Human Geography: Appliance of Science in the World’s Troubled Spots

Mike O'Brien

Human Geography is rapidly becoming one of the main ingredients in the intelligence gathering processes associated with conflicts throughout the world.

An understanding of where people are and why may be a century-old social science, but only in recent years has its application been utilized to accurately predict the next development in a troubled zone and to safely provide humanitarian aid.

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) will be an essential component in the toolbox of next generation U.S. forces.

Related: Human Geography: What the Future Holds for U.S. Security Forces

The issues related to advancing human intelligence integration for GEOINT and the intelligence community will be discussed in full by a lineup of expert speakers at IDGA’s Human Geography 2013 conference in May.


Leading the way in the development of this discipline is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The agency applies human geography to GEOINT in various ways, which includes an analysis of a region’s economy, its access to technology and the climate.

The agency carries out an examination of a range of geospatial data, including terrain and features such as roads, buildings and rivers. That way it can determine how people move from one place to the next and how that movement shifts over time.

A study of a region’s history is necessary to find out if there has been religious conflict in the past.

Another crucial component is the analysis of populations, including ethnicity, language, demographics and education. From that data it can be deduced whether certain populations easily form alliances.

An early example of the successful use of human geography (HG) was in the Kosovo war in 1999. Through the international community’s successful integration of HG into analysis, military leaders were able to set up databases to provide advanced intelligence of the various population segments of the region.

That meant that based on knowledge of the migration routes refugees would use, humanitarian aid – including food, water and medical supplies - was pre-positioned when the Serbs began ethnic cleansing by burning certain homes.

HG has also helped in the recent struggles in the African nation of Mali. It has given the intelligence community a better understanding of the socio-political, ethno-religious issues at stake in a region where the Tuareg people are fighting for autonomy in a vast region north of the Niger River where only one percent of Mali’s population actually live.

The principles of HG are also at work in Syria where a dispute is raging between the Shi’a offshoot the Alawites, along with their minority allies, and the Sunni majority.

Adam L. Silverman, the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the U.S. Army War College, told that the development of a U.S. Army Regionally Aligned Force is an important step in the forward march of HG.

He said: "The concept of human geography is also important for generating a Regionally Aligned Force. It will be necessary to develop curriculum in the Army’s learning domain, which is comprised of education, training, experiential learning, and individual self development, to develop Soldiers who can ask the important, and often nuanced questions, pertaining to human geography.

"While there will definitely be a greater need for specific regional knowledge, Soldiers will have an ever greater need to learn not only about specific populations, but also the dynamics that drive and contextualize their behavior.

"As a result, over the course of a career, soldiers will need ever greater exposure to the concepts of human geography to be successful in their missions. Without this conceptual context, the specific regional information will not be fully useful. Finally, it will not provide soldiers the flexibility they need to be able to operate wherever their missions take them."

The Department of Defense is certainly putting its might behind the HG discipline. The Military Intelligence Program is receiving $18 billion per year and the Human Terrain System (HTS), which is just one segment of HG, has an annual operating budget in excess of $200 million.

One of the positive impacts of HG is the reduction of civilian casualties and early failings in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF & OEF) in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the need for new intelligence and tactics.

It swiftly became clear that conventional warfare was doomed to fail in the face of an unconventional enemy that had no state backing and no rule book. With a better understanding of both the foe and the civilians in which they became embedded, safety of both the U.S. forces and innocent civilians was greatly improved.

Writing in NGA’s Pathfinder magazine, the agency’s Human Geography Lead Bruce Heinlein said: "Human Geography adds context. You may not be able to see in imagery what water shortages are doing to the cultural aspects of life, but with that info you could understand why groups are in conflict.

He said the agency also matches U.S. Geological Survey data with NRA terrain, elevation and hydrology data to provide information on environmental changes affecting soils and land use.

"Our efforts are joint and highly collaborative on all levels, from technology to people to processes. We are documenting requirements in the HG landscape and identifying ways that we might be able to satisfy them."

For NGA’s Director Letitia A. Long, building on previous successes for implementation in future conflicts is a number one priority.

"NGA needs to build on what we do well, describing where, when and how many, but we need to be able to anticipate where, what and why," she told Pathfinder. "This is another step as we continue to evolve GEOINT for the next generation, for the next fight."

IDGA’s Human Geography 2013 event takes place from May 6-8 at the Waterview Conference Center in Arlington, Virginia. For more details, go to

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