Military Geography: For Professionals and the Public (III)

I’ve finished the book. You can read my other posts about the book here and here. I ended up at three stars on goodreads, even though the author actually commits what in my book is a capital offence; he uses acronyms/abbreviations without explaining what they mean in the text. There’s an addendum with stuff like that included in the book, but who the hell would want to frequently jump 100 pages just to understand what’s being said in a chapter? I sure don’t – I’d rather beat up the author for organizing this in a stupid manner. It isn’t that many terms which go unexplained, but you really need to not have any of them when a chapter is written in this manner:

“Option A left both nations within Pacific Command’s area of responsibility, where they had been since their establishment in 1954, and activated a unified command subordinate to CINCPAC; Option B envisaged an independent command on the same level as PACOM. The JCS recommended Option A, CINCPAC concurred, the Secretary of Defense approved, and U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) emerged in 1962, but the new lashup never worked the way official “wiring diagrams” indicated. COMUSMACV often bypassed CINCPAC to deal directly with superiors in Washington, DC, including the President and Secretary of Defense, who played active parts in daily operations. CINCPAC conducted the air war and surface naval operations, while COMUSMACV took charge on the ground. […] The Navy, backed by the Marine Corps, resisted change because CINCNELM was thoroughly familiar with Middle East problems and the likelihood of major U.S. military involvement anywhere in Black Africa seemed remote. The Secretary of Defense found the Chairman’s arguments persuasive, added MEAFSA to CINCSTRIKE’s responsibilities, and disbanded NELM on December 1, 1963. […] CINCSOUTH and the Army Chief of Staff postulated that general war was a remote possibility, but if it did occur, LANTCOM would have to rivet attention on the Atlantic Ocean whereas Southern Command, armed with a wealth of Latin American experience, was ready, willing, and able to counter Communist activities that posed clear and present dangers to U.S. interests throughout the Caribbean. CINCLANT contended that it would be imprudent to pass responsibility for the Caribbean from his command to SOUTHCOM…”

(The quote is from chapter 16, on military areas of responsibility. I should point out that this chapter is far worse than any other chapter in this respect, and none of the others even come close).

Part three on political-military geography – the above quote is from this section – was in my opinion the weakest part of the coverage, whereas the last part – on area analyses – was okay and quite interesting at times; the latter contains one introductory chapter and then moves on to analyze in some detail the area analysis parts of Operation Neptune and Operation Plan El Paso (a military operation plan which was thought up during the Vietnam War, the goal of which was to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As the author put it, the plan was stillborn – it never made it off the drawing board). I liked the chapter on Operation Neptune better than the one on the Vietnam War stuff, but both contain important insights related to how geographic factors can affect military operations and how important such aspects may be. Part three wasn’t bad as such, I just suspect that it wasn’t quite as interesting to me as it might have been given a different approach – some aspects covered there are really quite important in terms of understanding how this kind of stuff works, and I’ve added some of that stuff below. On the other hand some parts of it seemed a bit out of place; the chapter on geopolitical friction included paragraphs on atmospheric polution, hazardous waste disposal, and oil spills, and although such activities may well increase friction among neighbouring countries I think you’d be hard pressed to imagine a scenario where they’d lead to outright war. Singapore has e.g. suffered badly the last few years from the smoke caused by Indonesian forest fires, but it doesn’t seem like the military is getting ready to strike back anytime soon – they rather seem to deal with this in a different manner (“The Singaporean military has also reportedly suspended all outdoor training”).

Below I’ve added some final observations/quotes from the book. I decided against covering the chapter on the Normandy landings below despite really liking that chapter, mostly because at least some of the most important relevant geographic factors, including reasons for picking Normandy and the important role weather phenomena played in the decision process, are actually included in the wiki article to which I link above. I’m not really sure if I’d recommend the book, but if you’re interested in the kind of stuff that I’ve quoted in the previous posts and this one, and you want to learn more about stuff like this, it may be worth giving it a shot.

