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Mapping the land & joint battlespace: making use of digital geospatial information to prepare, infiltrate and dominate the land battlespace is still the privilege of higher echelons of command, able to access and exploit multiple sources of intelligence. But the rise of onboard or personal networked terminals is also offering rich functionalities to insert land forces in complex human and natural terrain.

The digital battlespace has been enabled by a revolution in geospatial information technologies (see Geospatial information part 1). Increased resolution sensors, automated production tools, and standardised dissemination are shaping the way military operations are planned and led. The particularly complex land environment, obstructed by weather, elevation, vegetation and human activity, is to benefit massively from this augmented digital description. However, this process differs widely between the higher-level generation of a God's eye view, and the lower tactical echelon, constrained by limited connectivity and onboard information processing.


The notion of shared "situational awareness" can be simply defined to answer the critical "who's where" question in military operations. In its ultimate form, it is delivered as a Common Operational Picture (COP); but this multi-layered, geo-located view has hardly become a reality in higher headquarters, challenged by a refined description of the operational environment, defined as the Recognised Environmental Picture. The latter is an ambitious endeavour to describe in digital formats all aspects of the operational environment: geography, hydrography, oceanography and meteorology. It is thus capable of serving all military users (army, navy, air and special operations forces), and can be seen as the foundation of the common operational picture.

Building a Recognised Environmental Picture, however, entails leveraging the very best of terrain, water and weather generation tools; and this finding is even more acute in the land environment where natural and human features converge to load topography with surface details. Its components have been found for some time, although in a proprietary format, held by a loose community of topography, oceanography and meteorology specialists. Today, leveraging new and increasingly standardized geospatial products, REP is at hand in a handful of countries, from where it will logically spread to most defence staffs. Due to the high volume of data, modern IT is seen as a powerful enabler to bring together environmental data: enterprise services, subscribing to distant networked communities, service-oriented architectures and Web 2.0 technologies all combine to allow access to user-defined information services and building of ad hoc information products. This will give rise to new specialties in network-centric operations, such as an REP manager, tasked with pulling geospatial information to serve dedicated demand for such operational services as weather overlays for drone operators, helicopter landing zones for army aviation units, or route computing for logistic planners.

In the United States, Britain, France and other Nato countries, Recognised Environmental Picture is slowly being experimented to fuel planning or command and control of network-centric operations. The 2013 edition of CWIX (Coalition Warrior Interoperability eXpertimentation) allowed Nato command staffs to refine requirements expressed in previous editions, and test the robustness and relevance of tailored environmental information products.

The French DGA participated with Thales to show the first results of their REP advanced study, a forerunner of the several hundred million euro Geode 4D, aiming at leveraging geospatial information throughout the C4ISR user community by the middle of this decade. This will shape the future of current geospatial information programmes (which are still largely map-driven in key countries. Within Nato, similar requirements will leverage core geospatial services deployed in the Organisation's headquarters since the early 2010s by Siemens Deutschland and Esri. This move will also shape the future of the American Commercial Joint Mapping Tool Kit (CJMTK) delivered earlier by Northrop Grummand Mission Systems and the same Esri. In Britain, the first step of the more recent Picasso GeoINT programme was initiated by the 31.5 million dollar Future Deployable Geospatial Intelligence (FDG) contract won by Lockheed Martin UK in early 2014. FDG is ambitioning to bridge the gap between operational levels by disseminating tailored geospatial information products to tactical users. This capability will replace the Esri-based Dataman, introduced as an urgent operational requirement with the British Joint Aerospatial and Geographical Organisation in 2009, and progressively deployed in Afghanistan. As a member of the 27-nation, NGA-sponsored MGCP group (under the Nextview outsourcing contract for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), the British Ministry of Defence produces its share of geospatial data; the choice made in 2012 to launch a production run on Lebanon and Syria has certainly met strategic priorities in 2013-2014, and these products will most likely be in high demand for dissemination by FDG means. In Australia, the Joint Programme 2064 (Geospatial Information Infrastructure & Services) fulfils a similar ambition. The current, four-phased JP 2064 provides dissemination of geospafial services via a web portal to distant users. Lockheed Martin Australia, granted with a 200M AU$ contract, is currently delivering phase 3, allowing forward digital map dissemination.

Beyond static environmental data, the current operational environment has brought the need for accurate information about human activity in places often alien to Western culture: Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali or Somalia. In these highly traditional regions, the notion of human terrain brings value to deployed forces in terms of settlement, allegiances, or centres of local power, all valuable notions for intelligence gathering, psychological operations, or urban control. Although human terrain is usually associated with the intelligence preparation of the battlespace, it is valuable to police and military operations as well, as long as it enables forces in the field to better insert their actions in a complex social and cultural fabric. The US Army embarked on the Human Terrain System program in 2007, initiated by a contract to BAe Systems to recruit and train social science specialists to serve as field scientists and advisors (human terrain teams) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Closer to a psychological operations project than geospatial intelligence, the above-mentioned human terrain system programme has produced anthropological data not easily integrated in a common GIS. However, it can leverage non-traditional use of geospatial exploitation, powered by new functionalities such as pattern analysis, cross-database exploitation, and advanced data visualization features. Although in its early phase, human terrain analysis in counterinsurgency operations remains shrouded in controversy about the use of social sciences to "winning hearts and minds".


