Monthly Archives: September 2017

Engineering as an Instrument of National Power

Originally published in The Military Engineer here.

To understand how we might make America great again in the world of international affairs, it is instructive to explore our engineering heritage and how it might reinvigorate our posture on the global scene. 

By Dr. Christopher K.Tucker

It seems that America has forgotten what once made it great, both at home and abroad.  America used to be a nation of builders, engineering a future that advanced American interests and principles.  Early Americans explored and mapped the frontiers, and engineered all manner of “internal improvements” that laid the groundwork for the American Century. On the international scene, America has a long, rich history of helping partner nations build capacity in support of our collective stability, security, growth, liberty and democracy.  But, somewhere along the line, the American national security establishment suffered a sort of institutional amnesia, forgetting the engineering foundations that made the Pax Americana possible.  To understand how America found itself in this spot, it is instructive to explore our current conceptions of American grand strategy.


Some think that engineering is simply a subset of the economic instrument of

national power. History tells us otherwise.


For years, the continuous repartee in Washington about “American Grand Strategy” has generated much heat but shed little light.  In this debate, the characterizations of our core national interests and our desired end state have been broad enough for nearly any agenda.  At the same time, the characterizations of our instruments of national power have demonstrated a kind of institutional amnesia about what made America strong and established America as a dominant force for good on the global scene.  Since grand strategy seeks the seamless integration and synchronization of all aspects and instruments of national power so to achieve the desired end state, this dual deficit has left our collective discussion on grand strategy wonting.

Perhaps some clarity can be achieved by exploring how we define and use the term “instruments of national power.” These “instruments” are those tools that each country uses in order to shape the international environment to its advantage by influencing other countries, international organizations, non-state actors, and corporations.  In the United States, Congress mandates that the president lay out how they plan to use these instruments of national power to achieve national security objectives in a National Security Strategy (NSS).

The standard reference for describing the “whole of government” range of instruments of national power is summarized by the acronym “DIME”: Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic. These four instruments are surely essential to the art of statecraft.

First, diplomacy is our primary conduit for engaging other nations, international institutions, and populations around the world.  Second, it is essential that we shape the informational landscape of our national security environment to our advantage, thereby protecting and advancing American principles and interests abroad.  Third, constituting a military capability that can both deter and/or compel our enemies, while also shaping Phase 0 environments through security sector assistance, is key to quelling those who would oppose American principles and interests by force.  And fourth, our nation must wield the economic instrument of power so as to ensure free access to markets, predict and prevent economic and financial crises, and to encourage economic growth. Some have advocated for the addition of Financial, Intelligence and Legal instruments of national power (DIME-FIL), which are also essential to the art of statecraft, and welcome additions.

However, what if this complement of instruments of national power was necessary but not sufficient?  What if they all were predicated upon another instrument of national power that is so ingrained in our modern way of thinking that we fundamentally fail to recognize it, organize and resource it, and then wield it to our advantage?  This has been the case for a long time.  But, what could be so ingrained in our modern way of thinking as to be invisible to national security decision-makers?  What is the capability on which the success of the United States, and other developed nations is predicated?

In short, the missing piece is engineering. It is the ability to engineer our landscapes with infrastructure, and the built environments that depend on this infrastructure, that is a fundamental instrument of national power.  It is what people around the developing world and in conflict zones yearn for, but which we in the developed world take for granted, and forget to properly resource in our adventures abroad.

It is easy for those of us in the developed world to forget about the infrastructure that provides us potable water and separates our wastewater from our storm water. The prime power generation and distribution that brings us the electricity needed for nearly every facet of modern life is often invisible to us—at least until a power outage occurs.  Freedom of mobility, at great speed and over great distances, whether for freight or for passengers, is simply an assumption of modern life, due to widespread transportation infrastructure.  And, our ability to avoid travel over great distances in order to communicate is predicated upon the engineering of a near ubiquitous telecommunications infrastructure. These and many other forms of engineering are the basic building blocks on which the developed world is based.

