NGA Support Team Bolsters SOCOM’s Special Operations Forces

By Juanita T. Hartbarger

Ed. note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of the NGA's Pathfinder.

SOCOMThe U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) NGA Support Team (NST) is located in Tampa, Fla., at MacDill Air Force Base, the home of its mission partner. The NST's reach, however, extends much farther because of the worldwide mission that it supports.

SOCOM is a unified functional command with lead responsibility for synchronizing the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) and organizing, training and equipping Special Operations Forces (SOF) warriors to defend the United States and its interests across the globe. While much of this activity is in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, the GWOT is just that - global. This global mission sets the terms for how NGA's SOCOM NST does its job.

To carry out its mission to provide timely, relevant and accurate full-spectrum geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), the SOCOM NST has analysts working at MacDill - SOCOM Headquarters - and embedded with the Special Operations units of U.S. military services within and outside the continental United States. These global requirements produce a unique staffing pattern. According to the NST chief, "Our analysts go out on two to three deployments of 30 to 120 days at any given time, several times a year."

The Special Operations Forces Warrior
What makes the SOF warrior different from NGA's mission partners at other combatant commands? These soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, whether active duty, reserve or National Guard, are members of elite, specialized military units that can be inserted behind the lines via land, sea or air to conduct a variety of nonstandard operations.

Personnel for these units are carefully selected. According to the recent SOCOM Posture Statement, they must start with "the necessary aptitude and attitude for entry into the Special Operations community." And that's just the beginning. Once accepted, they undergo a demanding two-year training program that includes direct action, strategic reconnaissance, counterterrorism and theater search and rescue, along with regional and cultural orientation and, increasingly, language studies.

The rigorous selection process and the initial training set them apart. The deputy chief of the SOCOM NST characterizes the SOF this way. "SOF service members are older and hold higher rank than their regular service counterparts. Their training is more intensive, and they have three to five more years of experience than their counterparts in the regular military."

When a SOCOM NST analyst deploys, this is his or her customer - an experienced, highly trained warfighter. To be effective in serving an SOF warrior, the analyst has to meet SOF standards. One NGA imagery analyst (IA) illustrates this point when talking about her fourth deployment. "My latest deployment was in support of a task force in theater. Most of the products I provided had anywhere from 15- to 30-minute turnaround deadlines. My job was to provide GEOINT support as fast as possible. That's why we're embedded with the unit.

"You have to know your stuff and get the analysis right consistently," she continues. "Even when you do, it takes a long time for them to warm up to you. You've got to earn their trust over and over again - because they're trusting you to bring them home safe."

She has learned to think beyond the immediate request and look at how to solve the problem. "Give them more than they ask for. You have to think like the mission partner. What does he need to do his job?" Her questions include:
  • Where is he going?
  • What's his objective?
  • What's the safest way for him to achieve it?
  • What's around it that could cause a problem or conceal an adversary?
The analyst and the SOCOM warfighter work together, side by side. In the IA's words, "Your SOF mission partners become your friends. Look at the intelligence problem set like you're looking out for your friends. [If there are] more risks they have to take going in ... then I'm not doing my job."

Collaboration: It Takes a Lot of Work to Make It Work

Side-by-side collaboration with warrior partners is a benefit enthusiastically described by a geospatial analyst (GA) who has just begun his second deployment in theater supporting SOF warriors. "As a first-time deployer, my experience was simply incredible. The personal satisfaction I've experienced from providing mission-critical support to the warfighter is both overwhelming and self-rewarding. Knowing that my actions and products have had a direct impact on the mission was a unique experience, which is unparalleled," he notes.

"The deployment greatly accelerated my professional experience as well. I now have a greater understanding of how products should be tailored, prepared and presented and how they are applied towards tactical mission planning for the war planner and operators - the boots on the ground." He says he has gained a greater understanding of the operational deployment hierarchy, concept of operations, and mission planning, tactics, techniques and procedures.

"For every element within the task force, [the GA] provided support to virtually every person, ranging from LNO [liaison officers], interagency, all strike forces, to the commander himself," says a senior task force official, commenting on the GA's support to the unit. "His primary support was for operational and tactical planning, target development, situational awareness and training. Typically he worked from [2:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.] seven days a week," he added.

Not only must SOCOM NST analysts be highly skilled, proficient in their craft and agile and resourceful in the creation and delivery of GEOINT products, but they must also work long hours.

Three-quarters of the SOCOM NST's analysts are on nonstandard duty: 24/7 recall with a one- to two-hour report. What that means is that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the analyst must be ready, when called, to pack a bag and report for duty within one to two hours, get on a plane and head for the battlespace. In the words of the deputy NST chief, "You measure your life in two-hour segments."

The work is high-stress, the environment fast-paced. The SOCOM NST is not the place for a junior-level IA or GA. Military support experience is a key qualification for service. Once that qualification is met, only experienced and high-performing analysts need apply.

A snapshot of the IA's life during her recent deployment shows why the staffing criteria are so rigid. "There was one imagery analyst and one geospatial analyst in the unit to support 18 other analysts from [U.S.] government agencies and all-source analysts representing different countries or regions. We gave twice-daily reports on any project we were working for the team as well as support to the analysts that were assigned to outstations in other countries."

She was the only member of the team whose computer had the capability to exploit imagery. "Because of this, I was usually supporting multiple ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets at the same time. I had access to all the people on the team and could provide any of them with products to support the mission they were monitoring."

The chief of SOCOM's Geospatial Intelligence Branch testified to the effectiveness of the SOCOM-NGA collaboration. "The Command, to support our Special Operations Forces effectively, needs to look at historic data to get a baseline, and it is in this area that NGA is invaluable. Its analysts and its geospatial imagery data provide operations support, support that allows for the movement of forces. NGA's data provides context - for example, answering the important question of where the adversary might be."

The reason for the SOCOM NST's invaluable contribution is its people. According to the NST chief, the support effort can be daunting at the deployer level. It's not unusual to have an analyst running to a helicopter carrying GEOINT to a service member about to go out on a mission. "We have amazing analysts supporting amazing people. Special Operations units go out in small teams quietly in the night and take care of the nation's business while we're sleeping."

When they do, they're armed with timely, relevant and accurate full-spectrum GEOINT provided by the SOCOM NST.

Published Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Written by Juanita T. Hartbarger

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