Geographical Information Systems
Most military operations are performed on, above or under the Earth’s surface and bodies of water although space is emerging as an operational domain in its own right. It is imperative that militaries have the most accurate and detailed maps possible. Armies and navies have always played a major role in the development of cartography. This has not only been to their own benefit but has filtered into the civilian world. The dawn of airpower in the early 20th Century made a further contribution. Aircraft were, and remain, an excellent reconnaissance tool. As such, aerial pictures they took of the surface below were useful for drafting maps. This was further revolutionised with the advent of satellite reconnaissance from the 1950s
As example of this historical trend is illustrated by the United Kingdom’s Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping agency. The OS was formed in 1791 in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion which attempted to reinstall the Stuart family as the British monarchy. In the wake of the rebellion, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, became aware of shortcomings in maps available to the British Army. This led to the drafting of detailed maps of the Scottish Highlands. Today, the OS continues its detailed cartography of the United Kingdom producing maps that are widely used in the civilian domain
For centuries military maps were printed on physical materials like paper. The advent of the microchip and computing in the early 1960s had a major impact on military cartography. This triggered the growth of Geographical Information Systems (GISs). Put simply, a GIS is built around a database housing a myriad of information. Computerisation and digital communications mean that GISs often interact closely with Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSSs). As a result, military cartographical services have increased in precision and accuracy.
GISs often form a key part of computerised Battle Management Systems. At its simplest, a BMS depicts the positions of hostile and friendly forces overlaid onto a map according to their location. These forces could be deployed in the air, land and/or sea domains. They could be depicted at strategic, operational and tactical levels, according to the echelon where they are used. The major asset of a GIS compared to printed maps is their currency. A BMS depicts these red and blue forces in real-time or near real-time. Positions of friendly units are derived by the latter reporting their position using GNSS blue force tracking systems. Positions of red forces are derived from reconnaissance and intelligence collection
This real-time/near real-time benefit is vastly enhanced by the array of additional information a GIS overlays onto a map. A printed map is essentially a snapshot of a particular area at a particular time and only includes the information printed upon it. A GIS adds a host of information. Perhaps a new bridge has been built in a specific area? This can be added via the few clicks of a mouse. A local river may have flooded inundating a nearby village and placing a large part of it underwater. Once again, such information is easy to add
One of the greatest contributions GISs make is in terms of representing human geography. Geographical information systems can overlay demographic data onto a particular area. This could include details of respective ethnic groups and where they live. Information could be added on where flashpoints or hostilities have occurred between these groups. What is more, this information can be rapidly and continually updated giving users a timely picture of the situation on the ground. Maps can show where incidents of criminality or political violence have concentrated. GISs may help maps depict where infrastructure has been badly damaged or destroyed.
It would be understandable to be concerned about the danger of information saturation precipitated by GISs. Nonetheless, a useful attribute is that one can usually customise a map with exactly the information required. We are arguably at the dawn of the GIS’s potential. Expect further technological innovations and evermore detailed information in the coming years.