Map Overlap: Warsaw Pact vs. NATO Grids

The Charles Close Society hasn’t updated its topical list of articles on military mapping since I wrote about it in 2015, but there is a new article by John L. Cruickshank (“More on the UTM Grid system”) in Sheetlines 102 (April 2015) that is now freely available on the society’s website. The connection to Soviet mapping is that Cruickshank discusses how both NATO and the Warsaw Pact produced guides and maps to help their soldiers convert between their competing grid systems. Unlike latitude and longitude, a grid system assumes a flat surface.That’s good for simplifying calculations of distance and area, but means you have the problems of distortion that come with any map projection.

Both the Soviets and Americans based their standard grids on transverse Mercator projections that divided the globe up into narrow (6° wide) north-south strips, each with own projection. These were narrow enough not to be too badly distorted at the edges but still wide enough that artillery would rarely have to shoot from a grid location in one strip at a target in another (which required extra calculations to compensate for the difference in projections). The American system was called the Universal Transverse Mercator (or UTM; the grid itself was the Military Grid Reference System, or MGRS). The Soviet one was known, in the West at least, as the Gauß-Krüger grid.

In his article, Cruickshank reports that by 1961 East German intelligence was printing 1:200,000 military topographic maps that had both UTM and Soviet Gauß-Krüger grids. By 1985 a full series existed that ran all the way west to the English Channel. Rather than print a full map series with both grids, the US Army produced intelligence guides to the conversion between them. Field Manual 34-85, Conversion of Warsaw Pact Grids to UTM Grids was issued in September 1981. A supplement, G-K Conversion (Middle East) was released in February 1983. As Cruickshank observes, both manuals have fascinating illustrated covers. Conversion of Warsaw Pact Grids features a map with a rolled up map labelled “Intelligence” standing on a grid and looking at a globe focused on Europe. G-K Conversion, on the other hand, shows an Eagle literally stealing the map out of the hand of a Bear using calipers to measure distances from Turkey to Iran across the Caspian Sea.

The article ends with the observation that the history of modern geodesy, which underpins calculations like the UTM and Gauß-Krüger grids, remains “overdue for description.” Since it was published a new book has appeared that goes a long way towards covering some of those developments (at least for non-specialists, if not experts like Cruickshank). In fact, map grids are one of the main topics of After the Map: Cartography, Navigation and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century by William Rankin (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The book is chock-full of fascinating discussions of new mapping and navigation systems that developed between the end of the nineteenth century and the appearance of GPS. Its focus is on three overlapping case studies: large-scale global maps like the International Map of the World and World Aeronautical Charts (which have their own connection to Soviet mapping), grid systems like UTM, and radionavigation networks like Gee and Loran. (The third of these was already the topic of an article by Rankin that I wrote about here.)

In the chapters on map grids, After the Map shows just how long even an ostensibly universal design like UTM remained fragmented and regional. The use of grids had begun on the Western Front during the First World War. It spread to domestic surveying in the interwar period and been adopted by all the major powers during the Second World War. But universal adoption of the principles involved did not mean adoption of a common system. Even close allies like the United States and Britain ended up just dividing the world and jointly adopting one or the other nation’s approach in each region: British grids were applied to particular war zones and a more general American system used for the rest of the world. Neither used a transverse Mercator projection.

Even once America and its NATO allies settled on UTM as a postwar standard – a decision made despite opposition from the US Navy and Air Force, who fought vigorously for a graticule rather than a grid – UTM maps did not use a single consistent projection but adopted whichever reference ellipsoid was already in use for a region. While those differences were eventually resolved, even the 1990 edition of Defense Mapping Agency Technical Manual 8358.1, Datums, Ellipsoids, Grids, and Grid Reference Systems, still included specifications for twenty British grids including the British and Irish domestic surveys (plus a further nineteen further secondary grids), as well as the Russian Gauß-Krüger. East German tank commanders should have been grateful that they could get away with only two from the Intra-German Border to the Channel!


I learned a new word last month: “oropolitics,” meaning the political aspect and use of mountains and mountaineering. Coined in 1982 by Joydeep Sircar to describe the use of mountain-climbing expeditions in the Himalayas to “progressively readjust that line you will not find on any ordinary map, the all-important ‘line of control’ in Northern Kashmir lying athwart the Karakoram range,” the word illuminates an unusual intersection of extreme sport and politics.