The powerful, layer-based geospatial information management has found a growing demand beyond higher-level command posts, for intelligence preparation of the battlespace or mission planning. The tactical exploitation of this powerful knowledge is far less advanced, though, due to cultural and technological obstacles.

On cultural grounds, we must bear in mind that the special skills required for geospatial data exploitation are seldom to be found in deployed command staffs below brigade level, where mission execution leaves few seats for intelligence or geospatial analysts. The digitization of the battlespace thus comes at a slower pace for the mobile soldier, despite his thorough skills for traditional map reading and field navigation. Northrop Grumman mission systems became famous for their use of "blue force tracking" (now a patented Northrop Grumman acronym) only when severe weather in Iraq during the 2003 invasion disrupted visibility (as well as voice communications) so that armoured vehicle crews had to resort to switching on their "screens", namely ruggedised computers attached to their combat net radios. To their surprise, they displayed tactical symbols on a pan-and-zoom map, showing type and position of friendly units. Since the mid-2000s, this capability has been slowly disseminated throughout land forces as Battle Management Systems (BMS).

A battlefield management system hosts several operationally useful features on a tactical computer: message handling, editing facility, map management, usually coupled to a data communications interface to the combat net radio. This allows commanders, typically from battalion command posts to individual vehicles, to prepare, exchange and display tactical orders, shifting from the legacy structured text messages (inherited from standardised voice orders) to map-based graphical situations. From the lengthy, text-based situational awareness of the early 2000s, battlefield management system users have moved on to largely automated dissemination of alerts and operational or fragmentary orders, based on geo-located, standardised tactical symbology known in the American military as MIL-2525 or in Nato parlance as the APP-6. Commanders can thus create, exchange and update tactical layers of unit, manoeuvre or volume types describing their position, course of action, and boundaries.

On technical grounds, this process, inherited from the paper maps and tactical drills that bloomed in WWII, hits a number of limitations. The most obvious is the limited bandwidth available to share data over tactical radios; most legacy combat net radios allow either voice or data exchanges, and the most recent ones (such as the Thales PR4G F@stnet or the Harris PRC-117) allow a few tens of kilobytes of voice and data between a limited number of mobile users sharing the same VHF network. This tailors tactical exchanges to friendly force tracking, or alert dissemination, while dissemination of a commander's intent can take up to a few minutes to display as a graphical map overlay in each vehicle. Another constraint is the limited computational power available on board. Rugged personal computers or multi-function tactical displays are more comfortable with static, low-resolution imagery (satellite pictures or raster maps) than heavy sets of vector data to dynamically pan, zoom, or refresh to match vehicle speed on a map.

This set of constraints explains why most tactical geospatial exploitation rely mostly on "dots and arrows on a map", whereas advanced C4I functionalities remain absent from lower tactical echelons. The fast evolution of CPU and GPU (graphic processors) is easing up these bottlenecks though, and the latest battlefield management systems are now endowed with powerful map management functionalities featuring computation of line-of-sight, waypoints, weapon and sensor footprints; the resulting shared situational awareness is transforming Army manoeuvre in the digital age.

Thales Communications, concentrating most of the European integrator's C4ISR expertise (from tactical radio to command & control information systems and cyber security), has been prompt to leverage commercial and Nato state-of-the-art capabilities. Its Comm@nder family of integrated C4I systems has been featuring exploitation of rich geospatial information on tactical computers since 2007. In 2010, Comm@nder Battlegroup brought a new dimension to battle management, by integrating information from vehicle electronics (vetronics) and specific mission systems according to vehicle type (reconnaissance, infantry combat, direct or indirect fire support, etc.) into the battlefield management system. This allows integrating tactical data and video information with geospatial analysis in three dimensions, displaying accurate navigation, vehicle status, and sensor and weapon footprint down to each combat vehicle. This solution has been selected by Malaysia for their new generation of 8x3 combat vehicles produced by FNSS in twelve variants, all able to operate in networked battlegroups.

A steady improvement curve is also reflected by the Northrop Grumman Mission Systems series of FBCB2 battle management systems. Fielded in the early 2000s as a "Blue Force Tracker", the Joint Capability Release version of FBCB2 common to the US Army and Marine Corps can handle imagery, video and cartography to display graphical situations and exchange tight data sets in Variable Massage Format (the data link-like standard compatible with US combat net radios). Although less integrated to vehicle subsystems than the Thales Comm@nder, the FBCB2 rests on a proven, massive installed base; as a key information superiority enabler, though, it is not exported much (Australia is known to be a Foreign Military Sales beneficiary), even if the Samsung-Thales KBMS entering service in Korea looks very similar in capability.

