Defence studies and geographic methodology: From the practical to the critical approach

Amaël Cattaruzza

This chapter discusses the methodology by presenting a genealogy of the links between geography and defence studies and show how intertwined geography and military issues have been for a long time. The geographical perspective on war, defence issues has nevertheless evolved with the development of a critical school in geography and geopolitics. Geostrategy would be both the study of how geographical data determine the “social bonds” that found the nation, but also, in a more military sense, the study of the influence of geography on the use of organized forces at the national level. While the critical approach invites the researcher to deconstruct the social and political dimensions of geographical space, geospatial intelligence, on the contrary, seems to lead military geography into a technological mutation that produces and processes data without ever questioning them. At the beginning of the 20th century, geopolitics emerged and aimed at discerning the geographical foundations of power on the international scene.


The relationship  between  geography  and defence issues may seem old and obvious. Maps have always been tools for soldiers on the battlefield and in staffs, from tactical to the strategic scale. Military  geography also appeared as an autonomous discipline at the  end of the  19th  century.  At the  same  time,  the  first  geopolitical   works  were published in the United States and Europe. The link between defence studies and geo- graphy is complex. It concerns the study of the terrain as a place of confrontation, the study of the military organization  and its geographical distribution, and also the study of the spatial distribution of power in its various dimensions (political,  strategic, eco- nomic, and symbolic).

Geographers  have thus been integrated into military staffs and have developed  a technical approach of places in order to serve as a decision-making tool for military purposes both for strategists and politicians. This tradition still exists today through the use of geospatial intelligence. Relying on a set of digital technologies, military geography  aims at informing  the military staff  about the battlefield, and it is now crucial in operational planning. However,  geographers have also sought to guide the strategies and policies  of their leaders and rulers with their discipline. Relying  on geostrategy and geopolitics,  they talk about  the distribution  of forces and power games worldwide.  By studying geographical  factors, they provide  an interpretation that was once considered purely objective and scientific, and that could have served as a legitimization for imperialist claims (American imperialism, Third Reich con- quest strategy, among  others). The place of the military  issues in these studies has always been important. It would, therefore, be difficult to discuss the methodologi- cal questions raised by defence issues investigated  by geography  without  considering both approaches.

The geographical perspective on war and defence issues has nevertheless evolved  in the last decades with the development  of a critical school in geography and geopolitics. The critical approach aims at revealing the balance of power at stake behind all terri- torial and political constructions. In this sense, the military  field, and more generally, the question of war, was the subject of a revival within the geography field during the

1990s. The goal of critical geography  is to reveal power relations and strategies hidden behind the spatial dimensions of the military domain.

In this chapter, we consider the question of methodology by first presenting a gen- ealogy of the links between geography and defence studies and show how intertwined geography  and military  issues have been for a long time. In the second part, we focus on the recent evolutions of geography in defence studies by examining more precisely the critical turn and the new methodologies  developed. Finally,  we analyse the crucial role of data and digitalization  processes and stress on their consequences for methods in defence studies.

Geography, a science serving military action or an ideological tool dedicated to the legitimization of power?

Geography,  as a discipline, has always had a dual dimension: both physical and human geography,  natural and social science. Thus, it provides both an expert voice on the interactions between man and his physical and social environment,  and develops  a critical  approach  about how knowledge and control of places may strengthen and legitimize the expression of power in society. Therefore the knowledge of the field has early been considered as a strategic knowledge. From  Sun Zi to Clausewitz, the great thinkers of military  strategy have always stressed the importance of this field knowl- edge in the context of armed conflicts (Motte  2018).

From a tactical point of view, geographical  knowledge  enables military  forces to adapt the intervention  of troops to different environments in which they can evolve (land, sea, air, mountain, desert, etc.) and to reflect on the most relevant action needed to take  the lead over the opponent.  Geography   is also primarily  conceived  as an objective tool to investigate theatres of operation. The emergence of military geography in the 19th century is part of this framework.  But knowledge of the geographical con- text also makes it possible to formulate analyses on a broader scale. The gradual and parallel structuring of disciplines such as geostrategy  and geopolitics  also need to be taken seriously and indeed, officers or former officers have played a role in this devel- opment (such as Giacomo  Durando, inventor of the term “geostrategy” in 1846, or in the early 20th century Karl Haushofer, thinker of German Geopolitik). Whether at the tactical or strategic level, the objective of this use of geography was to support political and military decision-making based on an scientific-analysis considered objective, since it was based on undeniable physical factors.