Sircar’s example of oropolitics was the launching of competing climbing expeditions by India and Pakistan in the late 1970s and early 80s, sometimes in collaboration with other nations, to support each side’s claims along the Siachen glacier. The competition eventually escalated from peaceful forays into military occupation of the relevant ridgelines by military forces, which began twenty years of clashes in which more troops have been killed by the environment than by enemy action. (A recent article in Political Geography describes many of the details [the Version of Record is here; a unpaywalled copy is at)

The original oropolitics of the Karaoram range are only one example of the phenomenon, even within the great mountain ranges of Asia. Canadian mountain historian Bernadette McDonald has written two books on the mountaineering exploits of Polish and Yugoslav climbers that also address the politics of their activities. In both countries Communist governments supported competitive mountaineering overseas as a way to acquire national prestige, making the expeditions a sort of long-range oropolitical activity. At the same time, climbing was a way to escape from the constraints of the communist system or even to be subversive – one of the famous Polish climbers, Wanda Rutkiewicz, used to goad Soviet mountaineers to shout “Brezhnev be gone!” in exchange for Solidarity lapel pins when they met at training camps. Domestic oropolitics, perhaps?

The Wikipedia entry for oropolitics mentions American efforts to secretly place nuclear-powered monitoring devices in the Himalayas to monitor Chinese missile tests. I think that example misses the point. Many mountains have strategic importance, which is why mountain warfare has been going on since time immemorial. But places like Siachen are uninhabitable and, in a narrow sense at least, strategically and economically irrelevant. Oropolitics are a pursuit of political impact not because the mountains are important, but because of the Mallory-esque fact that they are otherwise unconquerable.

h/t: War is Boring

A Hidden Map Between Sensor and Shooter: The Point Positioning Data Base, Part Three

Back to Part Two (or Part One)

Between 1990, when the first GPS-guided missiles were used in war, and 2001, when the United States began its invasion of Afghanistan, GPS guidance for weapons went from a niche technology used only by a few systems to one of the US military’s favorite techniques. The spread of GPS guidance led to a huge demand for ways of determining target positions in a way that weapons – rather than pilots – would understand. That meant three-dimensional coordinates in World Geodetic System 84 (WGS 84), rather than grid references on maps or even coordinates in other datums. One of the most important tools for establishing these coordinates was the Point Positioning Data Base (PPDB), a database of matching imagery and coordinates that had originated in the 1970s as a tool for army field artillery.

Made widely available in an analog format in the 1980s and used during the first Gulf War, PPDB’s digitization had restricted its use mostly to computer workstations (first DEWDROP, then RainDrop) in the United States during the war over Kosovo in 1999.

By the time the invasion of Afghanistan began in late 2001, RainDrop workstations had moved from analysts’ desks in the continental US to the same airbase – Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia – as the air operations center that was commanding the air war. That shift was only the first step in the proliferation of tools and services for point mensuration to match the American and coalition demand for mensurated target coordinates. “Cursor on Target” (see Part One) began development in 2002; Northrop Grumman released RainDrop’s successor – RainStorm – in 2004; and another system, Precision Strike Suite for Special Operations Forces (PSS-SOF), was created to provide “near-mensurated” coordinates to troops in the field.

By 2009, when Noah Shachtman wrote a description of how mensuration was used to plan air strikes in Afghanistan, the process had been in regular use for almost a decade. Here’s his description of what was being done in the air operations center for Afghanistan:

An officer, I’ll call him Paul, walks me through the process. It starts with “targeteering,” figuring out where a pilot should attack. Just getting GPS coordinates or an overhead image isn’t good enough. GPS is unreliable when it comes to altitude. And landscape and weather conditions can throw satellite pictures off by as much as 500 feet. “Even with Gucci imagery, there’s always errors,” Paul says. He points to a pair of screens: On the right side is an aerial image of a building. On the left, two satellite pictures of the same place — taken from slightly different angles — flicker in a blur. Paul hands me a pair of gold-rimmed aviator glasses. I put them on, and those flickers turn into a single 3-D image. Paul compares the 2-D and 3-D images, then picks exactly where the building should be hit. Depending on elevation, adding a third dimension can shrink a 500-foot margin of error down to 15 feet.

