How GIS Supports Military Operations

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Warfare must continuously adapt to advancements in intelligence and technology. Increased capabilities drive decisions and military actions. In order to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlefield, the operational environment and environmental effects towards operations must first be defined beginning with map analysis of the battlespace. Maps provide information including location of critical infrastructure, roads, terrain features, and elevation. The amount of information displayed on maps depends on current available intelligence and, therefore, must be consistently updated. The use of computers and satellite imagery has expanded our knowledge database resulting in vast advancements in cartography. These improvements enable military decision making and decrease risk to mission. 

Operation Market Garden was a failed operation conducted toward the end of the European campaign of WWII. The Allied Forces attempted to conduct a synchronized attack in order to seize three crucial bridges in the Netherlands. The 101st, 82nd, and 1st (UK) Airborne Divisions were to seize the bridges in vicinity of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem, respectfully. The 30th Corps (UK) would simultaneously travel north from Belgium to reinforce the airborne units, provide sustainment, and continue movement towards their objective in Arnhem. One of the biggest downfalls of the operation was the lack of terrain analysis. In the Netherlands, much of the terrain is flat, lies at or below sea level, and is comprised of coastal lowland, farmland, and/or marshland. Additionally, 30th Corps could only travel along a single narrow road between Belgium and Arnhem that was sprinkled with German forces who continuously engaged their movement and delayed their arrival. Due to the narrow road, any vehicle damage created an additional roadblock to their funneled movement. Being the farthest downtrace unit, 1st (UK) Airborne Division suffered heavy casualties from the Germans and were forced to retrograde from Arnhem due to their lack of resupply. Harsh lessons such as this proves the importance of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and the capabilities it brings to the fight. If the allied armies had the geospatial products that depicted hydrologic data and routes, it could have changed the decisions executed in conjunction with Market Garden and many other operations.

Map showing hydrology in the Netherlands and proposed route used by British Tank units during operation Market Garden.  Map: author.
Map showing hydrology and armed forces from Operation Market-Garden. Map: author.

Analysts use geographic information systems (GIS) to display updated intelligence and improve communication. Optimization of photographic imagery, global positioning systems (GPS) and record keeping enables military intelligence to display spatial data for every region of the world. If the military is involved in any conflict, the first questions will be: where are we going and how are we getting there? Current military ground forces consist of soldiers, vehicles, and their sustainment. Terrain limits troop and vehicle transportation and determines both tactics and strategy. For example, dense vegetative terrain would limit the use of tracked or wheeled vehicles, warranting an infiltration by foot. Ideal routes for vehicles must be capable of bearing equipment weight and allow freedom of movement for vehicle turn radius. Alternate routes should be available to avoid funneling of forces and enable freedom of maneuver for large weapon systems. One product that encompasses aforementioned conditions is the modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO). 

A modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO).  Source: author.
A modified combined obstacle overlay (MCOO). Source: author.

The MCOO provides a basis for identifying ground avenues of approach and mobility corridors for both friendly and enemy forces. This overlay depicts areas that restrict movement including manmade and natural obstacles, slope, vegetation, and hydrology. A MCOO is developed through either digital or analog means and is enhanced through the use of accurate maps and additional intelligence. Common maps provide specific details such as roads and names of towns. Topographic maps provide additional details such as elevation data through contour lines, building locations, and location of vegetation. Hydrologic data may be available on a different resource. GIS programs can bring all the associated data overlay together to provide commanders with a defined operating picture. Once the battlespace has been analyzed, GIS can alter the settings to create tailored products that can assist the use of additional assets such as aviation or fires. Knowing slopes and vegetation can help identify potential helicopter landing zones and air mobility corridors enabling additional weapon platforms and sustainment through medical evacuation and transportation of equipment and personnel. Line of sight (viewshed) data is important to show which positions are most advantageous to place weapon systems or communication retransmission sites. Human geography data can portray populations within the area of operations and assist in decisions to minimize any involvement of the civilian populace. Overall, GIS is a valuable capability at the military’s disposal to help exploit enemy weaknesses and reinforce our own.

About the Author

CPT Jeremy Liker is a U.S. Army Engineer Officer currentlying attending the Professional Development Program (PDP) through Missouri University of Science and Technology  with a study in a masters of science in Geological Engineering. 

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