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Terrain Analysis for Non-Engineers

Knowledge of the terrain of an upcoming operation is critical to planning. The author suggests several websites and agencies that can help sustainers to gain this knowledge.

You receive a call from your commander saying, “Staff, mission analysis in 30 minutes—we just received an out-of-sector mission.” Over the course of the next couple of hours or days, you work to understand the new area of operations for which you had not planned. You have no knowledge of the terrain and no maps of the area, so you look on the Internet for any information that can help your organization better prepare for this new mission. Does this sound familiar?

Doctrinally, the Army Corps of Engineers should assist you in conducting terrain analysis for future missions. Field Manual 3–34.170, Engineer Reconnaissance, reinforces the fact that geospatial engineering is an engineer capability in addition to combat (mobility, countermobility, and survivability) and general engineering skills.

Learning About Terrain Analysis

Maneuver brigade combat teams have a topographical section that can provide this analysis with the same data that are available to the rest of the Army if you know who to ask and what to ask for. Having proactive, technically inclined individuals on the battalion staff enables you to gather the information you want on your own schedule and make the necessary changes—all without going outside of your unit. A number of sources, both unclassified and classified, can provide you with the information you need to request access to some websites and to request training for your own unit.

Until you can get a training team on site to increase your level of competency, you can visit the following five Non-Secure Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET) websites for terrain analysis assistance:

You will need to request access to these websites and have a common access card reader to gain the full benefits.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is a Department of Defense agency that develops imagery and provides timely map-based intelligence solutions for U.S. national defense, homeland security, and navigation safety. NGA provides deployable teams throughout the world to support the warfighter. If you do not know where to find NGA, ask your division or corps engineer cell or check at one of the larger forward operating bases in your area of operations.

You should request a mobile training team from NGA’s Geospatial Analysis Branch (gist@nga.mil). The team will bring up to 15 laptop computers and a projector, if needed. The requestor only has to provide the students, Internet drops, and a classroom. The team provides training on both the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network and NIPRNET and can tailor instruction to the needs of the customer.

One product that I found useful was Falconview. Originally designed for aviators to plan their routes, it can be a great tool for ground units. Recently, NGA created a variation of Falconview called Talonview, which is for nonaviators. Using the above websites, you can determine the map data that you need, and NGA will send you the electronic files (in 2 days to 2 weeks). If the request requires more than a couple of gigabytes of memory, you will receive as many firewire terabit hard drives as are required to store the information—all at no cost to the unit.

Another tool that NGA can provide is a 3-dimensional map (20 inches by 24 inches by 16 inches) of any location in the world. This durable, solid model visually portrays digital geospatial information that can be used in various functions. If your routes travel over the same roads, the map could be your terrain model for convoy briefings. All you have to provide are a couple of scale models of your vehicles. This map also can be used for course-of-action development, wargaming, and terrain visualization.

Army Geospatial Center

The Army Geospatial Center (AGC), run by the Army Corps of Engineers, provides an extremely user-friendly site for products and services that enable the average Soldier to become a more knowledgeable planner. The AGC develops and fields geospatial enterprise-enabled systems and capabilities across the Army and the Department of Defense.

The Urban Tactical Planner (UTP) provides an incredible unclassified capability for the warfighter to better visualize his environment. UTP taps into NGA’s topographic products and other data sources to show the urban environment, such as building heights, vertical obstructions, bridges, lines of communication, key cultural features, and landmarks. Designed by AGC in partnership with General Dynamics, UTP is a great planning tool that can be accessed down to the squad level.


You have probably used Wikipedia to gather information on the Internet. Intelink, which was started in 1994 to promote intelligence dissemination, is nothing more than Wikipedia on a secured Internet site. With Intelink, you type your request into the search engine and you will get hits from various sources. Some of the Wikipedia information is present in the database (vetted, of course).

Having a “passport” allows the user to become a contributor and post documents and products to the site. The accuracy of the information is a matter of opinion, but most contributors are going to post only their best products. The site appears to be self-policing.

In this article, I have mentioned various websites that can be accessed in order to improve operational planning. If you are not hands on and electronically focused, provide this article to your G/S–3, G–5, support operations office, and engineer cell so they can provide you with a better quality product.

Major Damian A. Green is a student at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He holds a bachelor’s degree in science from Providence College and a master’s degree in business from the University of Kansas. He attended the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Ordnance Transition Course, Combined Logistics Captains Career Course, and Intermediate Level Education at the Army Command and General Staff College.

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