Friday, 12 July 2013

Achtung Tommy - For You Ze Mapping Ist Over!

Several UK newspapers reported this week the findings of the UK Parliaments Intelligence & Security Committee report that during OP ELLAMY, the UK had relied on Germany to provide mapping for the RAF to conduct its missions. This was apparently a disgraceful sign of a nation in decline and that we should all be jolly ashamed of ourselves.

The reality (as ever!) is a little different and one worth thinking about. Maps are something that we all take for granted in our daily lives, and they are an utterly indispensable part of modern military operations (even in the hands of a newly appointed young officer). We perhaps take for granted the information on them, without considering how it is obtained. In the UK the Ordnance Survey has over many hundreds of years done a phenomenal job of providing accurate information almost down to the last manhole cover about what lies where. At sea the Hydrographic  Service has similarly spent many hundreds of years charting the oceans and waters of the planet – it is not an exaggeration to say that in some of the more remote parts of the globe, the only charts in use date back to the surveys done by Captain Cook or other explorers. As a national asset the Hydrographic Office in particular is absolutely priceless – very few nations run credible hydrographic programmes beyond the UK, US, Russia and China. The Royal Navy, with its extremely effective and very hard worked survey fleet has been able to become a global leader in providing accurate chart information to the world – indeed many countries are enormously reliant on the UK for providing charts for their warships.

But, to put a map or chart together is an enormously complicated piece of work which takes a lot of time and effort. No country on earth currently has the resources to provide a truly global and accurate mapping capability of all the nations and areas that it may need military mapping for. Its not just a case of putting down some generic top level mapping and hoping that’s enough – modern military operations require a lot of detail, and to be able to work effectively, mapping is needed at a very high level of detail. When it comes to targeting, knowing whether a particular target is located at grid reference 123456, or 12345678 can make a huge difference – precision weapons nowadays mean that the chances of hitting the intended spot are much higher than ever before. This means you can destroy a critical node or facility without necessarily doing much in the way of wider damage, which makes rebuilding efforts easier, and also reduces the risk of civilian casualties.

So, accurate mapping allows the use of more precise weapons, but comes at the challenge of ensuring you have accurate data – there is no point firing something like (purely hypothetically) a Storm Shadow, which is designed to be incredibly precise, if the location data isn't spot on – it will waste an expensive munition for no effect, and could also kill a lot of innocent people.

The old days of ‘grid square removal’ by heavy bombers dropping tonnes of munitions on a target are gone forever. There is an expectation that war will be conducted by more precise measures, meaning that civilians and innocents are not caught up in efforts to deny the enemy a specific building or site. The media and public mood no longer supports the sort of operations seen in WW2, Vietnam and arguably even the Black Buck raids where bombs were dropped with much greater inaccuracy. In the West, todays military operations are expected to see weapons hit the target, nowhere else and do the minimal amount of damage to anyone else. This can only be done if you have the most accurate of targeting information. Get it wrong, and drop a bomb on a school or gathering of civilians, then it would quickly be front page news, and could have a major impact on the ability to conduct the campaign.

So, what should be clear is that in this day and age, relying on the AA road atlas, or Baedekers travel map simply isn’t good enough for incredibly complex military operations. The problem is that to get mapping to this level of granularity requires a phenomenal amount of work and costs a great deal of money. There is no country on Earth which can achieve this level of work, not even the USA. So, for many years most NATO countries have worked together to try and pool resources and mapping in order to get the best possible use of scarce assets.

Part of the benefits of belonging to an alliance like NATO is that it does allow burden sharing, and that we can hand off to other nations a reasonable expectation that work can be done which will provide us with information when it is needed.  This is a tremendous asset and its worth considering that without something like NATO, where information sharing protocols, and agreed joint workplans are in place, the UK may well not have had the right maps anyway for OP ELLAMY and wouldn't have had anywhere to turn to get them. There is no shame on divvying up work to ensure that you all benefit, providing that when you need the resource, you know that you will get it.

