27 April 2002

Source: Military Thought, 2001, Vol. 10 Issue 3, p32, 5p.



By I.A. Zakharenko, Cand. Sc. (Geography)

In the late 20th-early 21st century, problems of military science became a subject of broad discussion--very much due to the drastic changes that have occurred in the international military-political situation and new approaches toward ensuring state security and independence. The global impact of war on earth's civilization, modernization and upgrading of means and methods of warfare, and major breakthroughs in military technologies require an accelerated development of all military sciences, broader and more effective cooperation between civilian and military scientists, and implementation of fundamental research programs on key problems of warfare in the future.

Scientific and technological advance has brought about some outstanding results in geography and cartography of earth's surface. Much credit for this belongs to the General Staff and the Military Topographic Service of the Russian Empire, of the USSR, and then of the Russian Federation, which made a major contribution in this field. The question arises: What next? What is the outlook for development of earth sciences with respect to the military sphere?

One of the present-day specifics of warfare is that combat action can be conducted in all geographic spheres (outer space, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere), in local and regional space of the globe. So the study of geographic patterns of warfare should become one of the basic lines in the activity of military scientists and practitioners. The traditional perception of geography as an unnecessary and unwanted science because "every cabby will take me where I need to go," which was derided way back by D.I. Fonvizin in this play The Young Ignoramus, has now come into conflict with modern personnel training standards. Geographic and topographic information, geo-information technologies, and coordinate/temporal definitions produce a substantial impact on modern warfare.

Back in the early 19th century, armies needed detailed and reliable maps of the entire theater of military operations to conduct warfare. The map-making process was based on topographic surveys. This line of cartography long dominated in the Russian Army. By the beginning of the 1880s, two approaches emerged in territorial cartography: technical and geographic. Thus, topographic surveying produced technical methods of topographic and geographic map-making while description was based on the study of combinations and interrelations of natural phenomena and society, depending on the object of study. And since land surveying in Russia was conducted by two agencies one military and one civilian, two scientific schools of topographic cartography took shape. The civilian scientific school is characterized by a gradual departure from general geographic cartography of the territory of the Russian state toward specialized surveying in the interests of studying, assessing, and ensuring an effective utilization of natural resources. These principles were also used to make maps that subsequently came to be known as special, or thematic.

In the military geographic school, the geographic sphere per se was developed by the General Staff and the topographic sphere, by the Military Topographic Service. Military geographic training standards at the General Staff of the Russian Army were very high. Hundreds of officers conducted military geographic surveys of Russia and the territory of other states, making multi-volume military geographic descriptions. Russia's pre-revolutionary school had an excellent reputation in the world. Its leaders--General Staff Academy Professors F.F. Shubert, P.A. Yazykov, V. Yu. Skalon, N.S. Golitsin, and D.M. Milyutin--had incontestable authority in the field. The names of such military geographers as N.M. Przhevalskiy, M.I. Venyukov, P.K. Kozlov, M.V. Pevtsov, A.E. Snesarev, V.K. Arsenyev, and others, were widely known.

The vast scope of geodetic and surveying work compelled the Military Topographic Directorate to concentrate mainly on topographic cartography. The emphasis that was placed on the mathematical component of map-making resulted in that the cartographic content ceased to meet the needs of the armed forces.

After the October 1917 Revolution, the situation was made worse by the fact that the Soviet military leadership abandoned thorough military geographic preparation of theaters of military operations. The extensive military geographic materials that were accumulated were left virtually untapped owing to the poor knowledge of geography among command personnel and the deeply ingrained belief that such knowledge was secondary, which persisted up until June 1941.

The situation in Germany was basically different: By the beginning of World War II, the country had an established military geographic school with military mapping and survey departments of the supreme command of the Ground Forces and analogous departments in the General Staff of the Air Force and the Navy playing a key role. The Wehrmacht supreme command had a special service in charge of reconnaissance, cartography, and assessment of key sectors of operation. Long before the war, the Germans had made maps and detailed descriptions of the entire western part of the Soviet Union as well as of all countries in Europe, North Africa, the Near and Middle East, and North India. By the end of 1943, the Military Geographic Service of the German Ground Forces alone published 102 issues of military-geographic descriptions while the series of descriptions for the Air Force comprised several volumes covering an area from polar regions to North Africa.

As far as this country was concerned, by late 1941, the situation on the fronts forced the Soviet military leadership to drastically revise the role and value of geographic factors. The initial war period showed that the use of traditional sources of military information--topographic maps--was clearly insufficient in addressing operational/tactical tasks. The Red Army's needs for more comprehensive geographic information compelled Soviet academic establishments to start creating, as of February 1942, interagency teams (geomorphologists, soil experts, and botanists), designed primarily to make maps of various types of terrain differing in passability, conditions for building airfields, and natural camouflage and concealment properties. Special consideration was given to the impact of snow cover. Beginning in 1943, a group of professional geographers was set up as part of the Military Topographic Service, providing general descriptions of strategic sectors and border areas of Europe and Asia. During the Great Patriotic War, more than 900 million maps were printed in the hinterland, in rear service areas, and 35 million copies of maps and other geographic documents were printed in the battle area. So there is good reason to say that during the war, military geography and military cartography emerged as full-fledged sciences in their own right.

Today, the absence of a national military geographic school, the technical bias of military cartography, and an insufficient theoretical base for its application in military science and practice brought about a situation where special maps have been left virtually untapped in line units. The methods of using maps in situation assessment and decision-making and in exercising command and control remains at the level of the early 20th century. The Armed Forces have an acute shortage of special maps made for various purposes. This gap can only be closed by creating, or rather, restoring, the military geography field as a blend of fundamental knowledge and various branches of science based on a well defined concept. The dependency of combat actions on the geographic environment will facilitate the study of geopolitical, geographic, topographic, and operational/tactical patterns of the military geographic situation.