The 19th century, a time for the emergence of strategic geographic knowledge

This desire to “technicize”  the decision-making  process tells us a lot about the intel- lectual context of the 19th and early 20th centuries, marked by the industrial revolution and the progress of social sciences on the one hand, and by colonial domination by the European powers on the other hand. These powers were seeking intellectual tools to strengthen and legitimize their leadership positions in the world.

On a scientific level, several developments contributed to making geography a first- rate science in the military and strategic fields. First of all, the progress in cartography made  during  the 17th and 18th centuries made  the  map a significant tool for the conduct of wars. The publication in 1793 of the first scientific map  of a State, the Geometric Map of France, produced by the Cassini family, marked a turning point in cartographic  science. As Luca Muscarà  points out, this evolution  of geography  has quickly become a tool of political and military power and control: With Napoleon,  the French army was reorganized and mapping was the key to military conquest   and administration.  The ingénieurs-géographes (engineers-geographers)  of the  renamed  Dépôt  général  de la Guerre  et de  la Géographie accompanied and sometimes preceded the army in mapping operations designed to consolidate French control.(Muscarà 2018: 368).

This use of geography to support  decision-making  is in line with the perspectives established by the tenants of positivism. In the continuity of the Enlightenment, this school of thought intended to apply the scientific method to the social field in order to go beyond knowledge based on tradition (Kremer-Marietti  2017). In doing so, the foundation of social sciences building was based on the recognition  of positive facts and systematic data collection.  Thus,  social  scientists believed  they could deduce universal laws and be able to anticipate social phenomena. First, this approach has led to enormous progress in the geographical  and geological  sciences. Viktor  Mayer- Schönberger and Keneth Cukier refer in particular to the case of the US Navy naval officer, Matthew Fontaine Maury, who drew up the first maritime  cartography  for navigation (Mayer-Schönberger  and Cukier 2014: 95). In 1855, he published  a Geo- graphy of the Sea based on more than 1.2 million data points. Significant progress has therefore  been made insofar as intuitive assumptions, once taken for granted, could finally be  confirmed  or invalidated  by a systematic  empirical  approach.  These advances have been put to good use in the military field, and fostered the illusion of certainty that would be dictated by the intrinsic characteristics of the regions and the geographical terrain.

However, the development of military geography is also due to a particular political context. Indeed, the colonization  carried out by the European  powers  required the various armies to adapt to environments that were very different from their traditional theatres  of operations. The neutral and “apolitical”  knowledge offered by physical geography allowed the military to learn about operations in desert environments, or in exotic climates, while limiting thinking to simple technical and operational arguments. Nevertheless, colonial anthropology  and geography offered an often caricatured and essentialized vision of local societies. Thus, they strengthened the idea of the civilizing dimension  of Western  administration.  As Rachel Woodward   notes, “Military geo- graphy has a long history, its roots tangled up with the imperial ambitions and military requirements that late-nineteenth-century Geography  emerged  to serve” (Woodward 2004: 6). Thus, Anne Godlewska’s observation  concerning the ingénieurs-géographes (engineers-geographers)  of the  Napoleonic   administration  still  finds  echoes  in the practice of this kind of military geography. For her, military geographers believed in “a developing  certainty that the inherent value of a region, terrain or people could be accurately measured through the use of French scientific methods…  of which the non- European cultures appeared incapable” (Godlewska  1994: 41–42). In parallel, the rise of Geostrategy  and Geopolitics  has also been used as a legitimization  discourse for colonization.

So, the 19th and early 20th centuries were key periods in the relationship between geography and defence studies, through three different approaches, military geography, geostrategy and geopolitics. If strategists have always taken into account the field in the art of warfare, advances in the geographical  sciences made it possible to move from practical  use to a rigorous  and systematic study of operations  theatres. Nevertheless, this period  also brought a particular vision of geography within the military, tinged with determinism.

Military  geography, or the application of geographic methodology to the conduct of military campaigns

The emergence of an autonomous military geography within geography dates back to the second half of the 19th century, with the first works by Théophile Lavallée, pro- fessor of geography at the Ecole spéciale Militaire  de Saint-Cyr in France (Boulanger 2002). Strongly inspired by the German school, Lavallée sketched a discipline in which topographical and geological  data were put in perspective with the strategic thinking of the time, and in particular with the works of Jomini. For the first time, he raised the idea that knowledge  of the natural environment could be used for military purposes (Boulanger  2002: 26).

