Military Applications of GIS

GIS Contributor


Abstract: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) play a pivotal role in military operations. The concept of Command, Control, Communication and Coordination in military operations is largely dependent on the availability of accurate, spatial information to arrive at quick decisions for operational orders. In the present digital era, GIS is an excellent tool for military commanders in the operations.

The use of GIS applications in military forces has revolutionised the way in which these forces operate and function. Military forces use GIS in a variety of applications including cartography, intelligence, battle field management, terrain analysis, remote sensing, military installation management and monitoring of possible terrorist activity. A brief review of the military applications in land and sea based operations are presented in this article.


Since the beginning of civilization, military forces have played a dominant role. The focus on military efforts continues to be a major force with a heavy reliance on technology. Technology has not only changed the way wars are fought but its employment has become a key factor in attaining dominance in military power. The battle victory is complete only after ground forces occupy the enemy land and take control of the area. To hold and maintain the control of the occupied land, armed forces need to know the spatial extent upon which they have the control.

The need to swift and accuracy information was amply demonstrated during the Gulf war by Allied forces against Iraq. In an article published in Electronic Today (November 1996), Major General Gurbaksh Singh VSM, states

“The lessons gained from military history indicate that the key to military victory lies (regardless of military size of the opposing forces) in remaining ahead of the enemy in time sensitive SCORE loop of C4I2 process.If a defending force or weapon system can with some accuracy and sufficient warning finds out where the attacker is or his future course of action would be, it would be easier to defeat him by occupying position of advantage or by massing a superior force at the point of decision.”

This statement reinforces how important spatial information is to field commanders for determining the best decision for military operations. “C4I2” in Major General Singh’s statement refers to Command, Control, Communication, Coordination, Information and Interoperability. He has rightly indicated the importance of Interoperability, which is very important aspect in the current scenario of proliferation of several computer systems and software systems used in the military operations.

GIS in Military Operations

Spatial data is as of crucial importance to the Military Commander in the battle as it is for a decision-maker in the planning and development of a state’s growth. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) in any country gathers data on routing, filtering, analyzing and presenting information for decision-making. The regional conflicts, rapid deployment and flexible response imposes heavy burden on military commanders, their staff and supporting system to keep up-to-date situation on the ground about enemy activities. Visualizing raw tabular data within a spatial framework has many benefits. Therefore digital mapping and GIS occupy center stage in activities as diverse as battlefield simulation, mission briefing and communications planning, logistics management and command control.

Defense Estate Management

Use of GIS in the management of military bases facilitates maintenance and the tackling of all stores, which may be found on the base. “GIS allows military land and facilities managers to reduce base operation and maintenance costs, improve mission effectiveness, provide rapid modelling capabilities for analyzing alternative strategies, improve communication and to store institutional knowledge.

Terrain EvaluationIn land based military operations, Military field commanders would like to know terrain conditions, elevations for maneuvering Armour carriers, tanks and for use of various weapons. In addition, they need vegetation cover, road networks, and communication lines with pin pointing accuracy for optimizing resource utilization. A detailed land map with information on land use, terrain model and proximity of habitat is essential for military operations. All these details must be available to the field commanders in a datum to match with the equipment he uses for position fixing and communication in his area of operation. Any discrepancy in these inputs may endanger the operation. Target assessment can be done if the inputs are properly matched with the system used for firing the weapon. Magnetic variation, gravitational information are required for sensitive military operations.

Viewing Spatial DataMost potential users of GIS are viewers; ranging from field commanders to command staff. They need access to a geographic picture, map or photograph to help and assess a situation to carry out planned operations. Earlier GIS packages were proprietary in nature and restricted the use of data within confined specifications. A comprehensive database in multi-type data integration background needs an open GIS approach. An open GIS approach allows individual users choice of the most appropriate product and at the same time supports command requirements to specify an authorised map for operational reasons.

Naval OperationsAt sea naval vessels depend largely on extrapolative methods to navigate when there is no means of establishing position with visual aids. Global Positioning System (GPS) provides the means of determining the position at sea. Echo sounder provides measurement of the depth of the water below the vessel. Naval vessels operate at sea using several electronic gadgets. Recent technological advances have provided the means to assess the unknown to greater accuracy. At sea, complex natural features such as currents, wave conditions, sea surface temperatures and tides may prove at times deterrent to naval operations. A clear understanding of the complex ocean dynamics is an essential element for successful naval operations.

The recent introduction of Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), helps navigate the ship safely in all weather conditions. Electronic Navigation Chart (ENC) is a replacement of conventional paper chart, which is used as tool for navigation provides in-put for detailed information about depth, hazards and navigational aids within the area. This supported by visual and audio alarms of ECDIS provide the navigator on bridge sufficient means to navigate the vessel safely. The display is used to provide selective information either spatial or textual information to the navigator for safe passage. ENC is the database for GIS operations and ECDIS is the real time GIS application in marine environment.

In addition, ECDIS can be used for other naval operations using additional layers of information related to oceanographic and meteorological conditions to provide the means for naval operations such as anti-submarine or beach landing of armed forces in military operations. NATO is standardizing additional Military layers to be used for operations using ENC database as base data in conjunction with shipboard ECDIS system.

However, the use of ECDIS is limited to navigation and most of the countries are switching to production of ENCs of their waters which itself is very investment oriented. It is predicted that in five years time, the attention will be towards the use of ENC with additional layers for both military and scientific applications.

