Using Google Earth to Train Army ROTC Cadets During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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In early March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities across the nation to close their doors and transition to online learning. This was an unprecedented move on their part, and students were sent home to finish the remainder of their spring term online. With continued uncertainty during this pandemic, schools have had to develop innovative solutions in order to continue providing their students with a high-quality education not just now, but in the coming months. The Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) has been faced with the same issue.

With universities closed, all on campus training for Cadets in the Army ROTC was put on hold.  Army ROTC is one of the largest commissioning sources for Army Officers. As of 2016, Army ROTC alone had produced 1,000,000 new officers since its establishment 100 years prior in 1916.  In ROTC, Cadets are not only expected to complete their traditional course work towards their respective degree, but to also conduct training in the form of leadership labs, physical training, and field training exercises.  They also participate in various summer training events such as the Cultural Learning and Understanding Program, Airborne School, Air Assault School, and Cadet Summer Training (CST).  Cadet Command has been faced with a unique set of challenges since the beginning of this pandemic, but the main question being asked is “How does Cadet Command plan to produce quality Army Officers, while still adhering to the CDC’s guidelines?”  Typically, in the summer between Junior and Senior year all Cadets would execute a centralized training event called Cadet Summer Training (CST).  This year however CST 2020 has been canceled and instead Operation Agile Leader is underway. Operation Agile Leader is a series of training events that will begin Fall Semester 2020 and will include both on campus training as well as field training at military installations closest to the ROTC Battalions.  With these mitigations in place and Cadet Commands uncompromised abilities they should be able to provide adequate training for Cadets in place of traditional CST.  Nevertheless, when looking at the Army ROTC pipeline Cadet Summer Training, though only a few weeks of their college career, may be the most important portion of a cadet’s training.  I, and most of my peers, also feel a bulk of valuable training Cadets receive comes from their instructors at the university. As the country shifts and the COVID-19 circumstances remain unpredictable, instructors are taking the initiative to provide quality training within CDC guidelines, while also preparing for worst case scenarios in the upcoming semesters.  

In my current graduate studies of Geological Engineering at Missouri Science and Technology (MS&T) we have transitioned to 100% remote learning for the Spring and Summer 2020 semesters.  Professors have made a great deal of changes to the curriculum and developed excellent solutions to continue our education in an online format.  One of these solutions is replacing standard field work with exercises utilizing a GIS software program called QGIS.  While conducting these exercises in my studies I started to think about how these methods could be applied to train new ROTC officers.  With that in mind I developed a rough outline for a training package that would provide quality GIS instructions using a distant learning platform, specifically for ROTC instructors use.  I reached out to my alma mater and commissioning source Eastern Kentucky University’s Army ROTC department and discussed their plans for the Fall 2020 semester.  As stated earlier, while they are hoping for the best they are preparing for the worst.  I described how Google Earth could be used as a fantastic tool to display geospatial data and reinforce training in land navigation and mission planning in the event distant learning is reinstated.  They were very interested to see how a GIS such as Google Earth would be able to strengthen a Cadet’s training.  This training package is being developed as an aid for Cadets to use as supplemental training, not to be a replacement for the Map Reading and Land Navigation Training Circular (TC 3-25.26). It is broken down into four main sections; Section 1: Introduction to Google Earth, Section 2: Map Reading, Section 3: Land Navigation and Terrain Analysis, and Section 4: Situational Training Exercises. 

Section 1, Introduction to Google Earth

Section 1, Introduction to Google Earth, shows students how to download Google Earth, adjust the settings for viewing Military Grid Reference System (MGRS), and how to open and view the various KML and KMZ files in Google Earth.  Students will also conduct a series of practical exercises (PEs) demonstrating how to use the different spatial analysis tools in Google Earth.  Some of these exercises include how to plot features, measure distances, determine azimuths, conduct viewshed analysis, and generate a terrain profile.  All of these tools will be utilized throughout the training package during various PEs and Situational Training Exercises (STX).  Lastly, this section explains how to create your own KML files in Google Earth. Over time, new and updated PEs can be added on different terrain, thus allowing instructors to take these concepts and create more scenarios, customizing them for their teaching styles.