Subsequently,  new specialists emerged  in Europe  (Coutau-Bégarie  2006). Never- theless, the discipline remained very academic and developed  at the beginning of the 20th  century   “very systematic  geological inspirations   theories,   increasingly   dis- connected  from the  operational   needs  of the  armies”  (Coutau-Bégarie   2006).  As Rachel Woodward notes, military geography is primarily concerned with how military activities and armed conflict are shaped by terrain and environment.  (…) Yet, as an academic  discipline,  Military Geo- graphy has failed to evolve. The application of topographical  and environmental knowledge to the conduct of military  campaigns, and the strategic and tactical considerations to be taken into account, were set out by T. Miller Maguire in 1899. Over the 20th  century and in the 21st century, this understanding of Military Geo- graphy held fast.(Woodward 2004: 6)

In fact, the discipline suffered in the United States and Europe from the anti-war opi- nions of the 1960s and 1970s caused by the movements  surrounding the decolonization wars and the Vietnam War. Military  geography had practically disappeared in France after World War II, supplanted  by geostrategic  thinking  (Boulanger  2002). While Military Geography in the United  States has a specialty group within the Association of American  Geographers,  its  definition  in the  early 2000s  remained   traditional: “Military Geography   is (…) the application  of geographic  information,  tools, and techniques to military problems” (Woodward 2004: 6). In France, Philippe Boulanger’s work shed light on the history of this discipline  between  1871 and 1945 (Boulanger 2002) and helped to update its practice, by taking into account new environments and issues (Boulanger  2006, 2011). Nevertheless,  the work of Military Geography remains attached to a utilitarian vision  of geography, often considered in a descriptive and essentialized way.

Geostrategy, a strategy for large areas

General Giacomo  Durando first used the term geostrategy in 1846. He gave two defi- nitions to this word. Geostrategy  would be both the study of how geographical data determine the “social bonds” that found the nation, but also, in a more military sense, the study of the influence of geography on the use of organized forces at the national level (Motte 2006). Unlike  military  geography,  geostrategy  is not about tactical and operational  dimensions, but about  the “strategy of large areas”  (Motte 2018). This discipline has had a strong resonance in diplomatic circles and quickly led to the defi- nition of strategies dedicated to each environment (land and naval strategies, and soon air, space, and cybernetics strategies). This way of thinking based on the geographical constraints of each environment  leads to broader analysis about the nature of power, involving classical  oppositions   like  land/sea, land power/sea  power, upon which geopolitics  is subsequently based. It is sometimes difficult  to classify thinkers and to distinguish what in their thinking is geostrategic or geopolitical. The case of Admiral Mahan  (1840–1914) is exemplary in this respect.

Mahan’s researches are mainly focused on Sea Power. Mahan  was first and foremost a sailor marked by his experience in the US Navy,  from 1856 to 1896. He took part in the American  secession wars and analysed the innovations  they brought. At the time, the southerners’  maritime  blockade  had been decisive  in winning  the victory.  This strategy had only been possible thanks to the technical progress of the navy and the switch from steam sailing to sailing. One of his major  contributions  has been to per- ceive  the consequences of the industrial revolution  in world geopolitics. From 1885 onwards,  he became a teacher and devoted  himself to historical research, which led him to formulate a theory based on maritime power or Sea Power.

With Mahan,  strategic thinking is combined with a detailed knowledge  of geo- graphical environments and the physical constraints imposed by geographical factors. This geostrategic approach later spread within military thinking, particularly with the French Admiral Raoul Castex. Without calling into question the notion of Sea Power, Castex considers that it must be nuanced, taking into account the economic, political, diplomatic, and above all technological  contexts. The invention of new weapons can reverse Sea Power. In this sense, Castex’s thinking  is less deterministic  than Mahan’s. Geostrategy,  therefore,  proposes a militarized vision of the  earth’s space,  in which geography is thought of as the basis for the deployment of armed forces. This discipline was very successful during the Cold War when these concepts (shutter zone, contain- ment, etc.) were put forward  in East/West rivalry.

Geopolitics, “science” or ideology?