Yet, national debates on a grand strategy are nearly devoid of any discussion of engineering, and the infrastructure it creates, even though these are in large part what people around the world desire, and to which they aspire.

Some think that engineering is simply a subset of the economic instrument of national power. History tells us otherwise. In the evolution of a nation, it is engineering institutions that enable new forms of economic activity long before commercial industries drive widespread engineering-based progress. Without these basic engineering institutions, and infrastructural building blocks, our partner nations and those who aspire to model their lives on the developed world are left adrift. DIME(-FIL) methodologies have stalled progress in large swaths of the planet as they have simply omitted the obvious: engineering.



If American interests and principles are to see a renaissance across the globe, it is essential that American citizens and American policymakers recognize the centrality of engineering to modernity, and recognize that it requires more than American economic power to bring the marvels of modern engineering to places that suffer for lack of capacity, stability, and security.  To achieve this goal, we require a refactored national security posture that properly harnesses America’s engineering institutions and properly integrates them into American national strategy.

People often forget that America began as a colonial nation at the edges of a great frontier that required comprehensive engineering surveys to inform the needed “internal improvements.”  America was a fragile nation at risk of instability with its ungoverned frontiers, myriad diseases and natural hazards, security threats, as well as enormous resources—many of which were unknown and all of which required costly engineering to unlock.

While the Corps traces its roots to June 16, 1775, when the Continental Congress first chartered the U.S. Army with a chief engineer, the modern U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was established in 1802 as part of the Military Peace Establishment Act, which had been drafted by Thomas Jefferson as an advancement of a new set of authorities for, and limits on the U.S. military.  The Corps and its home at West Point were established with the primary function of training expert engineers loyal to the United States. The worldview that guided this founding was informed by a number of observations, including concerns that America’s canals were woefully inadequate for the timely and cost-efficient transport of goods and people, and that its ports had no means of defending their perimeters. During this era, the young nation’s roads, canals and natural navigable waterways required engineering and maintenance to support regular trade.

The General Survey Act of 1824 furthered this mission by authorizing the Corps to survey roads and canal routes—an act that then caused the Corps to be named as the responsible party for the “Act to Improve the Navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.” Such need for engineering internal improvements continued to grow exponentially, and by 1838, Congress established a dedicated U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers to undertake the mapping, design, and construction of federal civil works, coastal fortifications, and navigational routes. This division of engineers later merged back into the Corps in 1863.

In World War II, the Corps built some 27,000 military and industrial projects all over the world.  The Marshall Plan called on the engineers to establish new districts in Europe where infrastructure and construction were required to put Europe back in working order.  The Corps also played a key role in the occupation and reconstruction of Japan.  During the Cold War, the Corps played a leading role in engineering infrastructure within over a hundred countries worldwide.  In many places, this work helped to build a persistent presence and bi-lateral relationships with the host nation partner – relationships that have continued to this day.

Over the past several decades, policymakers and strategists have come to confuse the kinds of technical assistance projects advanced by the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) with the kind of infrastructure systems that had demanded the establishment of USACE engineering districts.  These districts once covered geographies so large that they could provide integrated engineering strategies sized to meet the political demands of host nation partners. Now, however, the previous vision of national engineering projects based on engagement and committed to capacity building, stability, and security has been displaced by a short-term focus on “aid” projects, modestly linked to an integrated strategy for advancing U.S. interests abroad.

To provide partner nations with capacity building, stability, security, and prosperity, a long-term engineering vision must be established in collaboration with each partner nation or region, with an eye toward establishing governance, long-term economic growth, hazard mitigation, stability, and security.




Engineering is not simply a subset of the economic instrument of national power.  Engineering’s roots run deep in the development of nations, and must be treated as such.  The basics of governance require an engineering of the land.  Going back to colonial days, the engineering of a country’s domain began with a geographical survey of its domain.

