On June 28, 2023, Scripps News published a video report documenting the efforts of DeepStateMAP, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence cell that maintains a “war map” of Ukraine. In a conflict that has featured large-scale maneuvers on multiple fronts, how do these few individuals monitor and track everything needed to keep the digital map up to date? They focus their efforts on metadata, using minute details to trace the frontline advances of the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive.

But what is metadata? In general, it simply refers to “data about data.” More specifically, and more relevant to the work that enables DeepStateMAP, it is a digital fingerprint—found on, for example, a photo or video—that permanently captures the time and location that the piece of media was created. (Metadata can be manipulated, although such manipulations can be identified through the use of proper forensic technology and know-how, and the implications of manipulated metadata are beyond the scope of this article.)

DeepStateMAP’s success is a function of the relationship between data collectors and those responsible for updating the map itself. In other words, the system works because of effective collection, exploitation, and integration of external media into a single common operational picture, or COP. All three must exist and, crucially, there must be quick, seamless, and trusted pathways that tie the three together.

This holds lessons for the US Army. As it prepares for large-scale combat operations, how can the Army replicate DeepStateMAP’s success in integrating real-time media into an organization’s main COP? The answer to this challenge lies in the utility of engineer reconnaissance. The Army’s manual on engineer reconnaissance notes that it is not a specified form of reconnaissance, defining it as a set of “tasks that are undertaken to obtain (by visual observation or other detection methods) information about the activities and resources of an enemy or adversary or to secure data concerning the meteorological, hydrographical, or geographical characteristics of a particular area.” Engineer reconnaissance builds on an organization’s collective knowledge by communicating obstacles, geotechnical constraints, and infrastructural limitations along the path of friendly forces.

What does this have to do with metadata and the kind of work being conducted by DeepStateMAP? In order to best replicate that organization’s relationship between data collectors and its equivalent of an intelligence cell, the Army can leverage the roles of combat engineers and geospatial engineers.

Engineer reconnaissance offers a means of ensuring continuous collaboration between combat engineer and geospatial engineer elements, thereby enhancing the maneuver commander’s COP. Though the technology exists to allow combat engineers to capture their observations in photograph and video, what is missing is an accepted pathway for transferring what was collected to the complex map products created by geospatial engineers. This can largely be attributed to the different environments in which these military occupation specialties operate. Combat engineers (military occupational specialty 12B) are largely tied to line units, often at the company level, whereas geospatial engineers (12Y) work in the intelligence section of a brigade or higher staff.

Three organizational changes would combine to address this disconnect. The first is the authorization by the brigade commander to form a dedicated engineer reconnaissance element. The second is the tasking of the assistant brigade engineer to maintain a habitual connection with the brigade geospatial intelligence cell. And the third is programmed collaboration between geospatial engineers and geospatial intelligence imagery analysts (military occupational specialty 35G) in disseminating engineer observations to echelons above brigade.

From Route Clearance to Route Reconnaissance

The disconnect between combat engineers and geospatial engineers can be rectified by establishing a single, consistent engineer element that habitually communicates its findings to the geospatial intelligence cell. Within brigade engineer battalions, the best candidate for exclusively engineer reconnaissance missions is the route clearance platoon. The conclusion of the post-9/11 wars and end of the large presence of US conventional forces in places with substantial threats of improvised explosive devices diminished the emphasis on route clearance operations. In order to maintain relevancy, most brigade engineer battalions already utilize their route clearance platoons not as clearance assets, but as route reconnaissance elements. A predominately wheeled element (typically equipped with mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles), the route clearance platoon is organically outfitted with all the reconnaissance equipment necessary for extended patrols. A route clearance platoon can be subdivided into individual engineer reconnaissance teams composed of three to four personnel. This would provide additional breadth to a brigade’s intelligence collection plan and increases the chances for members of the route clearance platoon to interact with the geospatial intelligence cell.

Per the brigade engineer battalion’s modified table of organization and equipment, route clearance platoons possess ENFIRE kits, formally known as the Instrument Set, Reconnaissance and Surveying. Complete with laser range finders, laptop, cameras, and more, this kit allows combat engineers to create the same types of media that the DeepStateMAP team receives via anonymous submissions on the internet. However, there remains a knowledge gap limiting the utility of this equipment. Unable to piece together which configurations enable a particular type of reconnaissance (e.g., road, airfield, or bridge), equipment from the ENFIRE kit is often used out of order—or worse, not at all, for fear of losing components. This can be addressed by training a single, dedicated unit that is specialized in making optimal use of the kit’s capabilities. A successor to the ENFIRE kit, called the Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit, has been in the works since at least 2018, although not much more is known about the new equipment’s acquisition by the Engineer Regiment. Whenever it happens will be a further opportunity to refine the way the dedicated unit contributes to enhancing the commander’s COP.

