A Marine littoral regiment (MLR) establishes an expeditionary advanced base (EAB) in the province of Leyte, Philippines. While conventional intelligence indicated that both concealment and a local sustainment plan would be feasible, the MLR was unaware that sentiments among the population at nearby Maasin City had recently shifted aggressively in favor of China and against the United States. Not only were the locals unwilling to do business with the EAB’s clandestine supply personnel, the location and purpose of the EAB was quickly compromised and broadcast on social media. The EAB was disestablished and unable to fulfill its purpose.
Special purpose marine air ground task force (SPMAGTF) crisis response-AFRICOM deploys to Nigeria to help deter Boko Haram activity across the country. Deploying in the vicinity of Kariari toward the preponderance of Boko Haram forces, the SPMAGTF contains some localized violence. However, mission planners could not account for the multitude of socioeconomic factors indicating that the eastern half of the country was far more susceptible to Boko Haram’s influence. Boko Haram sweeps the eastern countryside with radicalized converts, and a tide of violence ensues that the SPMAGTF is powerless to deter, mitigate, or contain.
A highly contagious disease is detected in India. The newly established First Fleet is tasked to provide medical support. Seabees construct an expeditionary medical facility in the province of Kakinada, the USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) sails into port, and Navy medical providers stand ready to treat the expected victims of this new disease. However, while the disease remains largely inactive in Kakinada and the rest of the eastern coast of India, the disease ravages Mumbai and the country’s west coast. First Fleet planners were not aware of the unique combination of comorbidities risk and exposure risk that would make Mumbai an epicenter of the disease.
The above vignettes, while fictional, represent frequent challenges naval intelligence and operational planners experience. Despite proficient and dedicated professionals who can access a host of tools and systems to aide in the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) and the provision of maritime domain awareness (MDA), sometimes it just is not enough. Even with the most well-resourced defense and intelligence networks the world has ever known, the Department of Defense and Department of the Navy can only collect, process, exploit, analyze, and disseminate so much intelligence. The constantly expanding amount of information to collect from the ever-growing information environment only adds to this challenge. Planners may have all the straws they want, but they are still drinking from an ocean. The challenge becomes not only accessing the right information but contextualizing it with such granularity that it proves useful to the mission at hand.
And yet, the contextualized information that would have been useful in the above vignettes exists and is tailorable to fit short-fused requirements. It is just unavailable to naval planners:
The constituency of Marinduque Island, Philippines has highly favorable opinions of the U.S. military compared with the rest of the country, especially in contrast to Maasin City, the hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte.1 Such intelligence would have led to different planning decisions and improved the success of the EAB.
Similarly, historical event data overlayed with various risk factors in Nigeria accurately predicted 90 percent of violent incidents associated with Boko Haram in recent years.2 Such accurate predictions could have led to more useful deployment decisions when aiming to contain violent extremist organizations.
Finally, comparing comorbidities risk, exposure risk, and health-facility access successfully mapped and characterized community-level COVID-19 vulnerabilities in India, as well as other countries.3 When conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations of any kind, this information would allow planners to more precisely place support resources at not only the point of greatest need, but at the point of greatest utility.
Where does this information reside, and how can naval planners access and apply it?
This information is collected, characterized, and used regularly by human geographers, and examined through analytical tools in support of science, business, and marketing. Human geography data analytics (HGDA) offers a unique opportunity to the Sea Services. Instead of drinking an ocean through straws, the ocean is swapped for a few glasses of potable water. Applied to the intelligence cycle and MDA, HGDA technologies can secure the precise intelligence and awareness advantages needed to optimally plan and improve the success of naval operations.
Human geography deals with the relationships of humans to their cultures, communities, economies, and societies, and studies these interactions across locations. By using various research methods, human geographers can identify patterns and interdependencies that have numerous applications.4
Human geographic information is collected through directed, automated, and volunteered means. Directed data is generated through digital surveillance of a target population. Automated data is generated through automatic functions of interaction with digital devices and networks in ways as broad as using a smartphone or scanning a passport. Volunteered data is “offered” by the target population, whether through traditional means such as responding to surveys, or by their own behaviors, claims, and preferences communicated on social media or other online forums.5
The plethora of information collected through these means presents the risk of data deluge and information overload. Giving this information in the raw to naval intelligence professionals only increases the size of the “ocean” commanders ask them to analyze. But HGDA processes this information through analytical tools that correlate and contextualize the data. This offers a highly refined data set with more consistent predictive power, along with identifiable decisive points on which a commander’s action could be focused.
There are many companies offering HGDA services, applying this social science to marketing and business in highly profitable ways. Many other companies organically integrate HGDA into their own organizations, conducting this business intelligence in-house. When potential customers are understood so granularly, many applications emerge: marketing can be tailored to maximally influence a customer to purchase a product; distribution can be planned in areas with a population more likely to consistently use a product over time; and markets can be selected based on the ideal customer’s access to points of sale.