1)     Governance. Governance is not just a product of the law and politics. Indeed, its foundations are literally engineered. Land is surveyed. Boundaries are established. Parcels are apportioned. Deeds are assigned to these parcels. Addresses are assigned. Identities tie individuals to these parcels based on residential ownership or rental contracts. Contracts become enforceable because of the accountability borne out of tying individuals to specific locations on the landscape. Censuses then count individuals as they are tied to the land.  These censuses help the government to apportion democratic representation, allocate public resources, regulate private action, and shape private investment. This is all geospatial engineering in action.

2)      Growth. Many discuss the importance of America’s economic instrument of national power.  This discussion tends to focus only on the importance of financial and trade mechanisms as they shape the behavior and success of both partner nations and adversaries.  It does not focus on the equally important mechanisms by which America can help nations achieve long-term economic growth—namely engineering, which shapes a nation’s land for connectivity, productivity, and long-term economic growth.  Engineering is the instrument of American national power that should be leveraged and invested in so as to put our partners on a successful path of long-term economic growth. Before economies can truly develop, the physical infrastructure must be developed in order to provide transportation, telecommunications, and energy distribution connectivity.  The land must be engineered to meet agricultural, industrial, and health requirements. Local organic engineering capability and engineering educational institutions must also exist to ensure long-term self-sufficiency and viability.

3)      Hazard Mitigation.  Too often, we talk about natural and human disasters as exogenous shocks that by and large cannot be helped.  However, engineering has a long tradition of pre-emptively mitigating the effects of such disasters by building resilience in an otherwise fragile system.  In the direct aftermath of a disaster, national policy rightly focuses on the undeniable human toll paid and how humanitarian assistance/disaster response (resource should be deployed.  This kind-heartedness also represents a kind of institutional myopia, or rather, a failure to appreciate that the thoughtful and strategic deployment of engineering capabilities to at-risk environments could make such responses less acute or even less necessary.  Such a use of engineering as an instrument of national power would mitigate the great loss of partner nations’ capital stocks, including their physical capital stock, financial capital stock, and human capital stock.  By engineering hazard mitigations and resilience in our partners, America’s engineering instrument of national power can help them move more smoothly up what one might call the “stability maturity curve.”

4)      Stability.  Even if systems are engineered to be resilient, and both natural and manmade hazards are mitigated through engineering, “stability” requires the full suite of engineering initiatives.  A foundational geographical survey must be established, and continually nourished, as the only constant of a nation’s landscape is change. The engineering foundations of governance must be built, drawing on this data.  Foundations of long-term economic growth must be engineered.  And, stability partnerships must be established across nations that are committed to some level of data transparency, openness, and sustained presence by partners.  Through institutionalized engineering capacities within partner nations, we create long-term, non-political, technocratic, bi-lateral relationships that can provide stability by preventing isolation, opacity, and autocracy.

5)      Security.  To be clear, security is no afterthought.  Engineering as a state institution in modern societies often began within the Army in order to help engineer security into the landscape.  And while one could and even should legitimately discuss engineering as an instrument of national power through the lens of Security Sector Assistance and Security Cooperation, it is crucial that engagement with partner nations deploys this instrument of national power in whatever manner will ensure local success.  USACE is a 37,000 person civilian agency with a military leadership. This allows it to deploy into harms way as part of the Army or other military components and to undertake complex engineering endeavors. It also allows for the deployment of engineering capabilities in support of partner nations’ civilian engineering institutions.  Engineering as an instrument of national power, as manifested in USACE, has the flexibility of deploying as a military to military, military to civilian, civilian to civilian, or civilian to military capability, depending on which is culturally and geopolitically appropriate.  This ensures that America’s security goals, interests, and principles can be advanced through the deployment of engineering capability and that it can be done without demanding a large military footprint.



It is not a new thing for USACE to deploy its considerable engineering might as part of a coordinated national security strategy aimed at building partner nations’ capacity, stability, growth, liberty, and democracy.  Post-World War II and Cold War examples abound.  But the past several decades have seen a shift away. First, we have lost sight of history too much, and underappreciate the role the Corps played in building the United States into the dominate and resilient power of today.  America’s modern domestic political narrative often recognizes the Corps for both its contributions and also failures as it relates to the management of navigable waterways, the flood plains they traverse, and the human disasters that can result. This narrative forgets about engineering’s long-established role in foreign affairs.