“Spokesmen for each Armed Service, who advise chiefs of state, foreign ministers, and senior defense officials, commonly possess dissimilar views concerning political-military problems and corrective actions, because they operate in distinctive geographic mediums and genuflect before different geopolitical gurus who variously advocate land, sea, air, or space power. Many (not all) members of each service are firmly convinced that their convictions are correct and believe competing opinions are flawed. The dominant school of thought in any country or long-standing coalition (such as NATO and the now defunct Warsaw Pact) consequently exerts profound effects on military roles, missions, strategies, tactics, plans, programs, and force postures. […] Army generals […] subdivide continents into theaters, areas of operation, and zones of action within which terrain features limit deployments, schemes of maneuver, weapon effectiveness, and logistical support. Ground forces engaged in conventional combat are loath to lose contact with adversaries until they emerge victorious and, if necessary, impose political-military control by occupying hostile territory. Armies once were self-sufficient, but dependence on aerial firepower currently is pronounced and, unless circumstances allow them to move overland, they can neither reach distant objective areas nor sustain themselves after arrival without adequate airlift and sealift. Senior army officials consequently tend to favor command structures and relationships that assure essential interservice support whenever and wherever required.”

“Free-wheeling marecentric forces, unlike armies, rely little on joint service cooperation, enjoy a global reach channelized only by geographic choke points, and generally determine unilaterally whether, where, and when to fight, because they most often are able to make or break contact with enemy formations as they see fit. Admirals as a rule accordingly resent bureaucratic restrictions on naval freedom of action and defy anybody to draw recognizable boundaries across their watery domain, which is a featureless plane except along littorals where land and sea meet […] Land-based air forces operate in a medium that surface navies might envy, where there are three dimensions rather than two, no choke points, no topographic impediments, and visibility to far distant horizons, being less limited by Earth’s curvature, is restricted only by clouds except in mountainous terrain. […] aerocentric generals (like admirals) prefer the greatest possible autonomy and are leery of boundaries that limit flexibility because, in the main, they believe that unfettered air power could be the decisive military instrument and make protracted wars obsolete. All services attach top priority to air superiority, without which most combat missions ashore or afloat become excessively costly, even infeasible.[11]”

Each service as it stands is superior in some environments and inferior in others. Armies generally function more efficiently than air forces in heavily forested regions and rugged terrain, whereas air power is especially advantageous over sparsely covered plains. Ballistic missile submarines at sea, being mobile as well as invisible to enemy targeteers, are less vulnerable to prelaunch attacks than “sitting duck” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in concrete silos ashore. Reasonable degrees of centralized control coupled with joint doctrines, joint education, and joint training programs that effectively integrate multiservice capabilities thus seem desirable.”

“Boundary disputes [between USSR and China] bubbled in earnest about 1960, when the Sino-Soviet entente started to split. The first large-scale clashes occurred in Xinjiang Province during early autumn 1964, when Muslim resentment against repressive Chinese rule motivated about 50,000 Kazakhs, Uighurs, and other ethnic groups to riot, then take shelter in the Soviet Union. Tensions along the Far Eastern frontier reached a fever pitch in 1967 after howling mobs besieged the Soviet Embassy in Beijing for more than 2 weeks. Both sides briefly massed a total of 600,000 troops along the border—nearly 40 divisions on the Soviet side and perhaps 50 or 60 Chinese counterparts. Damansky Island (Zhanbao to the Chinese) was twice the site of stiff fighting in March 1969, followed in August by confrontations at Xinjiang’s Dzungarian Gate, after which both sides took pains to defuse situations, partly because each at that point possessed nuclear weapons with delivery systems that could reach the other’s core areas.16 China, however, has never renounced its claims, which future leaders might vigorously pursue if Chinese military power continues to expand while Russian armed strength subsides.” (I never knew about that stuff. The wiki has more here and here.)

“Water requirements often outstrip sources in regions where agricultural and industrial expansion coincide with arid climates and rampant population growth creates unprecedented demands. Poor sanitation practices, contaminated runoff from tilled fields, industrial pollutants, and raw sewage discharged upstream make potable supplies a luxury in many such countries.[50]
Scarcities accompanied by fierce competition have spawned the term “hydropolitics” in the Middle East, where more than half of the people depend on water that originates in or passes through at least one foreign country before it reaches consumers [my emphasis]. […] Nearly all water in Egypt flows down the Nile from catch basins in eight other countries […]
Central and South Asia experience similar water supply problems. Deforestation in Nepal intensifies flooding along the Ganges while India, in turn, pursues water diversion projects that deprive delta dwellers in Bangladesh.”