Tying a point on the ground to a global grid precise enough to be used for air strikes anywhere in the world was now a matter of course. Fifty years after the CIA’s photo interpreters bought their first mainframe to help them analyze and map targets in the Soviet Union, calculating a target’s position in global terms has become simple – even if knowing what is at the target location is not. The technology here is also a long way from the cobbled-together equipment for which the PPDB was first created. The Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System (APPS) combined digital and analog electrical components with old-fashioned optics and the human eye.

The transformation from APPS to RainStorm over the course of thirty years is pretty remarkable, but its also been hard to track. This is technology that doesn’t get a lot of praise or get singled out for attention, but that doesn’t mean its not interesting or important.

For one thing, APPS was a military application of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology before COTS was cool. The Hewlett Packard 9810A desk calculator at its heart was not designed for military use or developed from military-sponsored research. It was just an office tool that was re-purposed for a very different office.

More importantly, APPS and PPDB are a good example of an enabling technology that was created long before its eventual requirement even existed. If there had been no PPDB, the development of GPS-guided bombs would have forced its creation. Instead, it was an Army project begun around the same time the first GPS satellites were being designed that provided the necessary service. That’s luck, not good planning.

Lastly, and equally interestingly, PPDB is a layer of complexity in modern warfare that’s easily overlooked because it sits in the middle of things. It provides the map of coordinates on which grander, more significant, moves are sketched, and which disappears into obscurity except when something goes wrong. Between cursor and target, or sensor and shooter, there are a lot of layers like this one.

A Hidden Map Between Sensor and Shooter: The Point Positioning Data Base, Part Two

Back to Part One

One part of the long pre-history surrounding the deployment of GPS-guided bombs began in the late 1960s with US Army Corps of Engineers and a research project to improve the accuracy of American field artillery. The Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System (APPS) was a tool to calculate the coordinates of a target seen on reconnaissance photography. Introduced into service in the mid-1970, APPS and the geo-referenced imagery that it used (the Point Positioning Data Base, or PPDB) proved so useful that they were borrowed by US Air Force and Navy airstrike planners too.

The desire to fix targets from aerial photography and strike them with precision was hardly unique to APPS’s users. The Air Force also had a system for calculating target coordinates under development. The Photogrammetric Target System (PTS) was part of a far grander system for detecting, locating, and destroying enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites called the Precision Location and Strike System (PLSS). Unlike APPS, which printed out target coordinates for human use, the proposed PTS was a fully computerized system that would transmit the coordinates to PLSS’s central computer somewhere in West Germany or the United Kingdom, where they would be converted into guidance instructions for the 2,000-lb glide bombs that were going to be the sharp end of the system.

The TR-1, a renamed U-2 reconnaissance plane, was the aerial platform for the PLSS system. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)

The TR-1, a renamed U-2 reconnaissance plane, was the aerial platform for the PLSS system. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)

You can see how PTS’s fortunes waxed and waned by following the annual briefings on PLSS that the Air Force gave to Congress. What began in 1973 was gradually scaled back as PLSS’s own funding declined. Plans for a manual prototype PTS were cancelled when it became clear that APPS could do the same job, and the system disappeared from the briefing in 1980.

Much of the imagery for point positioning came from mapping cameras on the KH-9 HEXAGON satellite. NRO photograph courtesy Wikimedia.

Much of the imagery for point positioning came from mapping cameras on the KH-9 HEXAGON satellite. NRO photograph courtesy Wikimedia.

While the Air Force was experimenting with PTS and APPS to plan aerial attacks, PPDB was expanding in importance to become part of the targeting process for non-nuclear Tomahawk missiles being operated by the US Navy. Simultaneously, crises with Iran and the demands of the Carter Doctrine drove the expansion of PPDB coverage in the Middle East to 930,000 square nautical miles by 1981.

That meant that when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the US had 100% PPDB coverage of the theater, better than the coverage with either 1:50,000 topographical maps or 1;250,000 Joint Operations Graphic-Air. Unfortunately, the PPDB imagery was woefully out of date, forcing the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) to make PPDB updates part of its vast cartographic build-up for Operation Desert Shield. That included 30 new PPDB sets (of 83 requested), 26 video PPDB sets, and 7,972 target coordinates.