Second, the Army has made a profound transformation from a “constructive Army” with its early officer corps trained as engineers to a “destructive Army” with an officer corps that sees USACE for its combat engineering prowess and its military construction budget. Third, to some, USACE is a military organization headed by a three-star general who reports to the Chief of Staff of the Army. To others, USACE is a 37,000 person civilian engineering organization. Fourth, USACE’s Interagency &International Services program is a crucial resource for providing technical assistance to non-defense federal agencies, state and local governments, tribal nations, private U.S. firms, international organizations, and foreign governments—yet it is still funded on a reimbursable basis, without its own budget.

Lastly, it is also important to note that due to many of its environmental and social justice implications, the engineering heritage of the early 20th Century has led some to shy away from engineering solutions to the needs of developing countries. Critics rightfully shy away from the kinds of large-scale “white elephant” projects that are so iconic, and both their neocolonial overtones and environmental liabilities.  The engineering community has learned many lessons from the past. Engineering with nature has become valued in the modern era, as has critical thinking about how the human/infrastructure nexus can be tuned to support human security and social justice.  Still, such critiques have sapped the enthusiasm around the kinds of engineering and infrastructure centric approaches that offer such great hope to the developing world.

This mix of issues has meant the long-term neglect in innovative thinking about how USACE might guide the application of the engineering instrument of national power across the American foreign affairs portfolio. With a few tweaks to its congressional authorization and some reallocation of national security appropriations, USACE could rapidly be transformed in to a formidable force on the international scene. It could reshape the world for the better through the strategic deployment of American engineering power that will, in turn, support partner nations and advance American interests and principles abroad.


By engineering hazard mitigations and resilience in our partners, America’s engineering instrument of national power can help them move more smoothly up what one might call the stability maturity curve. 





While many have raised concerns about the militarization of American foreign policy at the turn of the 21st century, others have bemoaned the country’s loss of influence in foreign affairs.  Few seem to have reflected on the value that American power can and should bring to the world. In business, if you are not bringing value to your customers and investors, you fade in to irrelevance.  Any nation that refuses to re-imagine its value to both its partners and the wider world will also fade into irrelevance.

The DIME (-FIL) construct that is taught to every national security decision-maker, whether military or civilian, envisions a certain array of value that America might bring to the world.  It suggests a certain constellation of ways in which America can shape the world to support its interests and principles. Perhaps it is time to raise the status of engineering so that it is, as it deserves to be, an instrument of national power—DIME-FILE, if you will.

Looking around at the developed world, one sees a heavily engineered built environment that provides modern amenities on which our daily lives depend. If we open our eyes further, we should see in these environments the foundations for our society’s stability, security, prosperity, and even our liberty and democracy.  Rather than taking it for granted, we must explicitly recognize that infrastructure and the engineering capabilities that bring it to us, are the foundation of modern society. It is high time we appreciate that most people in the developing world desire the benefits that engineering brings, and aspire to the benefits of modern infrastructure. If we believe that advancing American interests and principles worldwide depends on developing enduring partnerships with stable societies abroad, it is vitally important that we once again make engineering an integral part of our grand strategy.

Solving the “Big Hot Data Mess”

By Anthony Calamito; Christopher Tucker, Ph.D.; and Abe Usher

This article was originally published in USGIF’s State & Future of GEOINT Report 2017. Download the full report here.

You can’t talk about GEOINT these days without acknowledging the explosion in new big data sources or the accumulation of traditional data sources into large, hard-to-manage data repositories splintered across multiple networks. Big data is also being fragmented by security half-measures and otherwise made generally inaccessible to all of the newfangled big data solutions with which everyone is so enamored. In short, you can’t talk about GEOINT these days without talking about the “big hot data mess” the GEOINT Community currently faces. In this article, we will raise more questions than provide answers, as the answers to date have proven elusive.