At the beginning of the 20th century, geopolitics  emerged and aimed at discerning the geographical foundations of power on the international scene. Its thinkers, geographers or soldiers, have made these analyses ideological  tools to serve an imperialist idea of power. Until World War II, two major trends emerged within geopolitics: a naturalistic approach, centred on social Darwinism, and a broader approach, focusing on a study of the “great game” at work between the major powers in international relations. In both cases, the State, as a political  structure, remains the central unit of measurement for this first discipline.  On the one hand, the German  school developed  around the work of the geographer  Friedrich  Ratzel and Officer  Karl Haushofer; on the other hand, the English-speaking  approach  drew from the work of the British  academic Halford Mackinder.

Considered  as the father of political  geography,  Friedrich Ratzel  (1844–1904) is a leading scientific figure of the second half of the 19th century. In his book Anthro- pogeographie  published in 1882,  he  laid the  foundations  of human geography  by focusing on the relationship between societies and their environment. In Political Geo- graphy published in 1897, the State is referred  to as an organism  (i.e. an organized structure in Ratzel vocabulary). The borders would be the peripheral organs, while power would be the centre. Through these theories, the concerns for a German unified state in the making with expansionist views were backed up.

On the other hand, the British academic Sir Halford Mackinder developed at the beginning of the 20th century another kind of discourse based on the analysis of the geographical factors of power. His most famous work, The Geographical Pivot of His- tory published in 1904, ambitiously  aimed  at formulating  “certain  aspects  of geo- graphical causality in Universal History” (1992). He defined the notion of Heartland, a Central Asian space that extends beyond the borders of the Russian Empire, to which he conferred the role of “geographical pivot of History”. This area would have a stra- tegic role due to its geography:  a low-lying  area favouring rapid traffic and contact between  Asia and Europe,  with significant  resources. Thus,  it effectively  reversed Mahan’s reasoning, which saw Sea Power as the alpha and omega of global power. On the contrary, Mackinder emphasized continental power. He based this argument on the invention of the railway, which considerably transformed mobility  and favoured land travel.1  For Mackinder,  this gave Russia a significant strategic advantage,  as location can serve as a promontory to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, regions where more than  two-thirds  of the world’s  population  where  concentrated  at this period.  The strength of its reasoning  was to introduce a global approach in the analysis of the international scene.

Ratzel and Mackinder’s approaches have influenced  the birth of the haushoferian Geopolitik. In the 1920s, Karl Haushofer (1869–1946) proposed an autonomous struc- turing of this discipline and made  it grow on the intellectual  scene of the interwar period. A former officer of the Bavarian army, he was deeply affected by the German humiliation inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles.2  Under his impetus, the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik (Journal of Geopolitics)  was created in 1924. For Haushofer, Geopolitik had to differ from political geography: he wanted it to be a science that would serve poli- tical action and enable Germany to regain its status as a Great power. In this sense, he revisited Ratzel’s concepts, in particular  that of Lebensraum, which allowed  him to claim for Germany a “natural”  sphere of expansion in Central and Eastern Europe, which would give him access to economic self-sufficiency. Geopolitik  was the subject of numerous criticisms from that time on, because it seemed to justify a conquering and belligerent policy  through “natural laws”. Nevertheless,  the most virulent  criticisms have been levelled at the Nazi regime’s use of these ideas, by reinterpreting the work of geopoliticians.

Military  geography, geostrategy and geopolitics therefore appear as three traditional uses  of geography in defence  studies. The involvement in each of its specialties  of military  personnel as thinkers undoubtedly explains the importance given to the mili- tary dimensions of power. At that time, these three disciplinary  fields shared a very static vision  of geography,  considered  as the physical foundation  on which military force was deployed.

The critical turn of geography and its methodological consequences on defence studies

In the 1970s, international  relations were  characterized  by decolonization  and the conflicts of the Cold War. The interventions of the Great powers have never been so debated and criticized within civil society. The problems under discussion were indeed geopolitical. At the same time, the perspectives and methodologies  in social sciences have utterly changed, with the works of thinkers such as Fernand  Braudel, Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre. The influence of Marxism led some young geographers (David Harvey, Edward Soja, and Kevin Cox) to develop political analyses that were increasingly critical of the governments and detached from the state level, taking into account issues related to other actors and local and regional levels. According to their radical approach, the geographical location of a phenomenon must be interpreted as the product of a balance of power that produces socio-spatial inequalities.

