The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is on the front lines of the fight against North Korea as the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, races toward developing a nuclear armed, intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. Additionally, and more importantly, North Korea possesses the conventional arsenal today to do real damage to two stalwart U.S. partners in the region: South Korea and Japan.
North Korea is "still our highest priority," NGA Director Robert Cardillo said during a May 11 hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on worldwide threats.
"It is the highest priority — one of the highest, if not the highest priority the intelligence community at this time," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the committee. "A great deal of effort is being spent relative to how we can even better assess the situation and provide all the relevant intelligence to our policymakers."
NGA, which used to merely provide classified satellite pictures and data but today provides much more in the way of all source intelligence to include open source information, is trying to get to a point where it can provide anticipatory intelligence, said Maj. Gen. Linda Urrutia-Varhall, the agency's director of operations.
That is being done by applying a 75 percent automation and 25 percent analytical approach to free up analysts from staring at photos and pixels.
"If I can just do a portion of that anticipatory intelligence, that will get us to what we call left of launch," she said, "because I want to give [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis, Gen. [Vincent] Brooks [commander of U.S. Forces Korea] as much warning as I can."
It’s not just North Korea’s nuclear threat to the U.S., but their ballistic missile threat to the region and critical partners that has the intelligence community worried.
"We should not all focus simply on the ICBMs either. American interests are held at risk today by shorter-range missiles in theater. Enormous American assets," CIA Director Michael Pompeo told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Seoul is held at risk. We have enormous American interests in and around the region in Seoul."
NGA’s role is to provide pictures and context for data to commanders and decision-makers. Urrutia-Varhall provided a hypothetical example of a transporter erector launcher, or TEL, that pops up in the middle of nowhere. Automation could probably pick up on where the vehicle came from based upon the tire tracks, but an analyst might be able to say, "Boy, those tracks look familiar, and equate it to somewhere that are some trail that you’d seen before," she said.
The more important question, however, is where does this thing go? "Is it ready to launch, is there enough room for it to launch? Are they clearing out a 10-by-10 [space] in front of it so that it can move somewhere?" Urrutia-Varhall asked. Moreover, the analytical piece comes in and puts all the pieces together to note the North Koreans are clearing this out, there looks like there’s enough room to raise the arm, they can shoot the missile from there, she added.
While Kim’s randomness is keeping the IC on its toes, Urrutia-Varhall said automation can free the analyst to think outside the box rather than focus on other more menial tasks. Typical thinking might expect Kim to do "x," but that’s not how he’s been working it.
When things happen in North Korea, it’s not usually signals intelligence combatant commanders are looking for, but rather, it’s a picture, Urrutia-Varhall said.
Cardillo told the Senate this week that Kim is in a race and is "pushing very hard on the accelerator," adding he and his IC partners are doing everything in their power to give Congress and customers the advantage to win that race. He told the senators that he would provide greater detail of the threat and NGA’s efforts in the closed hearing that would follow the open session, only providing that "threat has not only been sustained; it's continued to grow."
"You've given us very good information, very solid information; it is much appreciated," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said to Cardillo. "It is time for the American people to begin to understand that, as the director said, we do in fact have an existential threat in the Pacific Ocean and we need to come to grips with it."
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.