“Theater commanders in chief, who exercise operational control over land, sea, air, and amphibious forces within respective jurisdictions, as a rule delegate to major subordinate commands authority and accountability over parts of their AORs [Areas Of Reponsibility, – US] for operational, logistical, and administrative purposes. Tactical areas of responsibility (TAORs) facilitate control and coordination at lower levels. The boundaries that CINCs [Commanders IN Chiefs, -US] and other commanders draw are designed to facilitate freedom of action within assigned zones, ensure adequate coverage of objectives and target suites yet avoid undesirable duplication of effort, prevent confusion, and reduce risks of fratricide from so-called “friendly fire.”
Theater and tactical AORs differ from global and regional subdivisions in several important respects: international sensitivities tend to diminish (but do not disappear), whereas interservice rivalries remain strong; areas of interest and influence tend to blur boundary lines; and TAORs are subject to frequent change during fluid operations. […] Operation plans and orders employed by land and amphibious forces at every level commonly prescribe boundaries and other control lines to prevent gaps and forestall interference by combat and support forces with friendly formations on either flank, to the front, or toward the rear. Well drafted boundaries wherever possible follow ridges, rivers, roads, city streets, and other geographic features that are clearly recognizable on maps as well as on the ground. They neither divide responsibility for dominant terrain between two or more commands nor position forces from one command on both sides of formidable obstacles unless sensible alternatives seem unavailable. […] Area analyses developed for combat forces emphasize critical terrain, avenues of approach, natural and manmade obstacles, cover, concealment, observation, and fields of fire […] Marked advantages accrue to armed forces that hold, control, or destroy critical (sometimes decisive) terrain, which is a lower level analog of strategically crucial core areas. Typical examples range from commanding heights and military headquarters to geographic choke points, telecommunication centers, logistical installations, power plants, dams, locks, airfields, seaports, railway marshaling yards, and road junctions. Features that qualify differ at each echelon, because senior commanders and their subordinates have different perspectives. Three- and four-star officers, for example, might see an entire peninsula as critical terrain while successively lower levels focus first on one coastal city, then on the naval shipyard therein, the next layer down on harbor facilities, and finally on pierside warehouses.”

“Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned from the previous pages is the folly of slighting geographic factors during the preparation of any military plan, the conduct of any military operation, or the expenditure of scarce resources and funds on any military program.”

May 7, 2014 - Posted by | books, Geography, history


  1. ““Boundary disputes [between USSR and China] bubbled in earnest about 1960…” – A joke from behind the Iron Curtain from those times: TASS news release: “Yesterday, a group of Chinese attacked a peacefully-plowing Soviet tractor. The tractor returned fire and destroyed the enemy. If the incident repeats, crop-dusting aviation will be employed.”

    “Water requirements often outstrip sources in regions where…” – For an example of more specific analysis of this, you can check this excellent piece. Money quote #1: “Without the rainfall enjoyed by upstream riparian nations, Egypt relies on the Nile for 97 per cent of its water needs.” Money quote #2: “Half of the 18.8 million tonnes of grain that Egypt consumes annually is imported, making it the world’s largest grain importer. In total, Egypt imports 60 per cent of its total food needs.” Add to that the, shall we call it, less than stable political situations in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia…

    Comment by Plamus | May 8, 2014 | Reply

    • Egypt’s dependence on the Nile is not exactly a new thing (the people living there have been dependent on that water source since the pharaohs), but I figured I should add that part to the post anyway – it’s not exactly hard to tell that the Nile is important if you look at a population density map (I actually posted this one on my blog a couple of years ago – original post here, though it doesn’t have much on that specific topic).

      I knew Egypt was a net grain importer as well, though I didn’t know the exact numbers or that they were that high. Thanks for the link. A few of the sentences in the article don’t fit very well together – compare:

      “Egypt’s current population of 85 million is growing at a rapid rate of 1.88 per cent per annum and is expected to rise to 140 million by 2050.”


      “The United Nations warn that Egypt could run out of water by 2025.”

      (If they run out of water in 2025, how will the population keep growing?)

      Either way it looks like there are some interesting times ahead:

      “Nile Basin nations have a combined population of over 450 million people and estimates indicate that over 200 million of them rely directly on the Nile for their food and water security. The Nile is the only major reliable source of renewable water supplies in the region. The Nile Basin’s population is expected to double in the next twenty-five years.”

      This will not end well.

      Comment by US | May 8, 2014 | Reply

  2. “If they run out of water in 2025, how will the population keep growing?” – It can (not saying it will), by a larger and larger percentage of the population sliding towards subsistence, and by bigger imports (financed by credit, or foreign aid). Niger, as far as I can tell, ran out of water a long time ago, and yet their population growth is 2.9% per year, according to Wikipedia.

    “This will not end well.” – I agree, although I think that’s an understatement.

    Comment by Plamus | May 9, 2014 | Reply

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