Critical approaches in Geography: discovering power behind the spatiality of military issues and war

In France,  while regional  geography  and its  economical  approach  were  mostly dominant, Yves Lacoste developed an analysis on colonialism  and the strategies at work in the Vietnam War, and proposed to rebuild the analytical frameworks of the discipline. In his book La Géographie, ça sert d’abord  à faire la guerre (Lacoste 1982), he asserts that geography  is not neutral. On the contrary, it informs strate- gists  and justifies domination.  Maps  are not  only representations  of places  and areas, they are instruments of battle and propaganda  tools.  By showing borders, they  seem to give “scientific”  legitimacy to artificial  territories and their govern- ments.  Lacoste’s  approach  is a critical  one. He aims  at building  analytical  and methodological tools to reveal  the strategies of domination at work through geo- graphy and spatial organization.

In the English-speaking academia, the main evolution of the discipline is based on a change of perspective.  Indeed,  since the 1990s, Critical  Geopolitics  has integrated  a more reflective  dimension into the geopolitical   analysis under the impetus  of geo- graphers such as John Agnew,  Simon Dalby,  or Gearoid O’Tuathail (or Gerard Toal). The latter defines  this  discipline  as  opposed   to Geopolitics: “Geopolitics  can be described  as a problem-solving theory for the conceptualization and practice of state- craft. (…) In contrast, Critical  Geopolitics  is a problematizing  theoretical enterprise that places the existing structures of power and knowledge in question”  (O’Tuathail, 1999: 107). Thus  Critical  Geopolitics   implies  a rigorous  reflexive  approach, which questions all its research objects as material forms of power, and which also questions political or scientific discourses aiming at legitimizing them.

In this perspective, geography  is no more conceived as a fixed background, but as a social construct uncovering power relations. As Flint states in his book, Geography of War and Peace:

In the current academic jargon, war/peace and geography are mutually constituted and socially constructed. In other words, geography and war are the products of human activity; war creates geographies of borders, states, empires, and so on, and in turn, these geographic entities are the terrain over which peace is maintained or new wars are justified. Rather than being as permanent and sedate as a mountain range, the geography of war is as fluid and volatile  as a lava flow.(Flint  2005: 4).

In this perspective, geography  does not determine the strategy of the actors. On the contrary, the actors, through their strategies, produce new geographies. The study of war geography has thus been wholly renewed.

Nevertheless, military geography has been little affected by this evolution  of the dis- cipline, except for the work of Rachel Woodward (Woodward  2004). Together with her colleagues, she laid the foundations for a critical approach to military geography (Rech et al. 2015). According  to them:

A geographical approach (…) has much to offer critical military studies, not just by emphasizing that key foci – war, militarism, militarization, and military orga- nizations, institutions, capabilities, and activities – take place in places, but also by insisting on the multiplicity of ways in which these phenomena are geographically constituted and expressed. At the heart of the critical military studies project is an understanding of these phenomena as the outcome  of social practices, rather than as  given  categories  beyond  interrogation,  in direct  contrast  to the  normative approaches prevalent in much traditional military geography (and, indeed, tradi- tional military and war studies).(Rech et al. 2015: 55–56)

Such an approach would  allow military geography to take its full place in a global strategic reflection, integrating the social, cultural, and political dimensions specific to each military intervention.

The methodologies of human geography and their implementation in defence studies

The turning  point in human  geography   in  the  1970s de facto  changed  its meth- odologies  and discourses, which  are  now more  analytical  than  descriptive.  The purpose  of the  discipline  is  not only to accumulate geographic  data collections (maps,  name of countries  and capitals,  characteristics  of regional  climate, moun- tain’s altitudes, etc.), but to analyse spatial processes, to understand and explain the location of human activities,  and to formulate a critical point of view on spatial environment (Cattaruzza  and Limonier  2019). It is  a method of thinking, which could  be  summed  up  in  a few simple  questions. What?  The researcher  needs  to define  his object.  Where? He needs to locate  this object  in space and time. Why here and not somewhere  else? He needs to understand the singularity of this object based on geographic  analysis and comparisons. Why and how? He needs to explain the spatiality of the phenomena  he studies.

To do this, the geographer  observes  and analyses each phenomenon  at different scales (local, regional, national, continental, and global)  and over different time peri- ods. One of the main specificities of geographical  reasoning is to highlight the multiple interactions between different scales of analysis. For example, a local event, such as the Battle of Aleppo in Syria (2012–2016), may be interpreted differently depending on the scale of observation. While a local analysis would focus on battles within the city, a national perspective would reveal other processes (ethnic and political  distribution of populations, movements of displaced persons and refugees, etc.), as well as an inter- national perspective. However,  all these observation  scales influence each other. The specificity of geography  is also to combine different fields of analysis, such as geology, biology,  climatology,  demography,  anthropology,  urban and rural studies, history, or political  science. The discipline  is integrative,  with  many  sub-domains  such as geo- morphology, biogeography, political or cultural geography, population geography, etc.

The common perspective of all these different approaches is to analyse phenomena in terms of spaces, places, territories, and landscapes. Today,  human geography focuses the actors influencing the construction of territories.

As said above,  geography  has always played  an important  role in defence  studies because of the strategic dimension of space and places in wartime. The use of concepts such as battlefield,  area of operations (local  level), theatre of operations (local  level), and theatre of war (regional level) illustrates the contributions  of geography at the operational level. Yet, from a military point of view, the study of space phenomena  is not an end in itself and remains a means to obtain strategic advantages in the field or to reveal power relations at different scales. Therefore  the methodology  must take into account the strategic dimension of research.

In his seminal work Paix et guerre entre les nations (Aron  1962), the French philo- sopher Raymond  Aron distinguished  between  the  notions  of “environment”  and “theatre”. According to the author, the study of environment  is part  of a scientific process and requires the intervention  of technicians  and  scientists. On the contrary, theatre is an abstract, simplified notion, a representation making sense in the context of a given operation. Thus, the study of theatre of operations or theatre of war depends on the goal to be achieved defined by strategists and politicians. This is not just a technical issue. It is also a political  issue. De facto, the “theatre of operations”, for the strategist, is not an exhaustive description of the field, but a simplified vision that depends on the objectives to be achieved and the nature of the actors involved. Thus, in the context of defence studies, the geographer  must adapt geographical  concepts to the strategic and military objectives of the actors involved, and must, therefore, be introduced to strate- gic literature.

For example, the notion of scale has a particular meaning in strategic thinking (see Figure 1.1 below). As geographer Francis A. Galgano  states (Galgano  2011: 46):

The scale of a place is, in a military  sense, a function of the level of war. At the strategic level, a place or operating environment may be an entire continent. At the operational level, it may be a region or country. At the tactical level, it could be something  as small as a city block.

Thus, the geographical  study of defence issues must always correlate  the different  level of war with different geographic scales, and highlight the influence of each level with the others.

The same adaptation process must be carried out for concepts as simple and essential as site and location,  distance, size, or regions. The site is used to describe the internal characteristics of the site (morphology,  relief, climate, infrastructure, etc.). Battlefield site investigation can offer crucial strategic advantages during a battle. The notion of location, on the other hand, refers to the relative location of a place in a geographical context. A place is always more  or less linked  to other  places, and the relationship between them can be interpreted functionally and hierarchically (as for a centre and peripheries, or for dominant  and dominated  places). Distance is also a fundamental concept in geography, whether considered in an absolute or relative sense.3 With the spread of the Internet and cyberspace, the notion of distance need to be reinterpreted in this new context. Cyberattacks, for example, can be launched regardless of the dis- tance between the attacker and the victim.

Last but not least, the notion of region  is perhaps the most commonly  used geo- graphical  concept  nowadays.  However,  its definition  is difficult  to define  because it refers to different meanings and scales according  to the authors. In most cases, the word region is used to refer to contiguous spaces sharing one or more common char- acteristics. But it can also be used in the case of areas polarized around an economic or political centre, or even in a more general sense, in the case of areas integrated into a spatial  interaction  system, such as border  regions  (Mareï and Richard  2018). In a military operation, regional analysis is fundamental at all levels (strategic, operational, and tactical) because it allows defining the spatial units in which military action must be carried out. These  sets can refer  to different parameters (geographical,  political, cultural, economic,  etc.) and make it possible to highlight different types of spatial relationships (domination,  rivalries, cooperation, etc.) at different scales of analysis.