Despite those deliveries, the obsolescence of PPDB imagery was noticed during Operation Desert Storm. The annual official history of 37th Fighter Wing – which flew the F-117 stealth fighter during Desert Storm – complained that:

Spot imagery was not of sufficient high resolution to support the technical requirements of a high technology system such as the F-117A Stealth Fighter. And, the available Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System (APPS) Point Positioning Data Base (PPDB) was grossly outdated. It was not until the last week of the war that more current PPDBs arrived, which was too late to have an effect on combat operations.

After 1991, the need for precise target coordinates grew alongside the spread of precision guided weapons that needed those coordinates, which meant that what had begun as an Army instrument became more and more vital to aviation. A 1994 naval aviation handbook reminded users that “reliable target coordinates come only from a limited number of classified sources,” including the Defense Mapping Agency’s “Points Program” (which accepted requests by phone or secure fax) and APPS systems carried on aircraft carriers.

Unlike laser or electro-optical-guided bombs that homed in on a signature that their target emitted or reflected, bombs and missiles guided by GPS simply fly or fall towards the coordinates they are given. Widespread deployment during the bombing of Serbia in 1999 (Operation ALLIED FORCE) therefore meant a vast demand for precise target coordinates.

The Point Positioning Data Base, now provided in digital form rather than as a film chip/magnetic cassette combination, was an important source of those coordinates because it provided not just two-dimension latitude/longitude coordinates but also elevation. In a desert environment like Iraq, a bomb dropped from above could more or less be assumed to hit its target no matter how large the gap between the actual elevation of the ground. Where the terrain was more varied, however, aiming to high or too low could cause the bomb to slam into a hill short of the target or fly right over it and land long. Securing that elevation information from aerial photography was known as “mensuration.”

Though APPS was a computerized tool, it used film chips rather than digital imagery. To take the entire system digital, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (which had absorbed the Defense Mapping Agency in 1996) developed a computer workstation called DEWDROP that could provide mensurated coordinates using the Point Positioning Data Base. That was followed a few years later by a similar system called RainDrop. In February 1999, a little over a month before ALLIED FORCE began, the Air Force committed to buy 170 RainDrop systems for $1.8 million from Computek Research, Inc. (Here’s the press release.)

During ALLIED FORCE, mensurated coordinates were needed for Tomahawk, CALCM, and SLAM missiles, as well as the JDAM bombs being carried by the first B-2 stealth bombers. To get them, the air operations center in Vincenza, Italy had to reach back to analysts in the United States, which was where the mensuration workstations were located. Here’s how Vice Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, Jr. describes the process of acquiring them, starting from a rough fix provided by an ELINT satellite:

So I walked into the intelligence center and sitting there was a 22-year-old intelligence specialist who was talking to Beale Air Force Base via secure telephone and Beale Air Force Base was driving a U–2 over the top of this spot. The U–2 snapped the picture, fed it back to Beale Air Force base where that young sergeant to my young petty officer said, we have got it, we have confirmation. I called Admiral Ellis, he called General Clark, and about 15 minutes later we had three Tomahawk missiles en route and we destroyed those three radars.

About a year later the Air Force ordered another 124 RainDrop systems. (Another press release.) Three months later, Northrop Grumman bought Computek for $155 million in stock.

ALLIED FORCE was confirmation for many observers that coordinate-guided weapons were the wave of the future. Tools like PPDB were necessary infrastructure for that transformation.

Forward to Part Three

Between Sensor and Shooter: The Point Positioning Data Base, Part One

In 2002, after the kick-off of the US invasion of Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq, US Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper gave a speech in which he said that “The sum of all wisdom is a cursor over the target.” Two years later, the Air Force was demonstrating how, using an XML schema, troops could pass target coordinates to a bomb-armed F-15E flying overhead in an entirely machine-to-machine process in which each device involved communicated seamlessly with each other. The system was called, in honor of General Jumper’s speech, “Cursor on Target.”