The Assistant Brigade Engineer: The Facilitator

The assistant brigade engineer is the primary engineer officer on a brigade staff, tasked with providing engineer input to the operations process. He or she is also dual-hatted as the designated representative of the brigade engineer battalion, serving as the liaison officer for communicating the interests and employment of engineers to enable maneuver operations. Consequently, this puts the assistant brigade engineer in the best position to bridge interactions between engineer reconnaissance teams and the geospatial intelligence cell. Strengthening the connection between combat engineers and geospatial engineers depends on an active assistant brigade engineer, a facilitator who aggressively passes engineer information to adjacent staff sections.

It is important to note that the assistant brigade engineer does not have a direct supervisory role over the geospatial intelligence cell—all geospatial engineers work under the S2, the brigade’s intelligence officer. However, this individual is privy to the S2’s collection plan and can maximize the utility of engineer reconnaissance, from collection to analysis, by championing the work of engineer reconnaissance teams and ensuring it is reflected in brigade fragmentary orders and product updates. The priority for combat engineers tasked with engineer reconnaissance is to ensure that their observations are formatted correctly for integration with the systems used by geospatial engineers. This imperative is fundamentally a technological one. Organizationally, the assistant brigade engineer will serve as the primary point of contact to receive any media from the field and request geospatial engineer support in exploiting the data. This then becomes the conduit by which engineer reconnaissance teams and the geospatial intelligence cell remain persistently connected.

Refining the COP: Exploitation and Dissemination

Information that is collected by combat engineers can be integrated into the COP through the use of a geospatial information system (GIS). This is where the role of the geospatial engineers takes priority, as their responsibilities parallel those of geospatial intelligence imagery analysts. In order to build a more comprehensive COP, any pieces of media collected by combat engineers must be georeferenced based on the metadata that they possess. Once this is done, the metadata and media can be reflected—and compared with other intelligence sources—within the GIS software, allowing geospatial engineers to separate relevant information into distinct data layers for custom maps. Mapping, the operation that outwardly defines geospatial engineering, is the process of manipulating specific data layers in order to visually communicate the current operating environment. Just as DeepStateMAP manipulates polygons within its GIS to indicate territorial gains, losses, and last known enemy positions, geospatial engineers and geospatial intelligence imagery analysts can create similar products for dissemination to the wider force. The only limitation is how often the external data is brought to their attention.

The end state of reconnaissance is to formulate connections. How does one isolated observation, for example, fit into the larger scheme of actions taken by US adversaries? In order to enable the mobility and countermobility of friendly forces, engineers must be able to communicate their findings, and doing so requires the expertise of geospatial analysts, who can then transmit the information higher via the brigade S2 intelligence channels. In effect, this entire effort would refine mission parameters and focus subordinate priorities of work to efficiently apply resources on the battlefield.

By tradition, the US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for surveying, categorizing, and creating the maps necessary for visualizing the battlefield. In operations, there exists a constant fight for information. However, it is often the case that maneuver commanders are reluctant to order engineer reconnaissance missions because the requirements for executing such a task take away manpower from other engineer efforts. Despite this sentiment, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for external imagery to be folded into COP products and the applicability of GIS to tie isolated skirmishes into a full measure of the conflict’s progress. Though the scope of engineer reconnaissance remains technical, the engineer branch is equipped and able to replicate the operations of DeepStateMAP when it comes to data collection and map rendering. By training the route clearance platoon as a specialized reconnaissance force within the brigade engineer battalion, coupled with an adapted relationship between assistant brigade engineer and the geospatial intelligence cell, it is possible to facilitate the transfer of data necessary for more custom mapping. This refines the maneuver commander’s situational awareness for the better and enhances the organization’s battlefield effectiveness.

Captain Eugeen Yoon is an active duty Army engineer officer, currently assigned to Charlie Company, 554th Engineer Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Previously assigned to 1st Brigade Engineer Battalion (Mech) at Fort Riley, Kansas, he completed two rotational tours to EUCOM in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Zachery Blevins, US Army