Section 2: Map Reading

After completing Section 1 students will be ready to start Section 2: Map Reading. Here they will focus on familiarization with military maps.  For Section 2 students will receive instructions on how to read marginal information, conduct slope analysis, measure distances, plot azimuths, and create different routes. This portion will be primarily conducted on both GEO-PDF Maps and hard copy two dimensional maps with a protractor.  This map training is in accordance with TC 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation, the Army’s publication manual for instruction on Map Reading and Conducting Land Navigation.  The Section 2 training package also provides a series of PEs using various two-dimensional military maps from across the United States, reinforcing the knowledge from the TC 3-25.26 manual.  The majority of these PEs are built on installations the instructors are familiar with such as the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk or the National Training Center at Fort Irwin.  This is designed to stimulate conversation between the instructors and students as they will be able to relate real life experiences to these practical exercises. 

Figure A: Sample exercise showing a a hill on a two-dimensional map.
Figure A: Sample exercise showing a a hill on a two-dimensional map.

Section 3: Land Navigation and Terrain Analysis

Once students have a good foundation of map reading they will move on to Section 3: Land Navigation and Terrain Analysis.  This is the portion where students will primarily be using Google Earth to conduct analysis.  The general concept for each PE in this section has students being presented a task such as identifying the major, minor, or supplemental terrain features on a two-dimensional map; then they will view this overlay in Google Earth 3D view.  This is meant to reinforce training on Terrain Association, which is the ability to orient your map and determine your location based on terrain around you.  As you can see in Figure A, the student is shown a hill on a two-dimensional map. The student would then be able to view this hill as it appears in 3D on Google Earth.  Students will also construct a terrain profile and line of sight analysis on a two-dimensional map and be able to cross reference their products with the terrain profile and view shed analysis tools in Google Earth.  The culminating PE for Section 3 is to create a route plan from one designated point to another designated point on terrain that the students have access to in the vicinity of their University. Students will create this route plan and brief it to their instructors and/or the class.  Pending feedback from the instructors, students will navigate their planned route and provide feedback on what challenges they faced or what they would have done differently.  In the event students are unable to execute their plan in person, they would create their plan in Google Earth and critique their route using the tools in Google Earth, view Figure B for an example.  

Figure B: Sample planned route in Google Earth.
Figure B: Sample planned route in Google Earth.

Section 4, Situational Training Exercises (STX)

Section 4, Situational Training Exercises (STX), focuses on providing scenarios that allow students to create tactical plans and brief their plan in the form of an Operation Order (OPORD).  These exercises will be conducted on terrain based in Fort Irwin, Fort Polk, and in training areas local to the ROTC Battalion.  For each PE students will receive background information that will include their type of unit and available equipment. Students will then receive their higher unit’s OPORD which will provide information on the enemy and friendly situation, their unit’s mission, and additional information in accordance with the five paragraph OPORD Format (Situation, Mission, Execution, Sustainment, and Command and Control). In addition to the OPORD, students will also receive Geospatial Intelligence in the form of restricted and severely restricted terrain they will be able to access in Google Earth to assist in their planning.  Each student will then brief their OPORD using Google Earth or the two dimensional military map provided; this at the discretion of the instructor.  If students are required to execute distance learning, these briefs could be conducted on any screen sharing platform.  If students are in the local area and able to maintain safe distances, the instructors have the option to conduct a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT) on the local training area.  Once all students’ plans have been briefed, the class has the option to walk the actual terrain route, allowing the instructor to highlight the successes and improvements based on the students’ plans. 

While this training package is still being developed, I am working closely with EKU Army ROTC instructors to ensure the PEs provided meets their needs, with the hope that this training package can provide support to further University instructors in the future. Our target deadline for the complete first draft is 01 August 2020, this will provide adequate time to make final corrections before the Fall 2020 semester.  In these uncertain times ahead, individuals and industries are relying heavily on quality mapping products, GIS, and GIS professionals to provide geospatial information so they can continue progress.  Tools such as this will help reduce the learning gaps that could be created while we are required to be separated. It is important that as GIS professionals we continue to innovate and develop new solutions that allow people and the workforce to continue moving forward.  


U.S. Army Cadet Command Public Affairs Office. (2020, May 12). U.S. Army cadet command makes changes to summer training programs in response to COVID-19.

About the Author

Martin Mudd is from Bardstown, Kentucky.  He is an Engineer Officer in the U.S. Army currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, MO.  Mud holds a B.A. in Geography from Eastern Kentucky University and is currently pursuing his M.S. in Geological Engineering at Missouri Science and Technology.  

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