Senior leaders, enterprise architects, technology vendors, and software experts are promising to make GEOINT data analysis faster, better, and cheaper, and to provide amazing insights never before possible. They promise to let us collaborate in new and interesting ways using GEOINT data. And they promise to magically have this data flow to the very edge of every network on which the mission is conducted — until, that is, they see the current state of our data.

These new technologies assume all entities, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), have actually acquired/licensed the right data and have meaningful access to this wide array of data. These technologies also assume the data hasn’t been squirreled away into countless different physical storage environments on multiple networks with no concern for how many redundant copies of the data have been and continue to be generated. This is compounded by the fact that the full metadata needed to help solve analytic problems is not always available.

The global GEOINT Community — intelligence professionals, warfighters, humanitarians, first responders, municipalities, and businesses — yearns for the wonders of ubiquitous, secure, and time-dominant access, big data analytics, machine learning, and everything else they hear about in the latest Silicon Valley tech press. So, how can the GEOINT Community reach this technical nirvana that has become our new base expectation? How can we understand the big hot data mess and take concrete steps to transform our basic GEOINT infrastructure to comport with modern technological expectations?

The Kitchen Metaphor for Data Challenges

To understand the GEOINT Community’s data challenges, we must have a clear understanding of how impact and value are produced. The value creation process of deriving intelligence from data is much like the operations of a well-run kitchen. Chefs (subject matter experts) use utensils to process and combine raw ingredients using repeatable recipes to produce nutritious, delicious food. Similarly, analysts use technology tools with specific methodology to process and combine raw GEOINT data to produce relevant intelligence products. In the GEOINT Community, we have great “chefs” with excellent “recipes,” but we don’t have a good handle on our “ingredients” (data).

Not everyone knows where to find the ingredients they need to do their job. Some ingredients are stored in the wrong place — like storing ketchup in a freezer where it is rendered useless, or burying spices in the backyard where they will never be discovered by other chefs. Think of a talented chef who repeatedly makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because those are the only ingredients she can find or has access to. As a result of our “ingredient challenges,” we are extremely limited in the advanced “utensils” (tools) we can bring to bear.

Know the Data

Why doesn’t every GEOINT desktop have access to every piece of relevant spatiotemporal data that exists, whether government-generated, commercial, or open source? Does the GEOINT Community have a grasp of the massive proliferation of data that is occurring? Does it at least have an exhaustive accounting of what exists, even if it doesn’t have the actual data? Does the community know who is the primary source of the data and not the middleman? What are the business and legal terms (the data licenses) under which it could gain access to each?

Do governments or businesses have a contract vehicle that allows for immediate, time-dominant data access? How do government and commercial entities share and exchange data? How can citizens provide free services back to the government? How can citizens and corporations pay for government collected or collated data so the government can continue to provide data to them in a form that allows easy consumption and provides for commercial entities to profit from government provided data? How can the government leverage citizen scientists to collect, correct, and update unclassified data sets open to the public? What are the privacy implications of unclassified data being made publically available?

Has the massive proliferation of such sources of data outstripped the GEOINT enterprise’s ability to maintain such an ongoing assessment? It’s unclear. However, the confusion spawned by this proliferation and our haphazard grasp of it contributes to the big hot data mess. Does NGA have access to the newest, hottest, best source of data? Of course it does. Somewhere. But whom do I ask for it, and how can I discover this data?

Buy the Data

NGA’s proposed Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG) vehicle for acquiring data may solve the problem of U.S. government access to this proliferation of data. It is too soon to tell, but perhaps CIBORG will provide transparency with regard to the terms under which NGA and National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) partners can rapidly acquire every kind of spatiotemporal data under the sun. Perhaps it will become clear what it means to have each data source available to the U.S. national security community, international partners, humanitarian partners, and indeed the whole of government and even private citizen use. Will this be the moment when NGA proactively, vigorously, and exhaustively builds a dynamic acquisition vehicle that provides the kind of transparency needed to clean up this big hot data mess? Actions, not rhetoric, will tell the tale over time.