A smaller subset of companies tailor HGDA in ways that are optimized for the national security community, and currently or have previously provided their services for geographic combatant commands and other military organizations. One such company, Fraym, incorporates voluntary data, remote-sensing data, and satellite imagery to visualize localized human geography data to within one square kilometer. The Fraym interface allows users to apply different combinations of filters, allowing for heatmaps demonstrating behavioral and attitudinal differences. This could include public sentiment toward the United States and China, breaking out such differences by socioeconomic, demographic, and ethnographic data. NSI Incorporated offers HGDA services including stability model analysis, which reveals political, social, and economic stability and instability dynamics by location. This service allows users to identify indicators of state failure, faltering economies, and sources of political instability.
For naval planners, such tools allow for analysis and understanding of the human populations throughout the operating area—friendly, neutral, and enemy. HGDA, employed in support of naval planning by theater fleets, numbered fleets, and Marine expeditionary forces (MEFs) can provide a new level of precision to intelligence analysis and operational planning without overwhelming leaders with a deluge of data.
Naval Applications of HGDA
Optimize site selection for EABO and preserve access. In the context of great power competition below the threshold of combat operations, expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) “engage allies and partners, preserve access, and shape the theater for future operations.”6 Notably, the preservation of access is a critical lynchpin to EABO’s support to the deterrence by denial called for in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. With stand-in forces persisting forward indefinitely within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ), the likelihood of deterrence increases, while the introduction of follow-on forces is more easily facilitated. But the ability to persist and preserve access relies on sustainment. Local populations will be a critical requirement for the sustainment plans of many EABs. HGDA can rapidly visualize and compare the support of local populations for the United States with that of regional adversaries down to one square kilometer. In turn, naval planners can optimize site selection for EABs, greatly increasing the supportability of its sustainment plan, and reinforce the naval force’s ability to preserve access within the WEZ.
Anticipate instability and violence. Naval commanders support operations across the globe aimed at supporting regional stability and preventing the sudden outbreak of violence. Even with premier intelligence capabilities, this remains difficult. The Arab Spring is a case in point: This series of antigovernment protests and demands for liberalization began in the 2011 and caught much of the national security community by surprise. The resulting years of riots, insurgencies, and civil wars continue to plague several Arab countries and challenge the U.S. ability to cultivate national security interests and those of allies and partners in the region. HGDA can better enable naval planners to anticipate such instability and get a lead on actions that can prevent such outbreaks of violence.
Shape and assess influence activities. HGDA can allow naval planners to examine the effects of influence activities. When competing below the threshold of decisive combat operations, naval operations conducted for the sake of influencing regional actors and populations become paramount. However, it can be difficult to determine which local populations might be susceptible to having their perceptions changed. HGDA can be used to create heat maps demonstrating which areas, down to the square kilometer, are more likely to be positively affected by influence operations, as well as which are unlikely to be moved at all, allowing for more precise targeting.
In addition, conducting rapid and effective measures of effectiveness for influence operations is chronically difficult. Planners might assume that humanitarian assistance operations improved local relations with the population, or that coalition naval operations reinforced the faith of a regional partner in U.S. support for their security interests. But did they really, and how much did the needle move, if at all? HGDA can assist with these assessments: the Fraym interface identified a moderate improvement in local attitudes toward the U.S. military after a January 2019 ribbon-cutting for the first major project under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines. Using HGDA to support assessments of influence activities, naval planners will be better positioned to refine their approach to this critical activity.
Understand health risks and vulnerabilities. The Sea Services are no stranger to responding to medical crises. The 1855 Yellow Fever epidemic in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area, the global 1918–19 Flu pandemic, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014 onward, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are all crises the Navy’s expeditionary medical expertise has helped contain.
While the U.S. Navy remains ready to deploy its medical capabilities to affected areas, such resources may be underemployed without a sound assessment of medical-facility access and other factors of human geography. The USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) deployed to New York City to provide COVID-19 relief in 2020, based on estimates by local officials that the city’s medical facilities would be overwhelmed. While some hospitals were inundated, the city was largely capable of providing needed medical support, and the 1,000 bed Comfort only received 182 patients over three weeks. In partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fraym’s interface helped characterize and map community-level COVID-19 vulnerability in India, among other countries.7 HGDA can provide needed assessments of medical risk to support deployments of greater utility.
Human Geography for Operational Advantage
The Sea Services are charged to respond to a plethora of contingencies. As the scope and variety of naval missions only increase, there is a growing burden on intelligence and operational planners. While such planners are assisted by exquisite tools that support IPB and MDA, the risk of information overload remains. HGDA automatically correlates and contextualizes the mass of human geographic data, removes extraneous factors, and creates visualizations that optimize planning and decision making. Applied to naval operations, HGDA can help optimize site selection for EABO, anticipate instability and violence, shape and assess influence activities, understand health risks, and support any other operational need. HGDA is available now and should be used to provide naval leaders with a decisive intelligence advantage across the continuum of competition and conflict.
- Dustin Homer and Ben Leo, Fraym Briefing, January 2021.
- Homer and Leo, Fraym Briefing.
- Homer and Leo.
- Ron Johnston, "Human Geography,” The Dictionary of Human Geography (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 353–60.
- Rob Kitchin, “Big Data and Human Geography: Opportunities, Challenges and Risks,” Dialogues in Human Geography (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, 2013), 262–67.
- Emphasis added. Headquarters, Marine Corps, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 5 February 2021), 1–4.
- Homer and Leo, Fraym Briefing, January 2021.