The Gist of Military Geospatial

By Spc. Sean Harding | 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade | April 3, 2017

March 31, 2017 — Geospatials, “geos,” geo-intelligence, GEOINT, GIS. Geospatial Engineers. There are a lot of different names for the military occupational specialty 12Y, which are an essential component of the Army, Army Reserve and the Total Force.

Intelligent, quirky and charming, geos are pretty easy to spot inside the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB). Not only do they usually stick together, they are usually surrounded by maps, and are constantly engaged with their giant computer screens drawing up the maps that will support the commander’s next mission.

A map can be used to plan a battle and tell troops where to go. A maneuver enhancement brigade or transportation company might use maps to prepare a convoy route, or to plot out locations of roadside bombs and insurgent strongholds. But planning and preparing for combat operations in a theatre environment are just a small part of what geospatial engineers do.

“Maps are universal,” said Spc. Tara McTimmonds, a geospatial engineer with the 301st. “You use maps in everything that you do, whether you’re in medical, engineering, military policing or combat arms units.”

“Pretty much everybody uses maps. We’ve even done maps for JAG.”

Using data from multiple sources such as sensors, satellite imagery, military intelligence and from units on the ground, geospatial engineers paint a much more complete picture of an area than simple topographic maps, or even services like Google Maps, can provide.

Physical properties such as the density of soil, or the condition of the rice patties in a field somewhere in southeast Asia, for example, can be incorporated and used to help a commander make a decision about where to maneuver his trucks, or where to set up a landing site for a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.

“It’s not just a picture of the earth’s surface from above that we are providing,” said McTimmonds. “It’s layers upon layers of different data.”

“At the end of the day, we are an intelligence service” added Sgt. Noel Covey, a 301st MEB geospatial engineer, originally from College Station, Texas.

Searching to Destroy

“I can’t tell you that we’re only capable of making certain products,” said McTimmonds.

“Because—“

“Every mission is different,” added Sgt. Morgan Wilken, another geospatial engineer in the 301st, from Vancouver, Washington.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Covey, in agreement.

Using computer software, geos can insert whatever kind of information is needed by the commander for the particular mission into their maps.

“A lot of the time, especially in theater, the information needed doesn’t exist until you get there,” said Covey.

“Depending of the nature of the mission or request, if the information isn’t already available, we will make it ourselves,” he added.

Geospatial engineers can also work with UAV operators to gather additional data from above, including video from livestreams, and incorporate that data into their maps.

While stationed in Hawaii, Wilken flew aboard CH-47 Chinook helicopters to gather imagery to be incorporated into her maps.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” she admitted. “We usually outsource our data. But we are ready to gather it ourselves, if needed.”

Common Request

One of the most common types of requests that the 301st MEB geo-intelligence cell receives are Combined Obstacle Overlays (COOs).

“Those are one of the favorites,” Wilken said. “They take everything into account. Everything from vegetation, surface materials, elevation changes. Everything needed for a commander to make a decision on which route she or he will use to maneuver their soldiers from Point A to Point B.”

All three geospatial engineers in the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade agreed that this was a vital capability to have in order for a MEB to be effective and lethal in combat.

Passion Makes Perfect!

“I like GIS because it’s so active and always changing. It never stays the same,” said McTimmonds. “You’re always trying to find something, it’s like a treasure map!”

“There’s kind of a kid component to it, for me,” she grinned.

“Humanitarian aid and disaster relief is a pretty rewarding side of our job,” added Wilken.

Search and Rescue!

Units within the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) area of responsibility can be expected to be called up to respond to heavy monsoons, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic activity.

The 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade is situated directly on top of the Ring of Fire, which is where 90% of all earthquakes occur, and also contains 75% of the word’s active volcanoes. As such, there is always ample opportunity for the 301st MEB geos to get involved with what’s going on in the world.

In 2010, McTimmonds was sent to Haiti with the 100th Engineer Company out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to collect data on bridge and building stability, which was used to create response plans in the event of an earthquake there.

In April 2015, when a major earthquake hit Nepal, McTimmonds worked with students from Washington State University to produce maps that were used for rescue and recovery operations there.

“I learned how helpful volunteering can be,” she said. “Just being on top of your job field, knowing your MOS, and being confident in what you can do can actually save somebody’s life.”

“There are a lot of things that you can do to volunteer,” she added. “You can use your job skills and your knowledge, and put them forth to the best of your ability to help people out. It’s a gratifying, rewarding feeling.”

Getting Started

For future soldiers interested in GIS, and for current soldiers who might be looking for a career change, Wilken recommends speaking to your recruiter or career counselor, and research not only what military geospatial engineers do, but also what kind of opportunities await geos in the civilian sector.

“Check out the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). We actually do a lot of our training through them,” said Wilken.

“The thing about mapping,” McTimmonds piped in, “is that it’s very broad. You can pretty much map anything.”

“I’m going for a forestry degree right now, and using my GIS training and certifications to complement that. You can choose a career field, add mapping to it, and use that combination to bring some pretty incredible products into the world.”

Reaching for the Stars

“In 2014,” recalled Covey, “NASA published a 3-terabyte highly detailed map of the moon that you can use Google Earth-style to study craters, impact basins and more, in intense detail.”

“Using GIS for planetary exploration is going to be a huge deal in the next few years.”

“They’re working on Mars right now,” added McTimmonds.

First Steps

“It’s been a very enjoyable field for me,” said McTimmonds. “If somebody asked me to reclass, I wouldn’t do it.”

“I refuse to reclass!” Wilken grinned, in agreement.

“It’s awesome! There’s good people, and it’s a great community. Go do it!” concluded Covey.