The geopolitical methods and the critical perspectives

Geopolitical   methods introduce a more critical  perspective. Unlike  geography,  the geopolitical  approach focuses more particularly on actors, their rivalries, and spatial representations. The principles of geopolitical  reasoning, as they have been practiced since the early 1970s, can be evoked in the form of a grid (see Table 1.1). Among  the methods  and factors  used  to formulate  a geopolitical   analysis, we can  mention the identification of the actors involved, the study of the territories they draw or invoke, the analysis of the relations and rivalries of various kinds (political, economic, cultural, etc.) involved. From these elements power  relations emerge  on territories, at several spatial and temporal  scales. But this geopolitical  analysis grid also informs  us about another specificity of this method, namely the attention given to rivalries and conflicts. Indeed, this practice does not imply studying the actors ex nihilo but describing them in their relational context (power relations, conflicts, cooperation, etc.).

In this  context,  the  notion of power, which  implies  a subordinate  relationship between  two actors,  and the  study  of the  different  representations  of the  actors involved, occupy a central place in the analysis. Indeed, each geopolitical  actor devel- ops its representation of the world, which legitimizes in its eyes its way of acting and being part of it. Beyond strategies of domination, rivalries of power are also conflicts of representation (representations of the world, territorial representations, representations of authority and justice, cultural, and political  representations, etc.). The geopolitical analysis, therefore,  requires the ability  to account for the different representations at stake or even to question its own analysis, however complex it may be. This reflexive approach  makes  it possible  to introduce  critical  methodologies  when researching defence issues using geographical  and geopolitical  methods and to avoid formulating expert opinions based on positivist and normative  approaches to spatial phenomena, without explanations and analytical perspectives.

Geodata and Geospatial Intelligence and their methodological implications:

evolution or revolution?

Today, technological  advances  in the field of geographical  sciences seem to make these methodologies  partly obsolete. Indeed, with new technical and commercial data capture and acquisition capabilities, geographic intelligence can be based on an increasingly important  set of information  and data (satellite images, geospatial data, etc.). Faced  with  these new  sources of information,  it is,  therefore,  necessary  to question the relevance of qualitative and critical methods derived from contemporary human geography.

The promises of battlefield digitalization

The Geoint (for Geospatial Intelligence), a concept invented in the 1990s, became the main focus of the new National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in 2003. This agency, dedicated to the production  and dissemination of geodata for the US military, aim at meeting  the strategic needs for information  superiority (Boulanger  2016). However, while the critical approach invites the researcher to deconstruct the social and political dimensions of geographical  space, geospatial  intelligence, on the contrary,  seems to lead military geography into a technological  mutation that produces and processes data without ever questioning them. In recent years, the emergence of new tools such as Big Data and Intelligence  have maximized  expectations. The hypothesis  is that  massive real-time data processing would significantly improve  our knowledge of the environ- ment, and could even allow to predict events and behaviours.

Therefore in the last decades, the military  sector has dedicated a lot of researches and investments to this field. The most enthusiastic speeches in strategic circles see it as a major opportunity  to predict  and anticipate  future  threats  of all types (social, economic, political or natural) and thus to build a tool to prevent potential wars. One of the  main  consequences of these programmes   and investments  is the  increasing datafication of the battlefield. In France, the so-called FELIN programme4 (FELIN for Integrated  Infantryman  Equipment  and Communications),  which  integrates several sensors directly into military equipment, or the SCORPION program5   illustrates this phenomenon within the French army. Other recent technical progress has also enabled the development  of new tools, including autonomous land vehicles (robotic  vehicles) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These autonomous machines capture, store and analyse different types of data. The aim is to collect  as much data as possible and to increase the volume of information flows between all components of the military eco- system. This process leads to the progressive transcription of the entire battle environ- ment into digital data and its networking. As far as data is concerned, their networking makes it possible to exchange, centralize, and enhance them. De facto, the value of data mainly depends on its processing. Indeed, via data mining, even the most common digital data can acquire strategic value by being correlated with other data. The role of the Geoint  engineer is, therefore, crucial in this valorization  process. It is undeniable that geospatial  intelligence makes it possible to produce relevant, accurate, and loca- lized information, both at the tactical and strategic levels.

Finally, another  dimension  of digitalization   concerns  the  potentially   predictive nature of data and the ability of geospatial intelligence to anticipate events in the field. Indeed,  because of the  structural  changes  that  these  techniques  bring to the  way knowledge is built by promoting correlation on causality, it would be possible to make statistical predictions  using models  applied  to a corpus of data. These algorithmic techniques are now used in the field of security and defence to anticipate  crises and conflicts. Many programmes have been launched in recent years by the US Department of Defense and the CIA (Himelfarb  2014). For example, the CIA’s Open Source Indi- cators programme  seeks to predict political  crises, epidemics, economic  crises, shorta- ges, and natural disasters in specific regions. This kind of initiative has multiplied over the past decade, bringing together new private actors specialized in this activity.  This appeals to more pluridisciplinary competences (and precisely computing competences) from  the researcher investigating  defence  issues with geographical methods.