Describing the basic process in a “Senior Leader Perspective” for the Air Force’s Air & Space Power Journal, project supporter Brigadier General Raymond A. Shulstad explained how target coordinates input into a laptop in the hands of a forward air controller in the field pass directly to a map workstation in the air operations center (the command center that coordinates air operations in a theater) and then, after the operator clicks on those coordinates on the map, appear automatically on the F-15’s head-up display.

Even Shulstad’s article only touches lightly on the element of “Cursor on Target” that’s absent in its name: the map (or the geodetic information) over which both cursor and target are positioned. The workstations in the air operations center that are in the middle of the observer-to-airplane communication are not just there to monitor what’s happening and to ensure that the coordinates really are a target (as opposed to friendly forces or a hospital). They are also there to provide information that’s missing from the initial observer’s message – the three-dimensional positioning needed to ensure that the bomb truly strikes its target.

Michael W. Kometer, who was an Air Force lieutenant colonel when he wrote an excellent book on some of these issues, explains that process, usually called “mensuration,” as follows:

Mensuration is a process that translates coordinates from a flat chart to take into consideration the elevation of the target. If a weapon could fly to a target directly perpendicular to the earth, mensuration would not be necessary. Since it approaches at an angle, however, a weapon could be long or short if the target is at a low or high elevation.

Today, mensuration software is a corporate product. The industry standard for military operations is a Northrop Grumman product called RainStorm that has its own openly accessible support page on the internet. But that wasn’t always the case. The map hiding within Cursor on Target only came into existence after a long process that began in a very different place: among the US Army’s field artillery crews.

Before APPS
The best place to begin the story is in the years immediately after the Second World War, when the US Army Corps of Engineers began trying to create a comprehensive coordinate system (or datum) that would cover not just Europe but the entire world. Until the Second World War, most nations did their own mapping using their own national datums – which meant that trying to plot directions and distances using coordinates from two different national surveys could lead to significant errors unless one did the math to convert coordinates from one datum into the other (sacrificing time and accuracy in the process).

The discrepancies only got worse the further the distances involved, which was a particular problem if you were trying to plot transatlantic flight paths or the trajectories of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The solution was to establish a new global coordinate system with maps to match – a process that triggered a massive turf war between the US Army and Air Force’s surveying and mapping centers, but eventually led to first World Geodetic System (WGS 60).

In Europe and North America, the US or its allies could do new surveys and create new maps whose coordinates were in WGS 60. For the Soviet Union’s territory, whose maps were closely controlled, the Americans had to turn to satellite photography. Measuring positions and distances using these photographs relied on a process called stereophotogrammetry. By examining a pair of images of the same target through a binocular fitting that showed each image to one eye, the photo interpreter saw a three-dimensional image on which he or she could make accurate measurements of distance. Connecting those measurements to known points, or using simultaneous stellar photography to determine the location of the camera-carrying satellite, let US cartographers create maps of the Soviet Union without ever setting foot on the ground.

Stereophotogrammetry was slow and calculation-intensive, which is why the CIA’s first computer was purchased by the photo interpretation center to speed up the process. But in the late 1960s the US Army’s Engineering Topographic Laboratory (ETL) began to experiment with ways of bringing that same capability to the army in the field. Using off-the-shelf commercial components they were able to build a mobile system that let any photo interpreter establish the precise position – within a matter of meters – of any object that had been captured on reconnaissance photography.

The process began with a pair of film chips and a matching data cassette that carried the information to calculate the geographic coordinates of any point on the film. Aligning the pair of film chips under a stereo comparator (in which the user sees each image with one eye), the photo interpreter saw a three-dimensional image equivalent to the reconnaissance imagery of the target. Picking out the precise point of interest seen on the original photo, the operator zapped that information to an attached computer – a Hewlett Packard 9810A desk calculator – that consulted the magnetic tape and prints out the geographic coordinates. (When I say “zap,” I’m not kidding. An electric current ran from the cursor the operator saw onto a wire grid underneath the photographs. The voltage of the current told the computer where on the photograph the pointer is.) The entire system weighed 109 kg and could be set up on a standard-sized desk. It was called the Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System (APPS); the tapes and film chips were known together as the Point Positioning Data Base (PPDB).

The Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System. From Army Research & Development, May-June 1976, p.24

The Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System. From Army Research & Development, May-June 1976, p.24

The first prototype APPS consoles were built from off-the-shelf parts and delivered to the Army in 1972–3. They offered a substantial improvement in measurement accuracy over previous techniques. In tests by Raytheon and Human Factors Research, Inc. the average error in position measurement using APPS was only 5–6 meters. ETL seems to have originally expected APPS to be used by artillery and surveying units, but it soon also became a tool for the brand-new MGM-52 Lance missile. That made sense because the Lance missile was both long-ranged and lacked any terminal guidance – without any way of homing on its target it needed to be launched with precise information on the target’s location.

Before the decade was over the original APPS was being replaced by a more advanced device, the APPS-IV, built by Autometrics, Inc., but the general principles involved remained the same. Look at two film chips through a stereo comparator, locate the point of interest, then use the attached computer to establish its coordinates. A handy tool, for sure, but not the basis for a revolution in military operations.

So what changed? The answer was GPS.

Forward to Part Two

Unpacking Soviet Military Maps

Greg Miller’s article for Wired on Soviet Cold War maps pointed out that there hasn’t been a lot of study of Soviet military cartography. Much of what there has been, though, written by the people he interviewed in his article, can be found online at the website of Sheetlines, the official journal of the Charles Close Society of the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps.

Since so much of the information associated with the maps is still classified, those studying them have had essentially to reverse engineer the process by which they were made, using what appears on the maps themselves to try and figure out how and why they were made. Comparing the Soviet maps of the United Kingdom with the official UK government maps, those of the Ordnance Survey, shows enough differences to suggest that the Soviet maps aren’t mere copies. Instead, they seem mostly based on independent measurements – probably from satellite photography. A big exception is spot heights and contours, which come from the six-inch OS “County” series that was completed before the First World War, and which would already have been out of date in many places by the start of the Cold War.

The Soviet maps used the Gauss–Krüger projection, a transverse Mercator projection very similar to NATO’s preferred Universal Transverse Mercator (there’s a not-bad description from Natural Resources Canada’s website). As components in a grander global mapping scheme, they were numbered and subdivided according to the system created for the 1:1 million scale International Map of the World (IMW). There’s some irony in that, since the IMW originated in the late nineteenth century as gesture of international friendship. Planned at meetings of the International Geographic Congress, the IMW rejected the parochialism of national maps that divided the world along national boundaries. Instead, the IMW’s sheets cut straight through border’s to create a global map beholden to no one nation (for a online overview map at the University of Texas at Austin, click here).

That, like so many things in twentieth-century history, turned out to be more useful to military forces than to the internationalists who envisioned it. During both the First and Second World War, IMW maps turned out to be useful planning tools. By the end of the Second World War, all the major powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, the US, UK, and the Soviet Union) had their own 1:1 million scale maps based on the IMW grid. After the war, the US and UK continued their mapping on the IMW plan under the aegis of the US Army Map Service and the British Geographic Section of the General Staff as the AMS 1301/GSGS 4646 series. So, clearly, did the Soviets, who made it the basis for their main series of military maps.

The most interesting discoveries, though, come from a translation of their 1959 Military Topography textbook. Its discussions of foreign maps are filled with useful tidbits about how the Soviets saw their own mapping work. The book proudly compares the rational Soviet system with the mapping of “capitalistic states,” where maps exist at numerous scales and where sheets often have arbitrary borders (as opposed to coinciding with meridians or parallels) or even, shockingly, overlap one another. (This was, incidentally, a serious problem when trying to work with an area that didn’t divide nicely along such lines. According to John L. Cruickshank, who translated the passage, “all Warsaw-Pact officers were trained to produce combined sheets by ‘cutting and sticking’ up to nine separate sheets together.” Yikes.)

Military Topography also proudly notes that English maps only use 68% of the symbols appearing on Soviet maps, with the Americans and French doing even worse at 66% and 62% respectively. The French in particular are singled out for the laissez faire apathy of marking all types of forests with a single symbol, “without subdivision by species of trees.”

But does any of this get us closer to understanding why the Soviets prepared their maps the ways they did? Clearly, Soviet mapping was a major enterprise, and one that was under tight central control (surprise, surprise). It took its orientation towards universal coverage seriously, avoiding messy concession towards what its users might need in a particular situation. And it was entirely aware that it was loading its maps with more detail than comparable creators elsewhere, which supports Alex Kent’s “database” theory of map creation.

