Scale Models for terrain study in military Training

By Sarah Hartshorn, exclusively for Model Making Knowledge Base

This article is a sole intellectual property of Gamla Originals, Inc. DBA Gamla Model Makers and therefore cannot be copied, printed and published without expressed writing permission from the owner.


One of the most important apparatuses utilized for strategic military planning is the terrain model. Terrain models serve as battlefield visualization tools to support a variety of mission objectives including general training, predictive analysis (threat course of action), reinforcement to stability and support operations divisions and major engineering projects, among others.1 When itís not advantageous to physically observe terrain due to size or presence of an enemy force, creating a scaled-down model of the terrain yields a practical and preferred method for plotting military movements.


Centuries old, the application of terrain models can be traced back to the earliest surviving globe that was designed by Martin Benhaim of Nuremberg, Germany in 1492.2 At the time, globes represented Earth and the celestial rotations of the sun, moon and stars. Throughout the 15th century, production of globes continued to serve educational purposes, as well as prepare countries with opportunities to expand their empires.


As nations and societies developed, globe-making evolved and more sophisticated cartography techniques were employed to develop relief maps of areas and regions.  Mostly used for military operations, early terrain models employed materials such as plaster, papier-m‚chť, sponge rubber and plastics for simple model construction. One primitive Polynesian stick chart model built a framework of coconut palm (or pandanus reeds) and cowrie shells to represent ocean current patterns and the locations of atolls and islands. Furthermore, a simple model of Disko Bay, located on the western coast of Greenland, reveals terrain that was constructed by its inhabitants with only sealskin and driftwood.3


It wasnít until World War II (WWII) that terrain models became essential visual aids employed by the armed forces to train and brief military personnel. War time technology expanded the battle landscape from ground to sea and air, making it imperative to understand the topography that troops would encounter. Successful operations relied on accurately modeled terrain surfaces, along with realistic representations of buildings, military installations and troop deployment and placement.4

Interestingly, during WWII it was the British who forged the way for terrain model design, construction and adoption. Using photogrammetry to interpret aerial photography was a virtually unknown science that Americans had yet to integrate into their branch of armed services.5 By 1942, the British had amassed more than 3 million photographs covering most of Europe and oceanic tides, geology and cities and installations photos acquired from newspapers and periodicals.6 These images were invaluable to the military intelligence and the evolution of terrain model development.

In order to maintain effective and strategic military operations, the need to expand terrain model-making became more evident. Turning to their allies, the British requested American assistance. An elite group of highly-skilled model makers with art backgrounds were assembled. A combination of professional artists, sculptors, architects and architectural model makers from Hollywood studios and New York music halls were invited to volunteer for service.7

Ultimately, WWII terrain model making techniques matured and paved the way for a multitude of famous and triumphant air bombing raids, precision bombing assaults and paratrooper landings. Terrain models proved to be critical components during military strategy planning sessions and allowed troops to infiltrate enemy environments with low-casualty outcomes.


Today, planning and rehearsing complex operations can be accomplished simply and easily with a terrain model. Working with a terrain model enables key decision makers and personnel to absorb and plan missions and synchronize relevant operational aspects. The models are vital to conveying movement and mobility options available during tactical missions.

The physical nature of terrain models make them a preferred apparatus for studying the area of influence without compromising visibility. Because precision is a crucial factor in terrain model design, models are built in a variety of scales depending upon its purpose. For instance, large-scale strategic planning models can be created at 1:500,000 and high-level details can be provided with a 1:500 build. The variety of terrain model scales available can assist in interpreting existing urban landscapes with exceptional detail making them extremely accommodating for any military-based need or project.


In relation to military training, terrain models fall into one of three categories:

General study terrain models are merely generic representations. They incorporate various terrain types, such as desert, mountains, jungle or urban development, with prominent terrain features, like water banks and vegetation. These models are studied to learn how troop movement, deployment and overall survivability affected.

Terrain type study models illustrate climate-related details that are relevant to the specific type of terrain. For instance, the regional surroundings of Afghanistan, Nevadaís high-desert conditions  or Louisiana swamp conditions for National Guard training exercises.

Specific area/site terrain models represent an actual area or location. Its size can be either small or large depending on the modelís purpose and itís most commonly used for local military offensive operations, practice defense scenarios and special operations planning. Additional area/site model functions include planning operations and evacuation procedures for natural disaster preparation, military installation enhancements and other prediction and forecast purposes.


Replicating terrain to scale unveils potential obstacles and opportunities that may go unnoticed or overlooked. This is extremely valuable for tactical planning, operational maneuvers and counter-offensive measures where expertly engineered terrain models can mean the difference between success or failure. Other types of scale models may be cross referenced to produce a comprehensive model tools that deliver impressive potential for a range of needs, including structure study for military and law enforcement training, as well as combat identification and recognition training.


Since the 1940s, technology has transformed terrain model making considerably. Re-scaling photographs and stretching them, referred to as photo-skinning, is no longer practiced, and cutting sets of layered cardboard, known as egg-crating, are all but extinct from the terrain model construction process. In todayís modern world, satellite photo surveys, 3D simulations and digital mapping software have revolutionized the manner in which terrain model information is collected and processed. However, technology has not changed the distinct advantages that a tangible terrain model provides.


Until a deployable holographic simulator and rehearsal center is made available, terrain models are the best representations and most utilitarian tools around for military training and tactical planning.8 Terrain models can be developed in several pieces, making them easy to disassemble, and load in custom-sized transit cases. This allows strategy adjustments and operational changes to be shared with essential personnel on the fly. Because they donít require batteries or any other form of power, they can be operated abroad Ė land, sea or sky.

Less built-in technology (i.e. computer chips, motherboards, processors, etc.) means that terrain models donít require user training, licensing, software upgrades, system enhancements or hardware purchases to ensure operational functions. In a nutshell, terrain models are exceptionally affordable compared to technology.


Visual memory is fully engaged through terrain model interactions. For instance, observations of the model simulates terrain from the perspective of an aircraft, which produces realistic imagery that can be easily related to. In the context of special operations forces and military leaders, above average visual memory skills are imperative for fulfillment of mission objectives. Spurring visual memory through intricate and well-constructed terrain model design is highly beneficial for achieving training goals and military assignments.


In the April-June, 1997 edition of the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, the article What A Combat Commander Expects of His S2 by Colonel Henry Kinnison stated, "Always ask yourself if your products are saving time and making the enemy situation clearer.Ē9 A pioneer in grasping the big picture, Kinnisonís comment relates well to the the importance and affordability of terrain models.


Because of the limitations that technology imposes for field training and actual/live combat situations, terrain models are a cost-effective and obvious choice for military personnel and support staff. Despite the fancy features in 3D digital map software, simulating troop movement, deployment and camouflage, the bottom line is that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to install, operate and maintain. Costs are compounded by the time required to provide systems training to personnel and ensure timely upgrades and software patches are installed for proper program functionality. Allocated budget dollars can disappear quickly in a technology vortex.


Overall, terrain models have been responsible for many victorious battles throughout military history. They are reliable training tools that produce measurable and positive outcomes, including saving lives during combat. Terrain models are customizable, scalable and most importantly, budget favored in contrast to digital training aids. Terrain models will continue to be effective and significant pieces in ongoing military research, operations planning and tactical development.




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