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!


TERCOM, System and Symbol: Part Three

From Part Two

Direct Action’s bombing of the Litton factory in Rexdale and its assembly line for cruise missile guidance systems reflected discomfort on the Canadian left with the way the Cold War was heating up again after the years of détente and what they saw as an insufficient willingness to put distance between Canada and US foreign policy. Neither it, nor the anti-cruise missile protests, put much specific emphasis on the technology involved. For them, TERCOM itself was just one particular articulation of the US military-industrial complex.

In fact, TERCOM in general was a dead end in military guidance. No other weapons used the same guidance technique, and both the Tomahawk and conventional ALCM used GPS as their primary guidance as soon as practical. I have yet to see any reference to a commercial spin-off from TERCOM either. The idea was more or less a one-off as a guidance technique. It survived into the twenty-first century in only one niche, the nuclear-armed Tomahawk. Because, unlike GPS or other radionavigation systems, there were no outside signals to be jammed or spoofed, TERCOM-assisted inertial navigation remained the sole guidance system on the nuclear-armed Tomahawks even after the conventional versions switched over using to GPS. The last nuclear-armed Tomahawks were only retired in 2013.

On the other hand, TERCOM did demonstrate the value and cost of good mapping, charting and geodetic data. It wasn’t the first system to make use of it – every US strategic bomber and ballistic missile relied on mapping and geodetic information to some extent – but it was the first to demand not just knowledge about Point A and Point B but also about the terrain along the way. That requirement put the Defense Mapping Agency in a bind, forcing it both to go into overdrive and to triage its TERCOM processing work. Recognising that that sort of crash project couldn’t be repeated for every new weapon, the deputy Secretary of Defense issued Program Decision Memorandum 85 (PDM-85) in 1985, which required early military department to “fund with its own resources the cost of unique earth data products.” Though Larson and Pelletiere wrote in the late 1980s that the rule was proving unenforceable, it was a mark of further recognition that this type of information was a critical war weapon.

After the Cold War ended, the Defense Mapping Agency was merged with many of the intelligence community’s imagery creation and analysis office to create the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). In 2003, NIMA was renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a change that reflected the increasing conceptual consolidation of these kinds of information under the umbrella of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). The term, as the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation explains, was only about as old as the agency’s new name. But while The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder could title as story about the agency in 2011 “The Little-Known Agency That Helped Kill Bin Laden,” NGA was pretty deeply embedded in the US national security establishment. More than thirty years after DMA started weaponizing its digital terrain elevation data (DTED), the idea that the military might not only demand detailed maps of its targets but also the underlying data, to transform into a three-dimensional computer model, a physical mockup, or – bringing us right back to the first uses of the DTED – a flight simulator profile (which was, after all, the first use for, back in the 1970s), is old news.

Source Notes: US cruise missiles are pretty widely discussed, so a lot of these posts were cobbled together from a lot of sources. Jay L. Larson and George Pelletiere’s Earth Data and New Weapons (available from DTIC here) was very useful for understanding how the DMA supported TERCOM, and is one of the few places to mention PDM-85. The explanation of how satellite stereophotogrammetry is done comes mostly from the NRO’s internal history Hexagon Mapping Camera Program and Evolution (as reprinted by the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance). Information about Canadian protests against cruise missile testing and the Litton bombing in Toronto come from John Clearwater’s 2006 book Just Dummies: Cruise Missile Testing in Canada. Ann Hansen, one of Direct Action’s members, published a memoir after he release from prison. Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerilla offers more but similar details about the Litton bombing and reprints Direct Action’s communique.

The Power of the Polar Projection, Part Two

To Part One

At the end of Part One, I wrote that there is one polar projection that shows up all around the world and which you’ve almost certainly seen many times. The reason you almost certainly can’t think of it right now is because it’s never presented as a map, but as a symbol instead.

In June 1945, delegates from all the allied countries met in San Francisco to make the “United Nations,” a term that the wartime Allies had been using in political declarations since 1942, into a real international organization. 850 delegates from forty nations attended, along with roughly 3,500 staff and advisers.

As the host country the United States was responsible for all logistics, which included a range of maps, charts, displays, certificates, maps, and guides to be used by staff and delegates. The Office of Strategic Services’ Presentation Branch, a team of graphic and industrial designers who had been working on various exhibit and display issues for the armed services since 1941, was drafted to assist the State Department with creating these materials. It’s a little confusing to try and trace exactly who did what in the San Francisco design work, but it seems that the team was led by Oliver Lincoln Lindquist. Also involved was Donal McLaughlin, who did the first pass on the design of a lapel pin to identify the delegates.

McLaughlin’s New York Times obituary describes some of his first, rejected designs:

A globe surrounded by chains intended to represent nations linked in peace. “Linked in peace, but also a world in chains,” Mr. McLaughlin noted. Another image showed a chimneylike brick structure, bound by the “mortar of cooperation,” with an olive branch poking out. “Could be a trademark for the Structural Clay Products Institute,” Mr. McLaughlin wrote.

We can probably be grateful that none of these made the cut. What did get used what what McLaughlin, in an interview, described as ““an azimuthally equidistant projection showing all the countries in one circle.” Aside from realigning the map so that the US was no longer centred, the design adopted as the UN emblem was almost identical.

