2 little-known intel agencies are helping US partners keep an eye on Russia’s and China’s frontline forces

  • Two little-known US intelligence agencies have made significant contributions to countering Russia in Ukraine.
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office have gathered and distributed valuable information about Russian activity.

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When people talk about intelligence in the US, they usually think about the CIA or the National Security Agency, two agencies well known for their history and operational capabilities.

As important as the CIA and NSA are, they are only part of a network of 18 agencies and departments focused on gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence.

The US intelligence community, as the network is known, is a big and complicated organization that has taken shape over the past 40 years, reflecting changes in technology and global threats.

Recent events have shown that those lesser-known agencies can have a direct, even outsize, effect on how the US government assesses and reacts to crises around the world.

Little-known intel agencies

A National Reconnaissance Office payload is launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in September 2017.

US Air Force/Senior Airman Ian Dudley

The US response to Russia’s war in Ukraine has pulled the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office out of the shadows.

The NGA is responsible for gathering and analyzing geospatial intelligence — that is, intelligence about objects and activity on earth — and for distributing it to support policymakers, other intelligence agencies, the military, and law enforcement.

The NRO builds and operates spy satellites and ground stations with which it conducts its main mission: collecting imagery and signals intelligence in order to complement and support the work of other US intelligence agencies.

The US’s resources and the scope of its interests allows it to have separate organizations dedicated to specific forms of intelligence collection. In that sense, the NGA and NRO are unique, and their capabilities are highly prized within the US intelligence ecosystem and among US allies.

A National Reconnaissance Office ground station.

National Reconnaissance Office

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine gained steam in fall 2021, the NRO and NGA were keeping very close tabs on the Russian military’s buildup along Ukraine’s borders.

After Putin unleashed his forces, those agencies continued tracking and analyzing the Russian advances, offering policymakers valuable intelligence on the progress and condition of the Russian war machine.

US policymakers have made unprecedented use of that intelligence, sharing the plans and intentions of Russian forces and their leaders with allies. This intel-sharing has helped build support for the vast amount of military assistance that the US and its allies have supplied to Ukraine, often on short notice.

In many ways, the NRO and NGA are sibling agencies. The NRO plans, designs, builds, and operates the satellites that NGA uses to produce intelligence products. NRO satellites have many customers, but the NGA is probably the most reliant on the satellites operated by the NRO.

A satellite photo of troops and equipment in Yelnya, Russia, in late 2021.

Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

The NGA’s capabilities include the ability to determine the composition of buildings or objects on the ground, which is valuable for a number of reasons. It could allow military planners to select the most effective munition for a precision strike or to determine the precise amount of explosives that troops on the ground need to breach the target during a raid.

The NGA operates some the most advanced facial recognition software on the planet. It can conduct human-pattern analysis and even measure the gait and body size of an individual. The NGA is also adept at all-weather imagery analysis, relying on a combination of hyper-spectral and multispectral sensors mounted on satellites and unmanned aerial systems.

The NGA also works with foreign countries. Following the signing of a military agreement with India in late 2020, for example, NGA was permitted to “exchange foundational information” with New Delhi, according to the head of the agency.

At the time, India was locked in a standoff with China along their disputed border in the Himalayas, and the deal allowed the US to share topographical, nautical, and aeronautical data.

The bin Laden mission

A model of the bin Laden compound produced by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Not many people know that the NGA played a key role in Operation Neptune’s Spear, the special-operations mission that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

NGA analysts worked with SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group — formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — to map the compound where the most wanted terrorist in the world was hiding.

NGA analysts created three-dimensional renderings of the compound by using imagery and laser radar technology, analyzed data from RQ-170 drones that orbited the compound, and tracked the daily moments of people in the compound to determined who was there.

The agency also helped the “Night Stalkers” of the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment create flight simulators that were critical for their ability to fly MH-60 helicopters — a classified stealth version of the Black Hawk — to the target without being detected.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

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