Source Note: Aside from the articles in Sheetlines, Alex Kent and John Davies have a useful article on Soviet military maps in vol. 40, no. 3 of Cartography and Geographic Information Science. Information on the International Map of the World comes from a history that appeared in vol. 50, no. 2 of Canadian Geographer.

Soviet Cartography’s Secret Mission? (Possibly, but Probably Not)

Wired has an interesting and well-illustrated (or is it well-mapped?) article called “Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers.” Written by Greg Miller, the article discusses both the Soviet Union’s gargantuan, top secret mapping projects, as well the odd history of their percolation to the west at the end of the Cold War and their use since.

While maps for civilian use were deliberately distorted to destroy their cartographic value, the Soviets mapped almost the entire world at 1:200,000 scale, most of Europe, Asia, North America, and northern Africa at 1:50,000 scale, and all of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at 1:25,000 scale. (One person Miller interviews says that 1:50,000 is “globally considered among the military to be the tactical scale for ground forces,” which means the Soviets had mapped all of the Soviet Union, including vast swathes of Siberia, to a more detailed level than was needed for most military operations.) Maps of some US cities were done down to 1:10,000 scale, at which point one is seeing individual buildings in cities like Syracuse, NY. In at least some cases, the Soviets seemed to have information from on the ground that made the maps more accurate than unclassified local maps from the same era. Some times they seemed to have made amateur mistakes of interpretation.

Since the Cold War ended, these super-detailed maps have proved useful in all sorts of places. They’ve been used for mapping out cell networks, and to draw international boundaries on the US government’s own official maps. And Miller’s article also talks about the strangeness of purchasing and discussing these maps, given a continued reticence in the former Soviet Union to say much about them.

The fact that the Soviet military seemed to have over-mapped a lot of areas suggests a system with plenty of resources, quotas to fill, and little or no desire to challenge the assumptions about whether or not the work was worth it: so basically a typical Soviet  industrial operation. They also seem to have piled a lot of non-spatial information on to the maps, including “everything from the materials and conditions of the roads to the diameter and spacing of the trees in a forest to the typical weather at different times of year.”

Geographer Alex Kent has a really interesting theory about this, suggesting that over-mapping and over-detailing (my words, not his) were a way of conveniently storing and organizing information that didn’t necessarily need to be mapped. Kent says “It’s almost like a repository of intelligence, a database where you can put everything you know about a place in the days before computers … There are layers of visual hierarchy. What is important stands out. What isn’t recedes. There’s a lot that modern cartographers could learn from the way these maps were made.”

It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense, since it parallels developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain. During the Second World War, the western Allies found themselves with broad and urgent requirements for all sorts of geographic information about potential theaters of war. In the UK, the Inter-Service Topographic Department (ISTD) created Inter-Service Information Series (ISIS) reports; in the US, they were Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS).

The shift from Second World War to Cold War meant the requirement never really went away, just moved east. As a result, both the US and the UK maintained general surveys of useful information for possible areas of conflict. In the US, the project was known as the National Intelligence Survey (NIS), and the desired scope was the entire world (with a priority focus on the Soviet bloc). An interagency effort led by the CIA, each area survey contained information on a country or region’s military geography, transportation, telecommunications, sociology, politics, economics, science, and armed forces. There were maps too, though only at 1:100,000 scale.

Depending on your age, you may even have used the results of the program. In 1962, the CIA started produced a classified annual update called the Basic Intelligence Factbook. Thirteen years later, that became available in unclassified form as the CIA World Factbook. It went online in 1997, and for kids of my generation it was an easy go-to source for the kind of basic facts that made a book report or a model UN briefing.

It’s quite plausible that the Soviet detailed mapped was a way of arranging a lot of the same types of information included in a factbook-like resource. On the other hand, no matter how well designed those maps were, they can’t have been a good solution in the long run. Large-format four-color maps are a pain to print, a pain to store, and a pain to ship. You couldn’t have transmitted the information over a phone line, machine to machine, like you could send statistics once computers were available. Instead, you would have been stuck pushing paper. Of course, those problems don’t mean that wasn’t what the Soviets were doing. After all, they made plenty of poor technological decisions.