The Terrain Model:

A Miniature Battlefield

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by Captain John T. Chenery

Whether a full-scale mock-up of an objective or a small sand table, the terrain model is an invaluable tool for the combat leader to visualize fully the battlefield. All combat S2s should be proficient in the process of creating functional models in a variety of circumstances and conditions.

As CW3 Haren illustrates in his outstanding article, "Terrain Visualization Support in the 1st Cavalry Division," commanders have a number of available options for geographically representing the battlefield. This is a key step in the process of battlefield visualization and it aids the decisionmaking process. The next step is to recreate the terrain in a functional, three-dimensional (3D) manner to enhance the decisionmaking process. This article focuses on techniques and procedures the tactical S2 section can use to accomplish this important task.


Think back for a moment to our days of back-lot football skirmishes. We would create spectacular plays in our head and then try to get everyone on the team to understand their various roles in executing the play. Well, you could talk until you were blue in the face trying to explain your idea, or you could just grab a stick and scratch the play out in the dirt. That simple process enabled everyone on the team to quickly visualize the playing field and their role in the play.

This may be over-simplifying a process we could employ in massive joint and combined arms combat operations in the Force XXIs of our future--but hey, it works! Keep it simple. By all means, take all the high-speed, 3D, super-digitized geographical gizmos you can get your hands on, but you know you cannot walk around on a computer screen. So until we can all fit on some deployable holographic simulation and rehearsal center, we will continue to build terrain models.

There will always be great utility in getting your tactical leaders out to a site where you have moved a little dirt around to recreate your unit's next objective. Use all of those 3D graphics, imagery, and map-overlay products to enable you to effectively build a functional terrain model and to help you convey your message. Make your model the best representation of the battlefield that time and resources will allow and you will find that it is the next-best thing to being there.

In his article, "What A Combat Commander Expects of His S2," published in the April-June 1997 edition of MIPB, Colonel Henry Kinnison says, "Always ask yourself if your products are saving time and making the enemy situation clearer..." He emphasizes that you must understand the wargaming process and the products you will need before you deploy. He later counsels the S2 to organize his shop "for the production of each intelligence product necessary for a completely successful wargame," and to "have a well-run shop with well-rehearsed procedures." Well, for battlefield visualization and wargaming, there is no better product than the functional terrain model.

The Kit

There are innumerable types and variations to the basic terrain model, so I will focus on what has worked for maneuver brigades and battalions in the light, fast-paced, and highly mobile 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). It is easy to modify the kit recommended below for your own particular unit and situation.

The "nuts" and "bolts" of the terrain project is the terrain model kit. The kit is a simple box containing the basic tools that you will need to construct any terrain model (see Figure 1). It might contain laminated cardboard cut-outs or meal, ready-to-eat (MRE) box pieces. These pieces can also be colored 3" x 5" index cards covered in combat acetate and marked with alcohol pens to depict unit symbology or equipment specifications.

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Terrain models can be made of prefabricated, painted styrofoam, like this board at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Note diecast metal enemy vehicles in march formation.

Remember to mark these items boldly enough so that all wargaming participants can see them. Colored cord, engineer tape, and powdered chalk are great tools for marking graphic control measures, gridlines, and avenues of approach. Use the target cloth or MRE boxes to construct buildings or similar key items. Spray paint can help you to mark the target cloth, rocks, or dirt to show a particular item. (Make sure that you check local regulations about spray painting.) The smaller MRE component boxes and miscellaneous items are ideal for representing vehicles and equipment. Ensure that you secure each item to the ground with either a tent peg or a long nail. It is not a pretty sight when a sudden gust of wind hits an unprepared terrain model!

Prepare your kit and train today with what you will have when you deploy tomorrow. Use them in your staff and field exercises as well as in your intelligence training program. To save critical time during a deployment or in the theater of operations, prefabricate items you know you will need, like friendly unit and equipment symbols and basic threat equipment to the scale that is comfortable for your team.

