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Geospatial big for military

February 11, 2017 Updated: February 11, 2017 at 5:53 pm
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Robert Cardillo, Director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency spoke to Cadets at the Air Force Academy Friday, February 10, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The invisible man of America's intelligence realm traveled to the Air Force Academy to talk about his nearly unknown $5 billion agency.

Robert Cardillo leads 16,000 workers at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and provides the military with information used in combat as often as intelligence from CIA spies or secret messages cracked by the National Security Agency. Compared to its spy agency peers, including the satellite-studded National Reconnaissance Agency, the Geospatial bunch has a role that's little understood.

But Cardillo says it's crucial.

"It provides a framework to understand the planet," he said.

Using reconnisance data from satellites, planes and observers on the ground, the agency makes maps used by the military and civilians.

The goal, Cardillo said, is to locate items of interest to the government and help leaders learn "why it is, what it is and why it's important."

In combat, that information helps guide troops on the battlefield, helps commanders pick targets and ensures that precision satellite-guided bombs hit those targets.

But the agency's knowledge of the world is playing a growing role in the private sector, said Cardillo, who said he spends much of his time working with businesses, non-military agencies and universities on projects examining the planet to understand issues from demographics to climate.

The agency also examines the planet looking for trends, and items of concern. Cardillo said his workers keep a close eye on Ukraine to detect troop movements that could foreshadow a battle.

"It's the lens through which we can look to the future," he said.

Bad mapping can lead to more than lost troops and ships hitting the beach, Cardillo explained.

He told cadets about the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that arbitrarily redrew borders in the Middle East.

"There's not a day I don't spend dealing with the failure of this document," he said. "You end up with countries like Syria, Lebanon and Jordan that were artifically-based."

Those artificial boundaries left nations with competing religious groups and tribes that have warred for power over the past century.

Diplomacy with better mapping skills has had more success, Cardillo said, noting the Dayton Accords, an agreement dividing the Balkans that was accomplished using maps from the Geospatial Agency that reflected demographics and loyalties.

"It was the first time in history in which advance geospatial information was used to reach a diplomatic solution," he said.

Cardillo's interest in visiting the academy was clear. The agency draws some of its best people from Air Force ranks.

Col. Jennifer Alexander, who heads the academy's economics and geospatial sciences program, said the agency may not be well-known, but it's a big deal for cadets.

"Our cadets do know it well," she said.

The agency has also been a big booster for Alexander's program, offering support to the school for the past 20 years.

Getting well-trained workers will help Cardillo achieve his top goal: Giving U.S. troops a leg-up in battle.

"You need an advantage," he said. "We call it locational dominance."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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