Crowdsourcing the Data

With the popularity of citizen science and the desire for more transparency within government, how can organizations like NGA better leverage crowdsourcing as a means to create and collect data? Initiatives like OpenStreetMap have proven the value of leveraging a community of users from around the globe for creating data sets in areas that have been underserved, are too dangerous to visit, or have not been a focus of data creation.

So, what changes to policy are needed to ensure valuable crowdsourced data sets like OpenStreetMap and others are considered valid, timely data sources like those created by NGA? Will NGA open its unclassified data sets and enable citizen scientists to verify and edit them as needed? With a growing number of autonomous data sensors and an increasingly capable citizen science initiative, how will NGA adapt and leverage crowdsourced data sets as much as possible?

Migrate the (Legacy) Data

Assuming NGA understood all the data sources and mastered their acquisition, we then have the huge burden of the legacy/heritage environments that splinter the management of this data across many networks, file systems, databases, and APIs. This burden makes the timely, efficient, and effective use of big data questionable at best. Plenty of baroque technological strategies have been pursued in the past two decades to wicker these legacy/heritage environments together so seamless data access could be achieved. However, it is the cloud — and, for the GEOINT Community, the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE) cloud — that finally offers the promise, but not yet the reality, of migrating data into an environment that will allow the community to take advantage of modern technologies and strategies. IC ITE offers hope that at least parts of the big hot data mess may soon end. But the path ahead remains challenging.

Cloud Manage the Data

The authors recommend a four-step process to begin to address complex data challenges:

1. Mission needs inventory: Create specific user stories that define the most common activities that support common GEOINT mission threads.

2. Data inventory: Inventory government, commercial, and public GEOINT data sources.

3. “Unlock” analytics: Decouple data from analytics by storing GEOINT content in IC ITE cloud-based open storage systems (e.g., Hadoop, HBase, Accumulo, Elasticsearch) that provide multiple ways of accessing content such as ArcMap, QGIS, full-text search, Google Earth, etc.

4. Simplify data discovery: Put significant effort into communicating to analysts, software engineers, data scientists, and leaders how to access data for each GEOINT mission thread.

Once the transition to the IC ITE cloud occurs, the U.S. government GEOINT Community will be able to consistently apply new and evolving big data and machine learning techniques — on every data source, at global scale, and at whatever arbitrarily dense temporal rate available. Because the IC ITE cloud will exist at every level of classification, powerful technologies will allow for data to be stored at the level of its classification, with seamless cross-domain access for people and processes on every higher network.

Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) web services and other kinds of micro-services will be enabled on this data and deployed on the elastic cloud within powerful containerization strategies that provide unprecedented flexibility and scalability.

Suddenly, the data will be easily exposed for cataloging and a wide range of indexing schemes that will revolutionize discovery and access. This will also enable a real discussion about new ways individuals, teams, and communities with a vast array of processes can collaboratively interact with each other among the data. The age of the big hot data mess will be over. But, what will it allow us to do?

Leap Forward in Advanced Analytics

The face of GEOINT will be radically transformed by decoupling data analytics from data storage by moving relevant data into an elastic cloud with simple standards for data structure and access. The GEOINT Community will be able to fully exploit the global wealth of data generated about the planet every second of every day, to provide our nation time-dominant decision advantage in the realm of international affairs.

An endless variety of analytic algorithms will be run in real time, concurrently, and service many different mission sets. Machine learning will enable the augmentation of human analytic capabilities, sifting through the endless deluge of data, finding the known, and queuing up the unknown for analysts to solve. And geospatial narratives will be fed and constantly updated by these processes, collaboratively curated by the modern analytic workforce. The volume of continuously dispatched data will be enormous. The fidelity of data derived from it will be unparalleled, and its update cycle will be significantly faster than today. This will be the era in which GEOINT accelerates intelligence insight to action as never before imagined.

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