The Construction

When it comes time to move some dirt around, take a few minutes to carefully select a proper site. Consider security first and convenience second. Ideally, your model should be concealed in a wood line or in a depression. If this is not feasible, try placing it adjacent to the command post, plans, or briefing tents. It can also be blocked-in by tracked or wheeled vehicles and covered with camouflage nets. When considering the site, ask yourself a few questions: "How long will I be in this location? What will happen if it rains? Can I secure this site with the resources at hand? Will this site limit the amount of work involved with moving dirt? The amount of work, level of detail, and scale will depend upon your available resources. Do not limit yourself, but realistically consider what engineer assets you have to assist you. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew!

Set up your graphic aids and tools adjacent to the site and start by marking off the grids that you want to include. Use the engineer tape or chalk and "plant" cards around the grid displaying the gridline numbers. Next, brief your work detail. The key here is to consult the tactical operations center (TOC) commandant and the executive officer (XO) or S3 to ensure that they concur with the selected site prior to the beginning of any heavy work. I recommend the operations sergeant serve as the foreman, with the S2 noncommissioned officer in charge closely monitoring the quality and accuracy of the work. The Operations Sergeant usually "owns" the TOC soldiers in the field, but he may not participate in your predeployment terrain model drills. Simply think through the mix here, discuss it with the XO and S3, then decide what will work best for your unit.

A good example of how to use your assets wisely is a model we used in 3d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Prior to a rotation to the National Training Center, civil engineers on Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were called in to do the foundation work on a terrain model spanning an area that measured approximately 100 meters by 100 meters. Next, combat engineers built the mountain ranges and significant terrain features on our miniature battlefield. The Brigade's terrain team gave the project its final touches: smaller terrain features, structures, and chalked-in gridlines (five-kilometer squares). During wargaming, vehicle recognition models were borrowed from the Training and Audiovisual Support Center to simulate enemy and friendly battle formations. The result was a large-scale model that allowed all key leaders to stand in the maneuver box and walk through the rehearsals. This highly successful model was used by the entire task force (TF) right up until our deployment.

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Figure 1. Terrain Model Kit.

The final touches will be up to you. As a suggestion, you can use colored cards to label key terrain or manmade items. For key terrain, you should label the grid coordinates, the actual name, or the code name (or all three). The 3" x 5" index cards are perfect for this purpose, and you should use a color system for easier identification. For example, green cards might be used for key terrain, blue for operational graphics or control measures, orange for key manmade features, and white for grid references. A color scheme like this one really helps the folks in the cheap seats to understand the model. After you have laid down the enemy and friendly dispositions (with your MRE component boxes) and operational graphics (with the colored engineer tape), set up the briefing area. Post some of the graphics and imagery at the site just prior to wargaming to enhance the leaders' perspective and to enable them to visualize the battlefield fully. You are now ready for wargaming. It is beyond the scope of this short article to discuss the wargaming process, but suffice it to say that it is a critical task in which you must become proficient.

After the wargaming sessions but before you depart, consider the security implications of your terrain model. What should you remove from the model to allow you to leave it unsecured but also to allow for easy reconstruction if another unit needs to use the site later? Of course, you should police up all of the board pieces but any additional policing is completely situation-dependent. Just do not forget to completely sanitize the area before departure.

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Styrofoam terrain boards can be prepared to exact scale using the military grid system or the latitude and longitude system, as above.


Each unit will have its own variation of the decisionmaking process, terrain modeling, and wargaming, and you must adhere to its procedures. However, there should always be time for a quick "rock drill," with TF leaders walking through the battle plan with a common picture of the battlefield: your terrain model! As a miniature battlefield, the terrain model is a highly useful platform upon which the battle plan can be visualized, evaluated, and rehearsed. Like a play drawn in the dust of a makeshift football field, a battle plan will be better understood by everyone on the team, and perhaps better executed, if it is visualized before the "snap of the ball."

Captain Chenery is currently a student at the Post Graduate Intelligence Program (PGIP), Joint Military Intelligence College, Bolling Air Force Base, Maryland. His tactical assignments include: commander of a headquarters and MI company team and infantry battalion and brigade S2. He holds a bachelors degree in Criminal Justice from Murray State University in Kentucky. Readers can contact him via E-mail at [email protected]