Official UN emblem, from the website of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library

Official UN emblem, from the website of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library

Presumably, McLaughlin had seen some of Harrison’s polar projection maps: they were in very popular publications. But, ironically enough, the reason he was able to use the polar projection as the basis for the UN emblem was because Harrison and others like him had failed to really shake the public conception of what constituted a “proper” map. If the polar projection had been instantly recognizable as a map, the emblem would read as obvious or even twee. “Of course, a map of nations united for the United Nations.” But, without that instant familiarity, the UN emblem is merely worldly – a symbol for the world, not a direct representation of it. And that’s good too, because to have a recognizable map opens up all sorts of questions of representation. An azimuthal equidistant projection gives accurate distances and directions, but only from the centre point. Moreover, it distorts both size and area the further one goes from the centre. So, while North America and Eurasia are reasonably undistorted, the southern hemisphere is not. S.W. Boggs loses once again.

The Power of the Polar Projection, Part One

Continuing to riff on the Soviet Union’s program of Cold War military mapping has me thinking about iconic Cold War maps, or at least the more unusual ways the Cold War landscape has been represented through maps.

One that leapt out was the polar projection, in which the North Pole becomes the center of the map and the USA and USSR find themselves in close and uncomfortable proximity across the top of the world.

Azimuthal projections. Courtesy USGS

Azimuthal projections. Courtesy USGS

One of the most important popularisers of the the azimuthal polar projection (seen on the left of the diagram above) was mapmaker Richard Edes Harrison, staff cartographer or consultant to Time, Fortune, and Life during the Second World War. Harrison’s reputation comes from his willingness to create maps that were striking visual statements. His work really jumps out when you compare it to the average map in a magazine or atlas.

(You can find many fine examples of Harrison’s work in this profile at the New Republic.)

His most popular innovation was the “perspective map” or “Vulture’s View,” which looked like a relief map viewed from altitude (say, 40,000 feet), presenting some of the curvature of the earth and looking very much like a genuine view from altitude (if more precise). The result, printed in full colour in a glossy magazine like Time or Fortune, had an immediacy that more conventional maps lacked. Harrison’s work emphasized the geographic unity of the globe and the ways in which aviation had already reshaped the meaning of proximity. This “air age” cartography lifted the viewer into the air and showed them how flight paths could cut across the globe in ways that a conventional cylindrical projection couldn’t show.

The polar projection was one of these “air age” cartography tools. It showed the viewer just how close the United States was to Europe and the USSR when one wasn’t forced to follow the east-west paths shown on the usual Mercator projection. Maps like “One World, One War” in Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy (1944) or the 1941 “World Divided” in Fortune magazine, which Harrison reused in 1952 as “U.S. Commitment,” picked the polar project to demonstrate the significance of that proximity.

Harrison was hardly the only person busy considering how new perspectives could make American maps more responsive to the demands of World War Two and the Cold War. Timothy Barney’s Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power ranges from Harrison and the late Cold War maps in DoD’s publicity brochure Soviet Military Power to the AFL-CIO’s wide distribution of the map “Gulag–Slavery, Inc.” and William Bunge’s expressive anti-nuclear Nuclear War Atlas. He points out that the US State Department’s official geographer, S.W. Boggs, was a keen advocate for using projections more appropriate than the familiar but often misleading Mercator projection. More than twenty years before the Peters equal-area projection became a hot topic, Boggs was promoting his own “eumorphic” equal-area projection on the basis that it was better suited to dealing with issues related to the more than half of the world’s population that lived below 40° North latitude.

Boggs From An Album of Map Projections by John P. Snyder Philip M. Voxland, p.69. Courtesy USGS.

Boggs Eumorphic projection.
From An Album of Map Projections by John P. Snyder and Philip M. Voxland, p.69. Courtesy USGS.

The reason you rarely see Bogg’s “eumorphic” projection is the same reason you rarely see a polar projection except when someone wants to make a point about geopolitics: there are just too many easily available Mercator maps.

But, even while Boggs was trying and failing to get US officials to look beyond the Mercator projection, one polar projection was showing up again and again around the world. You’ve seen it plenty of times. And it wasn’t even developed by a professional cartographer.

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.

Richard Edes Harrison, Cartographic Propagandist

A few months ago The New Republic posted a brief profile of Richard Edes Harrison, the artist-cartographer who brought polar projections, global curvature, and imaginative relief maps into America’s living rooms via Fortune magazine during the Second World War (click through to the profile for numerous pretty images). Harrison was a first and foremost an artist who favored visual impact over precision when it came to map-making. His work drove home the urgency of events through its vibrant presentation. Those polar projections made the threat to America from Japan and across the north Atlantic seem far more imminent than they had before. As Susan Schulten explains:

His startling views of Japan from Alaska and the Solomon Islands brought home the proximity of the Axis and prepared the public for a dogged fight in the Pacific. Such a view was entirely absent from traditional maps of the north Pacific, which comfortably distanced Japan and Asia from North America across a massive ocean.

It’s an interesting observation, and a good example of how innovative graphic design can shape geopolitical perceptions.

h/t Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff