Knowledge is Power: The Value of an Area Study – Part 1, by Viking4


I’d like to give a huge thank you to both Sam Culper at Forward Observer and our own esteemed James Wesley, Rawles. While I was fortunate enough to serve in S-2 shop of an armor battalion during my Army career, without the guidance from these two outstanding gentlemen, I never would have been able to conduct let alone complete these area studies. Intelligence and analysis are must-haves in preparation for what is coming. Please continue to show us the way!

What is an Area Study and Why Would You Need One?

An area study is an element of preparedness and security common to military special operations and civil affairs units. Area studies contain information on a designated area that supports contingency and security planning. The finished product is usually completed before the need arises for the information that is gathered. Once a mission is received, the tactical unit conducts a detailed area assessment using the information in the area study as a starting point. The area assessment supplements the information in the area study based on mission requirements.

In today’s fluid environment, conducting contingency and security planning for your locale supports your preparation to possibly execute a multitude of possible courses of action. I agree with Sam Culper that having one of these will “increase our survivability, allows us to develop realistic expectations and helps us to anticipate future events.” Intelligence drives decision making, and having these facts and data on hand if the need arises can save precious time.

In the past 18 months, I have completed two area studies. The first was for an area in the western part of an upper Midwestern state. Before our family moved, this area study was passed along like-minded individuals who saw the value and would make good use the information gathered. The second was for the new area in the state where we currently reside.

For those interested, Sam has shared a checklist (you knew that word was coming) for the creation of an area study. Both of my studies have used a modified version of his checklist, though I have added details within some of his sections to more accurately meet what I consider local needs.

All of the information in both area studies was gathered using sources available to the general public. In some cases interviews were conducted with long-term residents of the area to flesh out important details for some of the sections. Keep both operational security and your local laws in mind when you prepare an area study.

More information regarding the content of an area study can be found here.

Area Study Checklist

This is the checklist (slightly modified from the one referenced above) I used for both of the area studies I have completed –

• Title Page – This is the cover page inserted into the front pocket of the 11”x 17” binder I used for each study.

• Table of Contents

• Area of Interest (AI) / Area of Operations

• Physical Terrain and Weather

• Human Terrain

• Critical Infrastructure

• Politics and Governance

• Military, Security and Law Enforcement

• Economy and Finance

• Threat Overview

Area of Interest (AI) / Area of Operations (AO)

The Area of Interest (AI) is the area of concern that can influence or is adjacent to the territory where you believe that you will conduct current or planned operations. This will always include areas occupied by enemy forces that could jeopardize mission accomplishment.

The Area of Operations (AO) is the area where operations will be conducted. It is usually defined by the commander and should be large enough to accomplish the missions the unit could be assigned as well as large enough to protect the unit. Typically in an AO there will be one main supply route along which personnel, supplies, and vehicles will be transported.

The AI boundaries for my first area study were determined by one large city, two smaller ones and an easily-recognizable geographic feature. This AI was roughly rectangular in shape. The AI boundaries for my latest are study are determined by one extra-large city, two large cities, and one smaller city. This AI is diamond shaped. Both AIs differ greatly in size but still meet the definition.

Both AOs also meet the definition and will work well for any planned operations by the forces available.

Other considerations in this section include –

• Within the AO I determine two defensive rings, and Inner Ring and an Outer Ring. These rings are more defensive and personal in nature, reflecting home and neighborhood defense if the need arises. Pertinent information regarding these rings include boundaries, names and addresses of neighbors and capabilities that can be brought to bear within the confines of the rings.

• Built-up Areas and infrastructure are listed and information concerning each is included. For example, a town will be named, and information regarding history, important buildings, supply points, etc. are detailed. Roads, bridges, railroads, airports and seaports are named and information regarding their construction, routes, capacity, ownership, etc. are detailed.

Examples of gathered data:

City Name – City Name is the county seat of County Name. The city is home to University Name. A large reservoir is located 8 miles outside the city, covering 10,000 acres with 178 miles of shoreline. The state park nearby was built in the 1930s and is largely wooded, has large camping areas, 4 boat ramps and many trails. According to the 2010 census the city has a population of 17,231 people. The small airport (used as a training base in World War 2) near the city can accommodate small jet aircraft and most propeller driven ones. The most common employment sectors are retail, manufacturing and medical.

U.S Highway 999 – This route enters the AO from the northwest and exits to the southeast. It is a wide, paved, two-lane highway and a major thoroughfare for truck and recreational civilian traffic. It is a priority for plowing in bad weather. Several medium grade hills are encountered on the eastern half of the route, habitually causing problems in the winter months. Outside of the towns the road is bordered by forests and small homesteads.

• Terrain Analysis and Route Recon

Identify any water features, bridges, dams, prominent land features, landing areas and inland waterways in the AO. Again provide as much information as possible regarding these items.

Examples of gathered data –

Harrison Dam – Harrison Dam is a concrete-gravity and embankment dam located 12 miles east of Town Name. It creates Lake Name, a 30,000 acre feature that features prominently in the local economy. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1956 for purposes of flood control, hydroelectricity and downstream navigation. State Highway 999 crosses it. The dam spans 560 feet and rises 110 feet above the riverbed. It houses a power plant with an installed 200MW capacity.

Landing areas – There are numerous small airfields and one mid-sized airport in the AI. See the attached State Aeronautical Chart for details.

• Danger Areas

Danger areas are listed by Near, Medium or Far. (detailed in the Threat Overview)

Finally, this section is completed by including maps delineating the AI, AO, Inner and Outer Rings, infrastructure (built-up areas, railroads, roads, water features), prominent land features and an aeronautical chart. Google Earth, Google Maps, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and local GIS and government sources (Chamber of Commerce for example) can provide the maps needed, usually for no cost.

Data gathered regarding history and statistics can be had using any good search engine. I always double validate source material as some places like Wikipedia have been known to have an agenda. Always remember that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics!

Physical Terrain and Weather

For documenting the physical terrain I use the most current USGS maps available on their website as free PDF downloads. I take these map files to a commercial printer and get two copies of each map printed. The cost for these is reasonable. One copy goes into the area study binder for later use. One copy stays outside ready to be cut and taped together for use as needed (surely you don’t rely on your GPS).

The map load for my first area study consisted of 16 maps for the AO, and 38 maps for the AI, at the scale of 1:24,000. These maps were updated in 2020. After getting them printed on 11”x17” quality paper I place them in an 11”x17” binder. A sheet showing the map coverage (a screen print from the USGS selection page) is printed and placed (beside the cover sheet) in the front outside pocket of the binder.

For my second area study, along with the map scale above, I was able to find large scale 1:100,000 scale maps from the U.S. Forestry Service. While not as up to date as the USGS maps, they do serve well in providing a bigger picture situation map ability that many smaller maps cannot quite do (sometimes you can’t take the intel/OPS NCO out of the TOC). These are also taken to the commercial printer and printed on a plotter in full size (approximately 25”x44”). Again the cost is reasonable.

Other maps can be found locally (such as fishing maps, state park hiking and trail maps for example) that can supplement your physical terrain information.

Weather and climate are two terms more times than not used interchangeably. For the area study, the climatology statistics provide the long term averages for weather data. The best source for this information is the National Weather Service (NWS) followed closely by the state climatology office. Locate the NWS weather reporting station nearest to the AO and several in the AI. All the information is public domain and available for download. Data includes –

• Latitude, Longitude and elevation of the NWS stations
• Average days of precipitation (versus U.S. average)
• Average inches of rain (wettest and driest months)
• Average inches of snow (snowiest months)
• Average sunny days (versus U.S. average)
• Average summer high (average days per year over a certain temperature)
• Average winter low (average days per year below freezing)
• Average UV index (versus U.S. average)
• NOAA Weather Radio frequencies (provides local weather and forecasts)

I am still looking for a good online sun and moon data site. The U.S. Naval Observatory site has been down for quite a while. Having a year’s worth of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and moon illumination data would assist in contingency and security planning.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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