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National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: Mapping Africa one country at a time

April 23, 2012

By Rolla Suttmiller, Defense Media Agency

AGADIR, Morocco (Apr 17, 2012) -- When the U.S. military wants to head into un-chartered, or minimally chartered territory, they call on the experts of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or the NGA. By compiling the most current satellite imagery, existing maps, and layers of data like roads, rivers, and towns they are able to create custom maps and imagery for specific locations or events.

Currently, two Geospatial Analysts from Stuttgart, Germany are mapping out the terrain for African Lion 2012 in southern Morocco. AL-12 is a bi-lateral exercise between U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Africa, the Utah National Guard, and the Kingdom of Morocco. It's the 8th annual African Lion exercise in the country.

The 10-day exercise includes ground, amphibious and aerial training for approximately 800 Marines, 400 Army Reservists and 900 Moroccan military. It's spread across four geographically varied locations, to include flat deserts, vast mountain ranges, and miles and miles of coastline.

It was during January's AL-12 planning conference when the needs and overall scope of the exercise were drawn out. Jacquie Snyder, one of the two analysts from Stuttgart, attended the conference and came away with a solid foundation of what her team would need to create.

"Since the exercise is spread across a variety of locations with a variety of terrains, we had to create maps which would show the players how to get their equipment in place," Snyder said.

What they created are dozens of overhead maps for air and ground, annotating specific routes and locations.

One such map enabled the advance convoy team to pre-plan for a bridge with a limited weight allowance. Our 70-ton Abrams tanks couldn't cross the bridge because it has a 30-ton limit, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Clark, assistant strategic mobility officer for U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Africa (MARFORAF). Our only solution was to off-load the tanks and drive them through the dry river bed. Pre-knowledge of the bridge enabled them to check on its limits before the convoy hit the dirt.

But terrain maps are only one part of the mapping mission. Aside from range maps needed for live fire training, pilots also benefit with aeronautical charts displaying elevation levels and restricted zones. In addition, they've also created overview maps of ports for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The MEU consists of three US Navy ships; the USS Iwo Jima, the USS New York and the USS Gunston Hall.

This is the MEU's first stop as they embark on a 7-month deployment in Southwest Asia to support operations in Afghanistan.

"It's the first time a MEU has ever taken part in an African Lion exercise," says Jason Davis, GEO spatial analyst, "and it's a very unique opportunity."

Unique because a decision was made early in the planning stages to embed a Marine Geospatial Analyst from the Iwo Jima with the NGA team at the African Lion 12 Joint Command Center.

For Cpl. Michael Cox, 24th MEU Command Element topographical chief, he sees it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"To be able to work in this environment is just awesome. We've got civilians and military working together, we're supporting the needs of the Marines and Army Reservists in the field, and during all of that we're in Morocco working with the Moroccan military. I've learned so much during this experience."

It's also been an eye opening experience for Cox.

"I never knew just how incredibly similar the civilian counterpart of our job actually is. It's interesting, too, both sides get the same results, but during this I've learned shortcuts, or tricks of the trade from them, and I think I have showed them a few, too. But ultimately, we all get the same outcome."

The analysts did face a few challenges along the way.

"Limited imagery is probably the biggest challenge when working in Africa," said Davis.

"Some countries are covered better than others, and satellite imagery for the overall continent, that's always good, but if someone wants to pinpoint specific buildings and streets, well that's going to be harder to see. That's where we come in."

Surprisingly, the team relies on some commercial products any of us can buy. According to Snyder, "we use a lot of tourist maps for research to incorporate into our other sources and build up products in order to provide complete mission communication."

And with upcoming exercises in Senegal and Botswana, the geospatial team, who are part of AFRICOM, is able to create some of the first fully detailed maps ever produced over training areas in these countries.

"We've got a motto in our career field," said Cox. "'Know the earth, show the way.'"

The team is actually able to create any size map, though most are 3x4 feet, Davis commented. "Our only limitation is the size of the wall it hangs on."

And the maps can get quite detailed too, down to doors and entrances into specific buildings.

"Sometimes the customer doesn't really know what we can do," said Davis, "so we educate them. We guide them toward a solution by asking questions like, what are you going to use this for, and what is it you want to see? Lots of military members don't even know about us.

"We've definitely become more visible over the past 10 years though," Davis added. "We've been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we're here in an exercise scenario with a combatant command. We never did that before, so we are more visible now."

African Lion 12 wraps up April 17, with a FINEX, a final exercise review and demonstration. It will be an opportunity for all participants to formally display their newly acquired training. And for the NGA team, they'll be leaving with some highly detailed maps of Morocco's southern coast, mountain ranges and desert landscape.

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