The Case for Geospatial Integration in Brigade Planning & Execution

Opinion: Brigades across the force have lost the ability to integrate geospatial analysis into mission planning and execution


By CW4 J. Brian C. Hobin, Geospatial Information Technician, Mission Command Training Program, Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Based upon observations from warfighter exercises conducted by the Mission Command Training Program (MCTP), one thing has become clear: Brigades across the force have lost the ability to integrate geospatial analysis into mission planning and execution. As a result, Brigade staffs do not appreciate, understand, nor prioritize the integration of geospatial analysis. Symptoms of this issue include, but are not limited to, the lack of geospatial analyst participation in Mission Command Training (MCT) seminars, lack of sufficient geospatial training, and a lack of understanding among Brigade staff as to what geospatial personnel can bring to the fight.

Geospatial personnel rarely attend the planning conferences or the MCT seminars held prior to the warfighter exercises. When geospatial personnel do attend, they rarely bring with them their digital systems, limiting the staff to rudimentary analysis based on map reconnaissance. This hinders the staff integrated Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) process as units often fail to produce a complete Combined Obstacle Overlay (COO) let alone a Modified Combined Obstacle Overlay (MCOO). The COO is a basic, yet crucial product created by the geospatial engineers within a unit. This product visually represents natural and man-made obstacles, hydrological features, on- and off-road surface conditions, air movement obstacles, and cross-country mobility. The MCOO takes the COO and adds elements from the various warfighting functions to provide the staff and commander with an overall visualization of the area of operations.

During the execution of the warfighter exercise, Brigade staff do not integrate the capabilities of geospatial analysts into their planning or execution processes. Geospatial engineers tend to spend the majority of their time creating generic overview products, printing out large-format planning products for display in the command post, pulling guard duty, or filling in as bodies in other capacities. While these tasks may be necessary, it limits the ability of these Soldiers to perform their functions as geospatial analysts to the detriment of the brigade’s planning and execution. This stems from the staff’s overall lack of understanding on what geospatial Soldiers do and what benefits their analysis provides.

Geospatial engineers are a low-density, high-demand military occupational specialty (MOS) across the force. They serve within Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), functional and multifunctional brigades, divisions, and corps, and work in civil affairs units from battalion through command. At the Army Service Component Commands (ASCCs), geospatial engineers provide support through the Geospatial Planning Cell (GPC) engineering detachments.

Geospatial engineers provide terrain analysis, terrain visualization, tactical decision aids, geospatial database management, data dissemination, and support to the integration of other geospatial information requirements within the organization. They create content to support geospatially-enabled equipment outside of the command post. They also enable staff sections and subordinate units to maintain accurate running estimates and provide the underlying foundation for the Common Operational Picture (COP). Geospatial products help the staff visualize relevant information to support collaborative planning with higher, adjacent, and lower units and update the commander throughout the operations process.

Terrain analysis is a highly technical and complex process that requires the expertise of geospatial engineering technicians and geospatial engineers. Terrain and weather are natural conditions that profoundly influence operations. They are neutral and do not favor one side or the other unless one side is more familiar with, or better prepared to operate in, the resulting conditions. Terrain includes both natural and man-made features. It directly influences the selection of objectives, the employment of forces, the equipment, location, and the movement and maneuver forces. Terrain also influences protective measures and the effectiveness of lethal and non-lethal weapons and systems. The effective use of terrain reduces the effects of enemy fires, increases the effectiveness of friendly fires, and facilitates surprise. It is the subjective evaluation of the physical aspects of the terrain combined with the performance capabilities of vehicles, equipment, and personnel that enables the identification and understanding of terrain for exploitation to gain an advantage over the enemy or to identify areas most likely occupied by the threat.

Geospatial engineering is the art and science of utilizing geospatial information to provide an understanding of the physical environment for military operations. The art is the ability to understand the mission, enemy, terrain, weather, troops and support available, time available, civil considerations, and geographic information available; to explain the military significance of the terrain to the commander and staff; and to create geospatial products for decision-making. The science is the ability to exploit geographic information to produce spatially and temporally accurate products and services from mapping, visualization, analysis, and modeling within the Army construct to meet the mission needs of the commander and staff.

Geospatial engineering activities provide the foundation for other information and operational variables. These activities primarily support the mission command warfighting functions; however, they also provide relevant and integral support to all warfighting functions and special operations forces. This includes, but is not limited to, providing the basis for the COP, generating and analyzing terrain to assist in the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), managing the geospatial database within an area of operations, and producing various overlays for situational understanding.

It is the responsibility of the staff sections to integrate geospatial information and tactical decision aids into their respective focus areas. Examples of these may include such products as route analysis, helicopter landing zones, decontamination sites, cover and concealment, line-of-sight analysis, and artillery slope tints. The successful integration of geospatial support provides crucial geospatial information to the right person at the right time. Critical to this role is ensuring that geospatial requirements are relevant and mission-essential. Staff sections need to clarify their requirements and expectations to ensure that deliverable geospatial products meet their intent the first time around. Staff sections should seek the expertise of geospatial engineers in tailoring products to their needs. As their products get refined and standardized, codifying them within staff section standard operating procedures to help train new members and improve efficiency is critical.

To remedy the overall trend observed, geospatial analyst training conducted at the schoolhouse needs to prepare Soldiers for both the decisive action and counterinsurgency fights to include all manners in which geospatial analysts assist the staff. Second, officer training conducted during the Captains Career Course needs to incorporate the importance of geospatial analysis and how it enhances both planning and execution. Last, geospatial engineers and staff leaders need to synchronize and integrate geospatial analysis into all relevant staff processes.

About the author: CW4 Hobin is an observer, coach, and trainer for Operations Group Foxtrot, Mission Command Training Program. He holds a Bachelor of Science in social science education from the University of Georgia and a post-baccalaureate certificate in Geospatial Information Systems from Pennsylvania State University. He has served the U.S. Army in a geospatial capacity for more than 20 years.

Headline Image: Spc. Tara M. McTimmonds, a geospatial engineer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, identifies a location on a map of Yakima Training Center (YTC), at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, February 12, 2017. U.S. Army Reserve photo by Spc. Sean Harding.

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