while later, it became clear why. Many of the dominant Airborne ISR companies (those that provide the UAVs, software, hardware, exploitation and infrastructure for storage of massive archives of imagery) were standing to the back and it was quite clear they didn’t appreciate my comment. With that rather parochial attitude rampant in our community (GEOINT), it’s no wonder we can burn through $30 Million in one year, on one issue in Africa and not result in material progress on that problem.

Anthony Quartararo

About the author

Anthony is our CEO. He thrives on solving impossible geospatial problems for Governments, industry and commercial business, anywhere, anytime.