The United States Army’s GIS Personnel Shortage

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The United States Armed forces are renown for their tactical strategies and impressive arsenal of weaponry. It always begs to question: what is the force driving these decisions?

From early analogous forms of geospatial information systems (GIS), such as cartography, to modern day computer software systems; GIS remains to provide the armed forces an impeccable tool of geographic analysis. GIS allows military leaders to assess the battlefield and make mitigated decisions to improve their operational mission success. Decisions such as where to conduct an ambush, rally points, helicopter landing zones, are among a few of the critical planning decisions in a battlefield.

GIS can be utilized to assess risks along troop movement routes based upon historical enemy data to increase the mission success and acquire sufficient preparation. GIS not only provides the navigational means of the route but also the possible areas of concern. Examples of these concern areas of travel are low water crossings, bridge locations and height, and environmental concerns such as water sources to avoid contaminants. In the operational theatre when a military unit is “down range”, also referenced as deployed, GIS can be utilized to assist in identifying enemy combatant behavior and maneuver.

GIS can be utilized to track frequent movement locations, historic enemy movement routes, and even enemy improvised explosive device (IED) emplacements. This enables the military commander to make informed decisions on what route to travel along to avoid enemy engagement and more importantly, where to neutralize an enemy combatant.

Gathering this valuable GIS information is no walk in the park. In order to provide our military leaders with this information, a specialized team of Geospatial engineers compile the necessary data to present to our military leaders. These special teams are referred to as the Geospatial Planning Cell (GPC) and often work hand in hand with military intelligence due to the confidentiality of some information.

There exists only one GPC for each area of operation; with only a total of seven GPCs around the world. The GPC’s are composed of Engineer officers (12A), Geospatial Engineering Technician (125D), and Geospatial Engineers (12Y). Each of these GPC contain no more than 30 service members working to complete requested information within their respective area of operation. That’s 210 service members, of all ranks, working to provide critical GIS information to the Army’s global forces. For better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of individual roles and tasks, reference ATP 3-34.80 Geospatial Engineering. 

It must also be acknowledged that there are additional service members providing geospatial support to unit echelons below the Brigade. However, these service members are not always utilized strictly for geospatial service. As a soldier, there are a myriad of additional tasks that must be accomplished, and this often results in GIS being overlooked until it is too late. 

Most military engineer officers are introduced into GIS for only a small amount of time. It is taught for no more than a week of learning GIS and its applicability to training before being glazed over by other subjects as young lieutenants. Yet, Geospatial Engineering is one of the three disciplines an Army Engineer Officer should master.

Often emphasis is placed on the other two disciplines: combat engineering and general engineering. It is not until almost four years later, as a Captain, would an Army officer relearn GIS applications. Even then, the skills are only enough to plan basic operations and understand some capabilities present in the world. These young officers are often asked to plan and execute training and operations for Company size and above elements. These young officers are often discouraged from reaching out to the GPC as the GPC is often attached to higher echelons of leadership. Of course, that is not to say that it is impossible to ask the GPC for assistance.

As we look to the horizon, we recognize that GIS software closes the gap between knowledge and necessary skill to enable our military leaders. As more funding continues to feed the development of artificial intelligence for geospatial analysis, at the core of GIS and its operations will remain the human labor to execute. Despite the budget cuts from military jobs, the demand for GIS products and services continues to be significant. If this deficit isn’t filled, timely and accurate GIS mission requirements could be detrimental to future mission operational success.

About the Author

CPT Seng P Moua joined the U.S. Army in 2015 and later commissioned as an Engineer Officer in 2016. CPT Moua graduated from Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota with a B.A. in Family studies. Prior to his service, CPT Moua worked alongside with Iron Mountain Inc and Wells Fargo & Co. CPT Moua is a recent graduate of the Army Engineer Captains Career Course and is pursuing his graduate studies at Missouri Science and Technology.


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