Our first and foremost investment focuses on people. We say ‘People First, Mission Always’, because if you take care of people first, then the rest is easy, says Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

NGA’s Strategy 2025 is aimed at keeping the Agency at the forefront of geospatial intelligence. What are your key areas of focus at this point?

We released our Strategy 2025 at GEOINT 2019 in San Antonio. It has four strategic goals — people, partnerships, mission today and mission tomorrow. Our first and foremost investment focuses on people. There is a great saying that in the special operations community, ‘humans are more important than hardware’. Eventually you get around to technology but one must not forget who creates that technology. I have worked at a lot of places that believe in ‘Mission First, People Always’. We have reversed that here; we say, ‘People First, Mission Always’, because if you take care of people first, then the rest is easy.

Our second objective is to invest in partnerships. When we talk about our partnerships, the fact is that we have friends who are really good. Defining our partnerships, our network of friends is largely dependent on our imagination and our willingness to go out and create meaningful connections. This network also allows us to be aware of how to get the best from technology. Often in the government we think that the industry wants something from us, but I also think that often industry wants to help. So do people in academia and the community. If we can build strong relationships with them, then we are around the technology. I think it is much more impactful than trying to do everything ourselves.

The Covid pandemic made things challenging. The GEOINT symposium was cancelled, several meetings were called off, but we didn’t cancel our commitment to strengthen partnerships, and keeping the people connected. During this period, we came out with technology focus areas to enable stronger partnerships between NGA, industry, academia, and other government and community partners around emerging geospatial technologies. Even though there wasn’t a symposium, we published it anyway. It’s available on our website, www.nga.mil.

Everybody wants to win, and we are convinced that the best way for us to do so is by investing in our people, strengthening our partnerships, and using the best technology. We are not going to know what that technology is unless we make our needs known and open ourselves up to brilliant people.

You mentioned the technology focus areas, partnerships and brilliant people. How are you using your new building in St. Louis to gain the greatest benefit from these for NGA and the city?

We are pressing forward with our new construction in St. Louis. We have envisioned a future where we have more agility in how we do our business across unclassified, collateral and highly classified realms. To have agility between security realms, and as part of that new building, we decided that we will have 20% unclassified space, 20% reconfigurable and the rest highly protected. Therefore, we will be able to open up the aperture as to when and how we interact with people within these business areas.

Everything happens in time and space. The geospatial perspective helps people understand complex situations in very clear ways. You can see the relations differently when you look at things spatially and temporally, and that’s valuable for everything. St. Louis is a space where everybody who is involved in geospatial intelligence can come together and exchange ideas to solve different problems. So, we are really excited about the construction project.

We have also envisioned establishing tech innovation hubs. In the not-too-distant future, we are going to be cutting the opening ribbon on something we have called our ‘Moonshot Labs’. We signed an education partnership agreement last year with Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis, and they are going to establish a GEOINT Hub on the same floor with us. It will put humans into close proximity, increasing the probability of partnerships. It’s a great example of partnerships creating the environment to accelerate technology.

There is currently much discussion on Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) service policy and GPS vulnerability. How do you see this, and is it an opportunity or a challenge?

Everything is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. It’s a competition because technology is available to everyone. If you look through NGA Director’s Intent that we issued last year, it shows how our NGA strategy is supporting national strategies; how we are going to achieve our Moonshot. We said there are four mission imperatives that are necessary for us to be able to achieve that Moonshot, and the very first one is delivering assured Positioning, Navigation, Timing and Targeting.

When people think of technology solutions, they first think of GPS. We haven’t always had GPS. A part of human exploration journey has always been this desire to know where they are in relation to everything else. That’s what PNT is. From the Department of Defense’s perspective, the technology has not really been at risk or challenged by recent threats or during missions. But if you look at the higher-end competition, yes it can be at risk. So, we are very interested in making sure we aren’t vulnerable and have different ways of knowing where we are in time and space.

How do you look at leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) without compromising your idea of not letting machines make decisions?

There is a book titled Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age that talks about the smart machine age. The gist of the book is that there is always going to be a need for humans and that machines will never replace them. The value that humans bring is thinking critically and making sense out of things. We just need to think about the changing skillsets that we require. People throw the term AI around loosely, arguing that it just solves everything. But it’s far more complicated.

When we talk about our partnering with machines, we call it AAA — Automation, Augmentation, and Artificial Intelligence. We talk about leveraging these so that machines can do what machines do best and humans can quickly focus on what they are best at — critical thinking. Machines are far more effective and efficient today than they were last year. I can’t wait to see what they do next year, or five years from now. But, there are certain decisions only humans can make, and that’s for us to define and decide. However, there are going to be certain decisions that we will grow very comfortable with machines making for us. This will be part of the journey, but I suggest that we start slow.

The terrorism threat continues to evolve. How much have you had to change the direction of the Agency to think and strategize differently?

We are always going to have terrorism. It’s something we can’t ignore. We have had it throughout history. But we can’t let ourselves be overly absorbed with that, because there are a lot of other things going on.

Looking at the strategic environment, a lot of people will say that future missions will be completely different for us. I know some of the conditions associated with it are different — the potential lethality involved, the speed, the consequences, and the nature of it. But you certainly want people who have been involved in counterterrorism involved in looking at the strategic environment and the challenges. Because we have evolved the way we do business over the last 10-20 years, I am convinced that the key to competing successfully is not just starting from new, but looking at the problem through different lenses and evolving what we have done before. What’s the most important thing we have? It’s our people, our problem solvers.

Vice Admiral Robert Sharp signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with India last year
Vice Admiral Robert Sharp signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) with India last year

Strategically, the world is moving geopolitically more towards the East. How does this development impact your partnerships?

Partnerships connect the world. Historically, as humans started exploring and adventuring, they were encountering new cultures and making connections. Our work in Afghanistan, for example, was with many nations. One of the things we are most proud of in Afghanistan is that we all got together and built one map, because having different maps might be dangerous. I have been a sailor for over 30 years, have sailed around the globe, and the thing I love most is these partnerships.

I think the criticality of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India) from economic and health perspectives cannot be understated. With the new leadership in place, US representatives, both from Department of Defense and Department of State, first visited the region. It has been important to us, is important to us and will remain very important to us.

We signed a major partnership agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), with India during the pandemic. It was a historic event for us. We have been working with India for a long time in the Navy and in the geospatial realm with mapping and charting. We signed the agreement at a time when India was a little concerned about events on its borders with China. The first thing people were looking for was the level of clarity, so that you don’t have misperceptions or tactical miscalculations that could have strategic implications. And the best way to do that from a geospatial perspective is knowing what is where. India had asked us for some assistance and understanding. We closely worked with the Indian government to achieve this, demonstrating the importance and the value of the partnership that we have with India.