Elbit follows a similar path, with tactical terminals displaying simple map-based tactical situations with little vehicle subsystem information (outside gun laying and target acquisition for main battle tanks) in their WIN BMS family. The French SIT (Systeme d'Information Terminal) installed by Nexter in combat platforms, or the Sagem SITel fitted in armoured personnel carriers and light vehicles are contemporary solutions with similar functionalities, using mostly raster map as background. The ambitious French networked integrated battle-group programme, Scorpion, has shifted the requirement for battle management to a higher ground with the Systeme d'Information de Combat Scorpion. Breaking with the terminal level of command & control messages and situational awareness, SICS is designed as an army equivalent to a naval combat management system; it features advanced target allocation and firing solutions computation functionalities, although its level of geospatial information management remains inherited from the legacy of map displays rather than leveraging true geospatial information power. Scheduled to equip the new generation of digitised combat vehicles around 2016, SICS is being developed by Bull, a French software house. It will have to closely match the new generation of software-defined radios developed by Thales under the multi-billion euros Contact programme running parallel to Scorpion.

At the other end of the spectrum lie commercial-based software products designed to leverage the best of current enterprise GIS technologies. Systematic SitAware family is proposed by the Danish software house in a BMS configuration, leveraging Esri's Arc GIS geospatial exploitation software over a Microsoft suite in a rugged commercial laptop. Although handy for deployed tactical command posts, this solution rapidly encounters the technical bottlenecks of tactical radios and vehicle integration though, especially with Systematic's use of automated database replication mechanisms, ill-adapted to combat radio networks. This is why SitAware has been slower to satisfy truly tactical needs for mobile combat-oriented forces, beyond its Slovenian, Irish and Romanian references.


Soldier modernisation programmes augment human eyes with day and night surveillance and target acquisition optronics. Local situational awareness in soldier C41 calls for basic but critical information: where is my vehicle, my team leader, or my fellow riflemen? Putting this information on a map takes a light, ruggedised form of personal digital assistant in many soldier modernisation programmes, with the drawback of having to look down at a small screen in a firefight. This is probably why soldier C4I comes either as a dismounted kind of BMS or an "enriched" kind of digital compass. It can combine both, like in the Norwegian Normans programme or the British Fist. It can also leave map-based situations for the platoon leader, like in the Sagem Felin in France.

But a new approach to tactical terrain reading can come also from innovative start-ups, like the Ground Guidance software from Primordial, a Minnesota-based small business created in 2002 by an MIT graduate. Ground guidance uses standard map-data to compute various operational features: fastest route, but also least exposed or least slope for vehicles or foot soldiers in open or urban terrain; inter-visibility, with an optical vegetation penetration model; alternate or randomised routing in urban terrain. Able to analyse terrain from the pixels of a raster map to digital elevation models and vector data, ground guidance also comes with its own GPU--based route computing algorithm which is 22 times faster than its CPU equivalent. Used for both mission planning or mission execution by small army units and special forces, ground guidance software development kit is deployed in Falcon view or XPlan, and has been included by Lockheed Martin in the eyepiece of its Ground Soldier Ensemble.

Such innovative geospatial information solutions are still few and far between, but they are called to spread, offering mission-tailored functionalities which can leverage digitial geodata at a level similar to that of geoINT systems deployed in higher command posts.

Caption: Look closer and you may spot out the Super Puma flying among the trees. This is proof of how army aviation is closely following ground manoeuvre, relying mostly on human skills. New-generation battle management systems will include fine-grain representation of ground features, including vegetation (Airbus helicopters)

Caption: This Recognised Environmental Picture shown during CWIX displays a situation of Somalia to prepare a joint operation, including special forces insertion, drone and amphibious operations. REP will at last create operational pictures where the sea is no longer flat and the sky no longer empty (NATO).

Caption: A brigade-level graphical operational order, overlaid on highly accurate geospatial data of the Panshir valley in Afghanistan, merges text, ranges, tactical symbols, waypoints and artillery fire missions. This Recognised Ground Picture is ready for dissemination to Army tactical units via combat net radios (French MoD).

Caption: A modern-day Joint Operations Centre leverages digital geospatial information at all levels, from J6 (communications and information systems, left), to J3 (operations, right), around a multi-window information wall, displaying on-demand layers of the Common Operational Picture. (Barco)

Caption: This map of heroin production in Afghanistan is an example of how human terrain data can merge with operational missions to prepare tailored actions (NATO ISAF)

Caption: A BMS embedded in a reconnaissance vehicle displays both imagery and geospatial data, with decision aids to identify an observed vehicle or attach it to the right symbology. This local situational awareness saves the bandwidth of constrained tactical radios by sending only georeferenced tactical objects (Tholes)

Caption: A Joint Command & Control System in a Middle East country is showing tactical symbology over satellite imagery. The latest solutions use web map services to build mission-oriented georeferenced layers of tactical information (Airbus Defence & Space)

Caption: The Ground Guidance software was included in the early phases of the Land Warrior programme to provide an intuitive route planning tool displaying terrain costs in terms of concealment, distances, and physical costs (Primordial)
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Title Annotation:Geospatial Information -II
Author:Fox, Wesley
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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