Thursday, March 31, 2022

People Died for What You Can Get in a Click

Every time I access Google Earth or other open source imagery/mapping service, I am reminded what an amazing time we live in.

As early as the 1990s for something as unclassified as hunting, you had to make extraordinary efforts to find good maps. I remember taking pictures with a film camera in the early 90s from a plane window that just happened to be flying over an area I duck hunted ... so I could see where the out of the way wood duck ponds were.

Now, a click.

On the much more serious note, the efforts made on the military side of the house to get overhead photographs or even good maps cost billions of dollars and the lives of unknown numbers of intelligence assets and spies to get at a level of detail that wouldn't be good enough for a random civilian consumer today.

It is hard to understand how valuable detailed information on land - or even under the sea topography - is to a successful or unsuccessful operation. You can also find yourself in a situation where knowledge is there, but you don't have the people on staff who happen to have that knowledge.

One of the characteristics of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is that of the Russians simply not being able to get their armor and supplies successfully from point-A to point-B in something that used to be their back yard (and in the mind of Putin, still is).

In a simply engrossing article over at Wired about Soviet mapping efforts - this bit just yelled at me about the paradox of how easily the essential can be forgotten...or ignored.

The Soviet maps of US and European cities have details that aren’t on domestic maps made around the same time, things like the precise width of roads, the load-bearing capacity of bridges, and the types of factories. They’re the kinds of things that would come in handy if you’re planning a tank invasion. Or an occupation. Things that would be virtually impossible to find out without eyes on the ground.

Given the technology of the time, the Soviet maps are incredibly accurate. Even today, the US State Department uses them (among other sources) to place international boundary lines on official government maps. ... the US military rarely made maps more detailed than 1:250,000, and generally only did so for areas of special strategic interest. “The Soviets, on the other hand, were the global leaders in tank technology,” Forbes says. After suffering horrific losses during the Nazi ground invasion in WWII, the Soviets had built up the world’s most powerful army. Maneuvering that army required large-scale maps, and lots of them, to cover smaller areas in more detail. “One to 50,000 scale is globally considered among the military to be the tactical scale for ground forces,” Forbes says. “These maps were created so that if and when the Soviet military was on the ground in any given place, they would have the info they needed to get from point A to point B.”

A manual produced by the Russian Army, translated and published in 2005 by East View, a Minnesota company with a large inventory of Soviet maps, gives some insight into how the topographic maps could be used in planning or executing combat operations. It includes tables on the range of audibility of various sounds (a snapping twig can be heard up to 80 meters away; troop movements on foot, up to 300 meters on a dirt road or 600 meters on a highway; an idling tank, up to 1,000 meters; a rifle shot, up to 4,000 meters

Other tables give the distances for visual objects (a lit cigarette can be visible up to 8,000 meters away at night, but you’d have to get within 100 meters to make out details of a soldier’s weaponry in daylight). Still more tables estimate the speed at which troops can move depending on the slope of the terrain, the width and condition of the roadway, and whether they are on foot, in trucks, or in tanks.

Institutional knowledge - especially the most valuable and hard won kind - is highly perishable. What does it take, a generation for what was once assumed to be now rare?

30-years after the end of the Cold War, before we scoff too much at the Russian Army's problems in Ukraine, perhaps we should take a moment and wonder what things we may need in the future we used to know, but now have forgotten.

h/t Marcus Faulkner

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