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NGA History

NGA 25th Anniversary

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency

In the 1990s, amid the upheaval of an emerging post-Cold War world order and space-based technological advances, a radical new concept took shape. The idea – to merge imagery and mapping elements from across the Department of Defense (DOD) and intelligence community (IC) – challenged conventional wisdom and threatened decades-long ways of doing business. The impetus for such a radical idea came from lessons learned after Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which highlighted imagery and mapping shortfalls.

To a handful of visionaries, the challenges exposed by the Gulf War provided an opportunity to reimagine imagery and mapping assets into a single entity – what eventually became the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Though initially resisted by many in the IC and DOD, NIMA garnered strong support from key individuals, such as Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch, who championed the concept. Thanks to their persistence, the NIMA concept became reality on Oct. 1, 1996, with the complete consolidation of the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), the Central Imagery Office (CIO) and the Defense Dissemination Program Office (DDPO), as well as imagery elements from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office (DARO).

Each of NIMA’s predecessor organizations had a proud heritage of service to the nation, which had forged strong cultural identities among their respective workforces. Highlights of this service included the crucial role played by NPIC imagery analysts in the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and the significant contribution of DMA cartographers to negotiations in the Dayton Peace Accords (1995). In its early years, NIMA had to overcome a residual external resistance to the single-agency concept, as well as internal rivalries fostered by the competing inherited claims on workforce heritage and identity.

Despite these challenges, NIMA achieved several notable successes in its first years, including the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). This groundbreaking collaboration with NASA and its research and development center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, allowed NIMA to produce seamless, near-global Digital Terrain Elevation Data which remains a cornerstone of modern geospatial mapping and measurement.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Beginning in response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and continuing throughout their long aftermath, NIMA began cementing a greater unity of purpose among its various imagery and mapping elements. In the wake of such world-altering events, old agency rivalries were set aside as new synergies were recognized and exploited to meet the challenges of an emerging global landscape shaped by the War on Terrorism. Key innovations driven by this new battlespace included greater reliance on emerging technologies, such as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which provided real-time airborne imagery, as well as the formal merger of imagery and mapping analysts in cells such as the Targeting Fusion Center.

In 2003, Congress recognized the transformative work happening across the agency by officially renaming NIMA the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. More than just a name change, NGA cemented a new intelligence discipline – GEOINT – and gave rise to such developments as the establishment of the National System for Geospatial Intelligence, all of which ratified the innovative discipline and doctrine fueling the work of the agency. During these years, NGA provided distinguished support to military campaigns, including Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and played a pivotal role in the 2011 raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Alongside its vital warfighter support role, NGA has also accumulated a storied legacy in support of diverse domestic and international humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, working in conjunction with such organizations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These partnerships have helped bring stability to hard-hit communities facing every kind of natural disaster, spanning the likes of hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, as well as humanitarian crises, such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic. NGA’s GEOINT expertise has also been used to combat criminal activities across the globe, including work to hinder the production and distribution of narcotics and wildlife trafficking. 

Since the inception of NGA, the global landscape – and the threats emerging from that landscape – have continued to evolve. GEOINT has been a critical pioneer and partner in the fight against both long-term problems, such as climate change, and unforeseen vulnerabilities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. From its position as both a combat support agency and intelligence agency, NGA remains at the forefront of meeting the challenges of the 21st century, so we can help show the way to a better tomorrow.

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Associated Document(s)

The Advent of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
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NGA 25th Anniversary: An Illustrated History
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GEOINT Hall of Fame Inductee List
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