Using GIS for Route Clearing Operations

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In the U.S. Army, specifically the Engineer Regiment, the impact of GIS is often overlooked and ignored. We are given classes on our geospatial section’s capabilities and shown what they can do, but shortly afterwards they seem to disappear and everything returns to normal. We quickly return to the old ways of inserting maps into PowerPoint slides and painstakingly using the shapes tool to display information, that often can be confusing, underwhelming, and can take a lot of time. 

I recently completed a project for a graduate course that was focused on displaying the power of GIS and how it could easily influence our analysis and allow us to make informed decision quicker. My topic was how we could use GIS to improve our ability to conduct route clearance operations and I had to give a demonstration of this in QGIS. Route clearance operations are a routine task that are used to counter IED efforts. Its purpose is to secure an important route and make it safe for transport. This is obviously a dangerous operation but is crucial to curb the IED threat. I decided that I wanted to tackle this project by determining what information I would want to know if I was on the ground conducting these types of operations, since I am a self-professed novice in the workings of QGIS, this was a lot harder than I initially thought it would be. After hours of researching of how things could be done in QGIS, I eventually produced two products that I thought could display information in way that could take our analysis to a new level.

Map showing three hypothetical IED attacks that are categorized by type.  Map: author.
Map showing three hypothetical IED attacks that are categorized by type. Map: author.

This first product shows three IED attacks that are categorized by type (these are attacks that I made up just for this demonstration). Around these attacks is displayed information that I thought would be helpful in determining how we would plan future operations down this specific route. I started with using OpenStreetMap and Google satellite hybrid to produced my base layer. I then used the QuickOSM plugin to run a query to “find” all the roads and waterways in the area. If I was in theater, I would not rely on the accuracy of the QuickOSM plugin to develop a product that I would use to present this information. I would use internal engineer assets to map routes and use that data to create the vector file to display the road network. This would be done to ensure the accuracy of the data before making operational decision based off that data. I then decided to add the settlements that are in the area of operations. This information can tell us who is living in that area and whether they are friendly to our forces operating in that generally area. This information can help us determine the likelihood of any possibly attacks based on the friendliness of the local population towards U.S. forces, which is a contributing factor on the possibility of encountering IED attacks. The final piece of information that I wanted to display on this map was the elevation contours that occurred in the area. I used elevation data from the USGS and extracted the contour data from that. Elevation data is important because it identifies places where we can go, likely ambush locations, chokepoints, and triggerman locations.  A more experienced QGIS user could use this elevation data and produce viewshed analysis to show all the line of sight locations. Knowing this information can allow us to plan accordingly and use those points to orient our weapon systems in the areas that we are most likely to be attacked. 

Map created with QGIS showing heat density map of theoretical attacks.  Map: author.
Map created with QGIS showing heat density map of theoretical attacks. Map: author.

The second map, which is shown above, displays the same information just in a different manner. Instead of showing specific attacks that are occurring in a providence, this shows a heat density map of attacks that occurring throughout the country. This view would be used to see what areas are experiencing more attacks and would be used at a macro level. The first product shown would then be used to expound on the why behind the increase in attacks.

            The military already does this type of analysis in our planning process; however, these processes can be slow. GIS allows us to do deeper analysis in a shorter amount of time. We could then get this information out to our front-line troops when they need it to make tactical decision on the ground. The importance of this technology cannot be overstated. I would urge my peers to become familiar with the capabilities of this software. After completing this project, I appreciate that I was given the time to play with QGIS and see what it could do to provide better information to those that need it. While I admit that I am not yet a QGIS wizard, it has inspired me to keep learning and hope that I can show others in the military that this could help us save lives. 

About the Author

CPT Edward Wilkinson has been in the U.S. Army for 8 years. Originally enlisting in the Oklahoma National Guard, CPT Wilkinson commissioned as an Engineer Officer in the active army after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a B.S. in Physics. CPT Wilkinson is a recent graduate of the Engineer’s Captains Career Course and is currently pursuing a graduate degree from Missouri University Science and Technology in geological engineering.

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