Thursday, July 1, 2004

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Where's AAA when you need them?

Michael Kilian reports in the Chicago Tribune that there are a few bugs in our Afghanistan maps:

The secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency acknowledged Wednesday that it has made numerous mistakes in topographical maps issued to U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

The maps cover Afghanistan and portions of Pakistan, and they are being used by ground troops as well as combat commanders and engineers....

The mapping mistakes involved omitting place names as well as putting place names in the wrong locations, according to agency spokesman Howard Cohen.

There were also some place-name errors in the computerized Geographic Names Data Base maintained by the aerial intelligence-gathering agency, formerly known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The inaccuracies in the database led to the misinformation being printed on the maps, Cohen said.

The same agency also was involved in the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, capital of the former Yugoslavia, by a high-flying U.S. B-2 stealth bomber during the 1999 Kosovo war. Three Chinese civilians were killed and more than 20 others injured in that bombing, and U.S.-Chinese relations were badly strained for months.

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Susan Shirk attributed that accident to "a bunch of serious errors and mistakes." It later was revealed that targeting was predicated on two out-of-date Yugoslavian maps and a 1997 American map. None of the three showed the location of the Chinese Embassy, which had moved to the site in 1996.

As for the latest snafu, "I can't tell you how the errors were discovered, but it happened while agency mapmakers were making new maps for one of our customers," Cohen said.

David Burpee, another agency spokesman, said military leaders have been notified, as well as others who use the agency's maps.

Cohen said the agency has begun producing corrected maps. The first of these will be available within a few weeks, but it will take longer to replace all the maps in use. It will take even longer to redo the database, he said.

To be fair, Jim Garamone reports for American Forces Press Service that the current mapping problems has not had much of an effect:

There have been no reports of real troubles due to the place name anomalies, officials said. They do present the potential for confusion, but no service member has reported a serious issue with the maps. In fact, aside from the place-name discrepancies, other information on the maps - such as grid- coordinate data, topography and road networks – "is the best available and continues to be used by customers," Burpee said.

posted by Dan on 07.01.04 at 11:20 AM


Not at all suprising, I am a forester and regurally catch errors on USGS topographic maps here in the US. It is much easier to ground truth maps in Idaho or Vermont than Afghanistan under the Soviets or the Taliban. Place names are particurally difficult as official names may not be the same as the names used locally, and locals living on different sides of a mountain, for example, may use different names - which one do you put on the map?

posted by: Jason on 07.01.04 at 11:20 AM [permalink]

This is a huge problem. I work with GIS technology, and keeping this stuff updated is a Sysyphian endeavor. Getting things right is all about having the right processes in place, as well as enough funding and staff.

Even so, you would think that we'd be able to do this at the NGIA.

posted by: praktike on 07.01.04 at 11:20 AM [permalink]

With all respect to Mr. Burpee, his statement as to the lack of consequences of his agency's map errors leaves room for a seed of doubt.

I'm not sure how many of the infantry soldiers led astray by map errors would be able to direct complaints effectively to NGIA from their posts in Afghanistan. Afghans who might be adversely affected by bombs dropped in the wrong place certainly would not.

posted by: Zathras on 07.01.04 at 11:20 AM [permalink]

Two comments, as a military officer who has worked closely with NGA (it's not NGIA) and its predecessor agencies. First, in Afghanistan, a great number of places are named locally, so you get the same name used all over Afghanistan--and a lot of those names translate as fairly common terms like "village" or "forest" (just as you hear of fairly isolated indigenous tribes calling themselves by names that translate as "the people", as though there are no other people in the world). Second, the military very rarely drops bombs based on map data--even the maps NGA produces don't have enough detail to do precision targeting, so there must be corroborating information (someone on the ground, detailed descriptions of buildings in the area, street addresses, and things like that) before the rules of engagement allow for weapons release.

posted by: Jem on 07.01.04 at 11:20 AM [permalink]

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