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In search of military GIS

 Alka Singhal
GIS Development

GIS offers a virtually unique ability to aggregate, automate, integrate and analyse geographic data which further enhances the intelligence base for defence operations

Defence is the most sensitive, critical and important issue for any country. Logistics and strategy have always posed a serious challenge to every defence operation that has occurred which further requires the knowledge of spatial information i.e. geographical, locational information. Hence, the knowledge of geography is the key that benefits defence services. Information like where the enemy is, where ones own assets are, and what lies between the enemy and themselves are very important for any defence strategy. Here comes the very concept of organising information/data as well as their location. Though, this is neither new nor complicated. Defence people have always known this, of course, although they have tended to ignore it. They have done so because, largely, it was an intractable problem. In the chaos of the battlefield, it was – and largely remains impossible to know where your own troops are, where the enemy is and what else or who else, may be in the way. For example, the biggest danger to US troops in the Gulf War was not the Iraqis, but their own aircraft, which dropped the bomb on them, by accident, at regular intervals.

GIS/GPS and Remote Sensing Capabilities in Military
Considering the issue of liability for availability and accuracy of map data is enough to make use of the technology which provides extensive facilities for routine administrative and logistics function at various levels in the military. The Geographical Information System (GIS) enables the use of computers for important functions of operations and digitisation of maps etc. Using satellite positioning, it is now possible, for all the participants in the battlefield to know where they are at all times. Add a bit of communications technology, and it is possible for the same information to be available to battlefield personnel. Add digital map products and position can be made meaningful in terms of the local topography. Research in modelling and simulation techniques can provide an excellent training tool to compensate for the cost-prohibitive sophisticated modern day battlefield system.

GIS offers a virtually unique ability to aggregate, automate, integrate and analyse geographic data. It is multi-layered. Many layers of information about geographic features can be aggregated on GIS map. Military analysts can use GIS in a number of distinct applications like contingency planning, operational planning, mission briefing, mission rehearsal, deployment and daily operations. Potential for beneficial use of remote sensing satellites are extremely high.

Some of the major applications of GIS in defence services are described below.

Digital Basemap
A GIS can be used to store and display data needed as basemap data for the military applications showing contours, transportation routes and cities. GIS is used by the military to aid their understanding of regional terrain and how it affects overall battlefield support. Satellite imagery and GIS terrain data can give information about potential landing site analysis, vehicular travel time, field of view and line of site assessement. Hence it aids in the tactical decision. A GIS can display feature information stored as aerial photographs simultaneously. These data can create a more realistic rendition of the area while clarifying specific features needed for navigation. These digital map provides a commander in the field with state-of-the-art technology that can identify a position, interrogate that position for access to water, fuel, cover and parking for vehicles, determine areas of visibility to the enemy and assess its strength and develop strategies accordingly.

Data Updating
The updated map data information is must for the military. The increased availability of timely information to be provided by high-resolution satellite imaging will, first and foremost that is used for military intelligence. However, the typical tactical maps available to defence forces, especially in Southeast Asia are very old. This is a sobering reminder of the importance of accurate spatial information in battlefield information management. In some countries, the maps that the armed forces would take to war are at least 25 years out of date.

Terrain Evaluation
Terrain evaluation in geostrategic analysis of inaccessible characteristics and evaluation of security forces.

Remote Sensing can help in collecting terrain information like engineering resources, trafficability, obstacles, visibility, camouflage, concealment potential, information on camping ground, water supply source etc. The above information should be regularly updated for the military purposes in required short time which can not be possible by manual process. Military topographic maps are most important for terrain evaluation.
Transportation and Traffic
War involves troops, immunisations and equipment, but nothing happens in the military until something moves. Getting the things timely, safely and efficiently at the battlefield is one of the biggest problems of the military. Hence the transportation is tapped into GIS technology to keep information about highways, bridges, traffic patterns, installations and seaports at its fingertips. Digital maps of primary and secondary roads could play critical role in the event a highway is blocked by an accident and drivers must find alternate routes. GIS can greatly enhance the intelligence base for the strategic planning as well as for peacetime operations. In this context, readers may refer to the cover page of this magazine, which highlights an incident that occured during Kargil war last year.

Weather Maps
Weather information is also very important for the military troop during the wartime. They need very timely information about the major weather changes, where GIS can effectively help. Reliable navigation and time keeping aids are good weather forecasts for about any part of the world.

GPS Applications
GPS in military is used for navigation (marine, aircraft and land navigation), bombing from aircraft, artillery spotting and correction. It is also used for intelligence by special forces for enemy radar location, signal intelligence, submarine tracking, and mine location. In search and rescue operations GPS plays a vital role.

History of GIS and Remote Sensing in Military
It is no overstatement to say that the origin of GIS thinking can be traced back to about 5000 BC or before when the earliest sketch maps bearing records of hunting resources were carved on stone. GIS is a mere evolved form, which is used as a decision making tool. The military role of GIS has increased continuously over the past three decades. GIS has brought a new perspective to managing information.

In the early 1960s, the United States launched the first reconnaissance satellite, and the Russia followed within a few years. In addition, military communications, navigation, meteorology and other satellites were developed during this period. By the 1980s, systems such as the Navstar GPS, as well as reconnaissance satellites were of major importance in the military balance.