When "groupings of forces do not breach the defense but seek vulnerable spots or bypass fortified areas,"[1] the effectiveness of combat planning and action will to a very large degree hinge on the availability of detailed and reliable information about the geographic conditions of the battle area, its operational/tactical characteristics, and possible weather, climatic, and geophysical changes. It is important to bear in mind, that not only any movement of military units and subunits but even every step by an individual serviceman should be based on knowledge and understanding of the geographic situation emerging on the battlefield.

Terrain passability; tactical characteristics of terrain elements; the color of the ground for camouflage and concealment purposes, and the structure of topographic surface for terrain orientation all of this requires a thorough study of critical to know what it looks like, what it is comprised of, and how it changes with time. It is how it changes with time. It is connection, it is essential to provide scientifically based military geographic descriptions of mountain, taiga, forest, swamp, desert, northern, and tropical countries and regions, and based on this, revise appropriate sections of tactics and operational art.

Paradoxically, the generally recognized notion of "terrain assessment" lacks a scientific/theoretical foundation or a satisfactory application procedure. Terrain elements cannot be always seen as an imperilment in combat action (this results from lack of knowledge of both terrain itself and its characteristics) nor can it be ignored even in the course of command and staff games. It is critical to learn to assess the geographic situation so as to impose one's will on the enemy and use the battle area's specifics to achieve victory.

New tactical patterns that are emerging, including "extended battlefield"[2]--that is to say, combat action in isolated areas, in the absence of a well defined front line require that the battle area be seen as an aggregate of specific (tactical) geographic landforms.

At the same time, it is important to understand that each topographic object is part of the geographic landform, not just a conventional sign on the topographic map. For example, it is not enough for military assessment of a mountain pass to know its absolute and relative height or steepness. In addition, it is essential to have an idea about the character of vegetation on the mountain pass and terrain conditions, probable weather conditions and the meteorological situation at a particular time of year, and soil characteristics to appraise conditions for camouflage and concealment, observation, fire delivery, and engineer organization of the ground. Also highly important is information about the availability and proximity of water sources, the thickness of the snow cover, the surface of glaciers, cloud conditions, humidity, the likelihood of fog, and even ethnographic specifics, and the number of residents living in a built-up area closest to the mountain pass.

In analyzing the experience in modern local wars, it should be noted that geographic conditions of warfare are extremely diverse. Troops always fight on "two fronts": against an enemy and against the environment (nature). Thus, mountainous countries are characterized by rugged, broken terrain; a large number of insurmountable obstacles and limited passable terrain; predominance of rock and stone ground; undeveloped road networks, and sparsely populated areas. Climatic, weather, and vegetation diversity by the elevation zones with sharp daily air temperature fluctuations, frequent fogs, low cloud cover, torrential rains, and heavy snowfalls tends to cause abrupt changes in river water conditions. Geographic forecasting is considerably complicated by the possibility of cave-ins, landslides, screes, mountain road icing, snowdrifts, avalanches, mud flows, the flooding of dried-up river beds (arroyos) as a result of heavy raining and the melting of snow. All of this as well as limited availability of water sources in a number of areas and a shortage of timber also considerably affect the course of warfare.

It has to be said that the amount of information provided on topographic maps is insufficient for effective assessment and forecasting of the combat situation and optimal decision-making. Therefore, it is essential to use special military maps. Especially given that such methods of studying earth's surface as express cartography and imagery interpretation, dynamic cartometry, and geoeconics greatly facilitate the making of such maps. They can serve as a basic instrument of integrating information, a base for modeling combat action and operational engineer organization of a country's defense, and the main documentary form for presenting final information.

Armed conflicts of the late 20th century highlight the need of providing a new type of combat support: geo-information support, including geographic, topographic, cartographic, geodetic, navigational, meteorological, geophysical, and environmental support. This requires electronic special military maps of terrain passability, camouflage, concealment, observation, fire delivery, orientation, and other conditions. In modern warfare, information provided to military servicemen from command and control points should come to a serviceman's personal PC display, showing his position on the ground, the position of enemy forces, and target distribution, also indicating specific combat missions. At the same time, an attempt to create specialized geo-information systems without a thorough and systematic study of geographic factors or without a proper understanding of the complex interrelations of natural processes will simply distort the actual battlefield situation. This accentuates the need to develop a comprehensive geo-information cartography theory.

In addition, it is critical to raise the military geographic knowledge of military officers and eventually also their geographic culture. It is vital to revise the content of military specific disciplines: military topography, military geography, topographic-geodetic support, operational-tactical, military engineering, and other disciplines wherein terrain and military-geographic conditions are a subject of special study. Experience shows there was good reason military geography and military topography were one of the main subjects of study at the Russian Academy of the General Staff. Over time, strategic initiative in development of these sciences was lost, and now these disciplines have fallen on hard times, to put it mildly.

In this connection, it is proposed to create a separate branch as part of military specific disciplines for landform study and assessment and forecasting landform changes in the course of combat action. Operational-tactical and geographic thinking, developed at a military establishment of higher education will enable the commander to make optimal decisions, working out ingenious methods of combat action.


1. Voennaya mysl', No. 4, 1999, p. 26.

2. Voennaya mysl', No.1, 1995, p. 42.


By I.A. Zakharenko, Cand. Sc. (Geography)

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Source: Military Thought, 2001, Vol. 10 Issue 3, p32, 5p.