military geography

FROM EARLIEST HISTORICAL writings, the nature of warfare is shown to be a struggle for positional advantage at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Xenophon writing of the fate of the 10,000 Greeks fighting in Persia in the 4th century B.C.E., tells of the constant consideration commanders gave to all aspects of the terrain and the disposition of resources as they fought their way homeward. River banks, hilltops, and forests gave advantage to groups of soldiers during tactical combat.

Mountains, deserts, and sea coasts gave advantage at the operational level as generals planned campaigns that spanned many miles. Cultural, economic, and political factors, all meshed with the dictates of the physical environment, combined to make up the concerns of military geography. Even earlier (5th century B.C.E.), Thucydides wrote of the consideration of these strategic factors of military geography as Sparta and Athens waged their great Peloponnesian war. It seems as long as mankind has maneuvered for positional advantage in a fight, geography has had military importance.

military geography

The two broad categories of consideration for the military geographer are the physical and the cultural aspects. Political leaders and their military commanders must deal with the realities of the physical and human worlds they strive in. To ignore the salient characteristics of the Earth and the people who live on it will imperil their military-political effectiveness, if not their existence.

Relative location and general spatial relationships are of primary concern. Distances dictate modes of transportation, types of weapons, and communications requirements. Sequencing of events and objectives, prioritization of efforts, and assessments of vulnerability will be affected by questions of “how close” and “how big.”

The characteristics of the ground topography will determine ease of movement, location of water obstacles, line-of-site for observation and engagement, and general protection from weapons' effects. The underlying geology and soil types will affect all manner of military engineering works dealing with mobility, fortification, and the effects of weather.


Weather and climate have a direct effect on the operation of equipment, the level of physical work sustainable by troops, and the amounts of supply and fuel required. Ancient and modern history is replete with ill-advised military operations in the face of predictable weather patterns and known climate regimes. Armadas have been sunk, armies frozen, and air forces negated by the annual weather cycle.

The terrain and climate combine to create vegetation cover that again affects visibility, communication, and mobility. Most of these physical considerations continue across the coastal area into seas and waterways. Underlying geology has an impact according to water depth, while weather and climate remain cogent concerns.

The periods of illumination available from sunrise to sunset, along with moon rise and moon stage, are ever more critical with continuous and worldwide military operations. In the nonvisible areas of the electromagnetic spectrum, magnetic forces and radiations affect navigation and communications.

Human factors are of significant concern to the political and military planner, as they must consider the nature of their chosen enemy as well as the disposition and characteristics of all those who may be effected by the military operation and campaign. Linguistic requirements must be anticipated for the gathering of intelligence, control of refugees, and interface with populations, as well as communication with allies. Knowledge of cultural concerns of religion, holy sites, and historic sites is required for compliance with international law during military operations.

Long-term productive relationships with a liberated or conquered population must be built on a foundation of cultural understanding. Social mores and taboos must be considered during psychological operations. Cultural food habits will determine if rations provided to affected populations and allies are acceptable or uneatable.

Land use patterns in rural areas, the nature of urbanization, the location and extent of industrialization, and transportation networks of a theater of operations are required knowledge for the military planner. Military forces are limited by these cultural factors as they seek to execute schemes of maneuver, develop logistical support, and maximize weapons' effects against opposing forces while mitigating damage to civilian populations and life support infrastructure.


At the tactical level, military geography translates to the near considerations of terrain and vegetation, weather, and the cultural landscape. These military aspects of terrain are commonly known as observation and fields of fire, cover and concealment, obstacles, key terrain, and lastly, avenues of approach and mobility corridors.

Observation refers to the ability of a ground or near ground actor to see across the battle space unhindered by terrain relief or vegetation. The purpose of this observation is for surveillance and target acquisition. Typically this is done by line-of-sight optics or radar emitters. Observation and fields of fire go hand in hand as direct fire weapons follow line-of-sight trajectories. Intervening terrain or vegetation must be taken into account for the optimum operation of weapons, radios, radars, and lasers. The ability to see and shoot across the landscape is a primary consideration for situating of forces for both offense and defense. Line of sight works both ways.

Cover is protection from the effects of weapons. Masking terrain, defiles, and caves can provide some protection from the impact, blast, and fragmentation of direct and indirect fires. Concealment is protection from observation and can be afforded by terrain or vegetation. Concealment is a minimum requirement for secure military operations. Ideal combat positions are covered and concealed with good fields of fire.

Obstacles are any feature in the battle space that can slow, stop, or canalize military movement and maneuver. The obstacle can be natural, man-made, or a combination of both. The effects of weather can exacerbate the impact of obstacles.

Any point or area in the battle space that would provide a tactical advantage to the force that occupies it or controls it is considered key terrain. Of course the general scheme of maneuver, the precise disposition of forces, the scale of the operation, and enemy capabilities will determine key terrain in each individual situation.

Avenues of approach are routes across the terrain that will allow a force to reach a desired objective. These avenues are evaluated in terms of their width, relative location to adjacent avenues of approach, cover and concealment, observation and fields of fire, and intervening obstacles. Mobility corridors are areas within the avenues of approach that bear specific characteristics best suited for specific types of mobility (for example, mounted, dismounted, or air). They are both further defined by the doctrinal movement rate and maneuver space for the size and type of military force anticipated.

All these aspects of terrain are modified by the weather. Some military aspects of weather are visibility (light data, fog, dust), winds aloft, precipitation, cloud cover, and temperature and humidity. These have the greatest effect on aviation, but also have direct effect on all military forces and their operations. Seasonal rains, temperatures, wind patterns, and general climatic conditions must be factored into every military plan.


With the increased use of military forces in disaster relief, peacekeeping operations, and in many operations other than war, knowledge of the cultural factors of geography have grown in importance. Increased interaction with civilians in the battle space require not only that military strategic planners be cognizant of military geography, but also that individual soldiers and small unit leaders come to grips with cross-cultural issues.

In the broader view, military geography must include considerations of geostrategic issues, areas, and players. Disputes that inevitably involve military forces arise and fester along several boundaries. Man-made virtual boundaries of national frontiers have proven to be very contentious. These border disputes involve economic resources, ethnic populations, and pure territorial claims. Ethnic boundaries are found across the globe and bear the scars of war both ancient and recent. Resource boundaries emerge and fade as oil, fisheries, shipping lanes, and commerce ebb and flow. All these areas of cultural, economic, and political concern can rapidly move into the scope of military geography.

In 1996, the Association of American Geographers acknowledged military geography as a subfield of geography and defined it as the application of geographic information, tools, and techniques to solve military problems in peacetime or war.

The consideration of terrain, culture, politics, and economics in the pursuit of warfare will remain a dynamic field of geographic study and a practical area of military application.