Most of this activity has been undertaken by the major powers, the United States, Russia and China. France and the Europe have also devoted considerable resources in this area, such as in the development of the Helios reconnaissance satellite. Until the 1980s, these were the only countries with the capability to develop civilian satellites, mainly for the communications and scientific research; these satellites had little military utility. It was national security, not civilian applications that drove remote sensing. Technically, there is no clear difference between civil and military satellite systems. For example, communication satellites can carry either military or civilian traffic and both the military and civilian communities use the navigation satellites. However, in recent years, the number of countries with indigenous launch capabilities has grown.

In addition to the above countries, Japan, India and Israel have placed satellite into orbit. Canada, Italy, Britain, Norway and other advanced industrial countries have designed, produced and operated advanced satellite systems that were launched commercially. In addition, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq and South Africa have developed some independent capability to produce satellites, including imaging and communications systems.

Civilian observation satellites have been in use for decades, with the 50-metre resolution Landsat of the 1970s being supplemented with the European SPOT system in the 80s. In the 90s, both India and Israel launched systems with 5-metre resolution, and in the mid-90s; even the Russians began commercialising their 2-metre resolution spy satellites. Now the 1-metre resolution level is at hand. Several companies are on the verge of commercial operations. Space Imaging has now successfully launched the IKONOS satellite.

Even before these new satellites were available, commercial systems showed features like roads, but now users will be able to see and identify by type, the vehicles driving on them. For most orbits of interest, the satellite must be within 2500 km of a ground station to be within range.

Operating in space, beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty is a major legal constraint for the commercial imaging companies who are fervent believers in “open skies” i.e. no constraints on what they took or to whom they sell images. While beyond sovereignty, space is not beyond international law, as decades of work on treaties and other agreement shows. It is possible that this apparently lawless and unconstrained activity may gradually be subjected to international agreements. But they are probably years, if not decades, in the future.

The Middle East and Persian Gulf will be among the regions most directly affected by the proliferation of commercial high-resolution satellite imaging. In these areas, which continue to be characterised by high-level of conflict and tension, the dual-use nature of this technology and the data it provides, are most pronounced. Like other strategic technologies and weapons, the Israeli government provides little official information regarding space launchers and satellites. However, using available information and drawing logical inferences, the outlines of the Israeli programme can be discerned. Early warning and real-time reconnaissance have always been of major importance to Israel defence planners in offsetting the threat to national survival posed by the massive conventional forces of the neighbouring Arab states. In the area of communications satellites, Israel is developing the Amos 1, equipped with 7 Ku-band transponders. These are reported to be providing operating services to Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries.

Governmental restraints are another matter. There is a threat to the optical sensors, which are the most vulnerable component for an imaging system. It might be possible to have some very large mirror focussing sunlight on the satellite, which could damage the focal plane sensor array. With such a threat government could simply declare a “no spy zone” over specified areas and announces that it would be randomly illuminating overlying imaging satellites with enough energy to harm their optics. Observation satellites are the most immediate concern for any country security. For example, The U. S. Senate’s adoption of the amendment prohibiting release of satellite imagery relating to Israel and other areas has increased the attention focused on the negotiations between Washington and Jerusalem.
Looking at the bright side
Despite all the threat of better attack planning based on space imaging, perhaps the silver lining is that preparations to attack tend to be more visible than preparations to defend. The primary utility of space sensors is not in the generation of unilateral advantage, but in the ability to limit the capacity of others to act in the secret.

Military thinkers tend to build an enemy hat has a perfect ability to exploit all the advantages that might be available to it. This mindset is useful when imagining all courses of action possible for an enemy, but rarely, if ever, can an enemy actually do each and every conceivable action. For example, the two Lacrosse American Spy Satellites KH-12 are in space like Hubble space telescope pointed back to earth. From 264 km up, their optical sensors can snap clear photographs of objects no larger than a paperback novel on the ground. They have radar-imaging cameras that can see through clouds and even the dust storms that swirl around India’s Pokhran test site. But this was thought to be infallible until Pokhran exploded this myth. India had kept the nuclear bombshell so close to its chest that it caught the world napping. This was in direct contrast to the situation in December 1995, when preparations to conduct a nuclear test had been picked up by US satellites and leaked to influential American dailies. Thus, with regard to commercial satellite systems, although they can certainly provide substantial capabilities, an adversary must be able to exploit them.

The future Scenario
The future battlefield scenario would be vastly different from its traditional version. Technological superiority, weapon effectiveness and force mix, capabilities for rapid response and precision strike will be more important than conventional numerical superiority. There is already a transformation in warfare towards the utilisation of GIS technology and advanced remote sensing which enhanced administrative efficiency and provides logistics support.

GIS is a decision-making guide through fuller control of the spatial data. As the 1-metre threshold in space imaging is crossed, the world had better learn to live with it and expect the skies to be more and more open. Commercial space imaging is probably here to stay, at better and better resolution and with better and better technology to penetrate attempts at avoidance, camouflage and other deception techniques. A giant step in itself and ambitious enough in many respects. But the full implications of GIS are still to be charted.


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