The problem seems to be that some in the UK seem to cling to a view that we as a nation must do everything ourselves (or at a push with the ‘Old Commonwealth’) and that any effort to work more efficiently is a national disgrace. The irony is that to achieve the sort of work they want would take vastly more resources than currently exist, and probably suck resources away from other defence tasks. It is odd, but the UK seems to enjoy a deliciously schizophrenic attitude to military alliances, whereby we like the fact that other nations make use of our own equipment and assets (like charts or maps), but we somehow are failures for doing the same in reverse. Frankly, Humphrey has no time for this sort of nonsense – in a time of stretched budgets, where people have to do more with less, it seems incredibly sensible to share mapping work out among NATO partners. Ultimately this decision helps make operations work, saved the taxpayer money and probably saved lives into the bargain. It is perhaps ironic that while the media were getting themselves worked up into a froth about this, most military personnel were immensely sanguine – indeed Humphrey saw one website where an individual was claiming to have flown missions on the V-Force in the 1960s using maps and data collated by the Germans…

The irony is that amidst the anguish over using German maps, the article skims over the wider point that Defence Intelligence appears to be losing several hundred posts. It is not commonly realised that the DI is responsible for the provision of geographic information to the military, currently via the Defence Geographic Centre in Feltham (for more information see LINK HERE). This sort of service is crucial to help the MOD maintain an edge on operations – it isn't just about having a good set of weapons, but the ability to know where you are, where you are going and how you can have the best possible military effect that matters. Ironically the papers that got the most irate about the news the UK was relying on the Germans were also the same papers that call the most loudly for ever more civil servants to be fired. The problem is that the people working at the DGC are exactly the sort of civil servants who are not pen pushers, who make a massive, near immeasurable difference to UK security, and who face considerable uncertainty in the future. We perhaps forget at our peril that just because someone doesn't wear uniform, it doesn't mean that they don’t play a major role in helping the defence of the UK.

So in summary, this whole row seems a bit of a storm in a teacup – while it is tempting to be cross that we don’t do mapping of every country in the world, it does seem a little counter-productive. At the end of the day the UK was able to conduct one of the most successful air campaigns in its history, achieving a lot of success in no small part due to the ability to get accurate mapping from our allies. Had we not had these arrangements in place, it is incredibly unlikely that we’d have got similar mapping via our own channels and the consequences could have been extremely severe indeed. Let us remember that no nation can do everything in isolation, and maintaining a good set of international relations and alliances is as important as possessing the latest military hardware to be successful on the world stage…  


  1. Just curious - but how do you check the accuracy of foreign maps ?

  2. Also curious. Why did the Germans feel they needed to produce, and keep up date, maps of Libya? I hope they weren't getting ideas of a re-match. Perhaps we should be told what other countries they are mapping to modern military standards.

  3. Yes, why would Germany, who stayed neutral during the conflict, have maps on Libya?

  4. At least they were modern maps and not ones we captured off Rommel!

  5. Germany probably carries out such NATO duties in lieu of fighting?

    Its great that in this case we had an ally prepared to help. But what if they said no?
    Men died because one of our allies refused to sell us bullets FFS. Its nice when it plays out, but what happens when it doesnt?

    Without our own ability to generate targeting data, all we are doing is buying weapons for others.

    1. they said no for basing rights and contributing their military to the Libyan campaign. So maybe they did secretly contribute by giving maps?

  6. Failure to maintain up to date mapping is grossly negligent, the relevant Sir Humphrey needs to inquire why up to date mapping from a reliable national source is not available.
    But should we really be surprised MoD perhaps is looking to a new model for the UK with London just being another city state in Europe.

    1. Nonsense. Do you think there's infinite resources to get maps of ever potential conflict zone? What is the UK? A quad-trillion pounds of money for defence and non for other ministries?

  7. Notwithstanding some of the targetting stuff, one of the more interesting developments of recent years has been how COTS mapping is outstripping the military. Google's undersea mapping is getting several countries worried as to what will be revealed that they had hoped to remain unseen. This is a great overview of some of what Google are doing, although it's discreet about some of their bathymetry work. Still, it's thought-provoking stuff about where all this stuff is going, well worth making the time to watch it through :