Air OperationsAir operations in a battle environment require similar inputs as land operations as well as precise height information for targeting. These include detailed information about the target location, proximity of civilian areas, terrain evaluation and meteorological conditions besides navigational data. The virtual reality concepts are of greater help in fighter and bombing aircrafts for effective air strike operations.

Military leaders heavily depend on GIS and GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to make tactical decisions such as guiding troops, supplies/equipment and ships, informing them of possible threats, problems with terrain and also to direct attention to specific areas of interests. For example, data is relayed to the cockpit concerning an attack aircraft, giving the pilot needed information, such the location of target and identification of the target, plus possible hot spots in which they may encounter an attack on themselves. These pilots also receive data on meteorological information, which enhances visibility, and pre warns them of possible change, which may occur during an aerial activity.

Weather InformationWeather plays dominant role in the battlefield. Real time weather information is essential for field commanders either on land or in sea or in air for successful completion of the task. At times, weather may play crucial role in success or failure of an operation. Every battlefield commander needs to know information regarding cloud coverage, wind conditions, visibility, temperature parameters and other related inputs.

GIS based information systems can provide automated assistance to military forces’ terrain analysis function. The greatest limitation is user ingenuity and the data. These systems have the capability to receive, reformat, create, store, retrieve, update, manipulate and condense digital terrain data to produce terrain analysis products. Examples include; modified combined obstacle overlays, hydrology overlays, slope maps, on and off road mobility maps, line-of -sight plots, concealment maps and possible problems associated lines of communication.

The uses for GIS will continue to evolve as technology advances and the costs decreases. While the full potential of some GIS applications in military forces has already been discovered, the future of GIS  applications in the military will be determined by how military units accept GIS and to utilize it in the most efficient way possible.

Positional Information

One of the most important functions of GIS along with satellite imagery is used to understand and interpret terrain, which is a major role in determining how troops can be deployed in the quickest and most effective way. Understanding the land and what is on it is especially useful because a military leader can determine strategic positions, such as ideal locations for scouting parties, best line of sight/fire and also the ability to hide troops and equipment.

Logistics Management

GIS plays an important role military logistics because it is able to move supplies, equipment, and troops where they are needed at the right time and place. Using GIS to determine routes for convoys, forces are able to establish alternative routes if mishaps or traffic jams occur on the most direct route. Using both GPS and GIS, certain sensitive elements such as nuclear warheads can be tracked every step of their shipment and also kept away hot spots, populated areas or other shipments.

Mapping Techniques in the Military

From the above it is evident that the military needs maps for different purposes within its operational command and each requirement caters to a specific purpose. The digital base map facilitates the creation of different types of maps to meet specific user needs without clustering with unwanted details. This facilitates the viewing of spatial information on need to know basis either at command headquarters or in the field area. The battle commanders can evaluate thematic information for analyzing the real time scenario by manipulating the information available at their disposal.

Common Horizontal DatumIt is necessary that the spatial data for the use by Military units reside within framework of single datum for coordinating joint service operations. There is a bottleneck in this aspect in the present scenario of military operations. Colonel Iain Whittington of UK Military Survey at ESRI 1997 European User Conference amply explained this

“The maritime operators use a vertical datum based on the high water mark; the land operators use a vertical datum based on mean sea level, while the air operators are more concerned with the obstruction heights above ground level. The amphibious operators are not concerned about the use of Datum.”

This becomes more complex when multinational forces are deployed. This was evident during the Bosnia conflict where the difference in target position computed by European Datum and WGS84 was a few hundred meters. An even larger displacement was observed when the local Yugoslavia datum was applied. Agencies in India use the Everest Datum and use of GPS receivers in the field may pose problem unless the datum shift is correctly established.

All this brings down to the fact that a common datum is necessary and slowly WGS84 is emerging as a common datum for all such operations. The technological advances in position fixing using satellites is based on WGS84 and most of the civilian applications also need to be shifted to this datum in course of time. Military applications are no exception. However, this is a gigantic task and to achieve a common datum across the world requires money and expertise. Most of the countries may not have the resources in terms of funding and technology to handle this change.

As an interim measure, there should be at least interoperability between the three wings of Armed forces to use a common reference datum in their activities in mapping for effective conduct of joint military operations.

Final Word…Present warfare tactics involve an integrated approach for evaluating battle area for mobilizing logistics, moving various forces and setting communication network for effective operations in real time scenario.

The advent of remote sensing technology has provided essential intelligence information to defense forces. Spy satellites constantly acquire high-resolution satellite data in peacetime to monitor the development and acquisition of modern warfare gadgets by the enemy forces. There is no privacy as far as these satellites are concerned and developed countries have been extensively using remote sensing techniques to monitor activities in establishing nuclear installations. These are brought to the notice of international agencies coordinating the prevention of nuclear energy for destructive purposes.

The use of remote sensing data combined with ground information provides a common platform for analyzing ground situations in time of war. The incorporation of satellites providing high-resolution images in the present era enhances the ability of GIS to provide more accurate and current information to the military operations.

About the Authors

P. Satyanarayana is a GIS Consultant & Editorial Associate, GIS INDIA and S.Yogendran is a GIS Analyst, ENC-Division, IIC Technologies Private Limited in Hyderabad, India.

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