War and geodata, consequences and limits in terms of methodology

Nevertheless,  the widespread  use of Geoint  techniques as a decision-making tool in the field may have its limitations. Indeed, the various sensors on the battlefield  and the multiple sources of accessible data can have significant consequences in terms of intelligence and on the conduct of operations. One possible consequence could be the hyper-personalization of war (Dunlap 2014). Based on the model of the realization of consumer profiles in trade, similar processes have been applied in the military field in the  United States  to identify  real or potential  enemies. With  this in  mind,  the National  Security Agency  (NSA) collects millions  of facial  images every  day and maintains  a database  that  can  be  used  by sophisticated  facial recognition  pro- grammes. Combined  with the increasing use of drones, alone or in swarms, it would become  possible  to identify  each  combatant  on the  battlefield  and to perform targeted  strikes. The  consequences are important.  With  regard to the conduct  of operations, Dunlap referred to three possible developments. These technologies would enable the defence institutions to focus on key targets, allowing  them to destabilize enemy armies profoundly,  either by “decapitating”  the leaders or by targeting tech- nicians and individuals  who are difficult  to replace  because of their specific skills. Then, the mere fact of being able to select the targeted individuals according to their own identity would have an effect on the psychology  of force  as a whole (Dunlap

2014). Finally,  the identification of the combatants also makes it possible to contact them individually to weaken their determination.

More recently, the case of the Strava application illustrates the digitalization  of the battlefield as a bottom-up process, showing that a lot of geospatial data can be entirely out of control of the leadership holder. Strava is a sports application,  enabling the user to track his activity in both time and space, using geospatial data. Soldiers have widely used it in their private lives. In January 2019, an Australian student found out that the map listing the routes was fully available as open-source data on the Internet. However, the only concern of the defence institutions at the time was the risk of unveiling mili- tary bases. But a French journalist uncovered that, besides this threat, the use of cross- referenced data available on the Internet could allow  the identification of the people behind the map.  To prove this, he was able to associate geospatial  data from the application with the identities of five members of the French intelligence services. This case shows that the digitalization  of the battlefield  has raised vulnerabilities generated by geodata that are beyond control.  There again, this appeals for more awareness of researchers in social sciences towards technical competences to be found in computer and statistical sciences.

Finally,  the promise of predictive  information  can be seriously nuanced. Indeed, similar  attempts have  already  been developed  in the  case of “predictive policing”. These techniques intended to produce predictive analysis of the most likely areas where future crimes will occur,  have  had mixed  results. Two types  of predictive policing practices can be distinguished: predictive  mapping, which formulates predictive  ana- lyses on when and where crimes could take place based on aggregate data, and pre- dictive  identification,  which attempts to define, at the collective  or individual level, profiles of potential criminals or victims. The most widely  used technique to date is predictive  mapping,  which  has led to the  implementation  of various  programmes around the world, such as PredPol  in the United States and Great Britain, Criminality Awareness  System  in the  Netherlands,  Precobs  in Germany  and Switzerland,  and KEYCRIME in Italy. It is still too early to assess the results of such devices, although many biases have already been reported. Thus, in the case of PredPol, initial feedback highlighted the lack of transparency of the algorithms  used by the company to carry out its processing, and errors in data collection that lead to causal prediction errors6. If these digital tools are likely to continue to develop for economic  reasons, their rele- vance can yet be questioned. In any case, the same reservations can be made about the notion of Anticipatory  Intelligence implemented under Geoint.

Therefore  it seems  necessary  to articulate  Geoint’s  development  with a critical approach that puts the information  produced and data generated in perspective with the potential  biases created by this type of analysis and the vulnerabilities  that can result from  this use. In other words, this means that these digital tools must be com- bined with critical and qualitative methodologies  in the social sciences, and that the generalization of geodata technology does not make human geography approaches any less relevant.


The scientific use of geography by military organizations in their operations spread in the 19th century at all levels (tactical, operational,  and strategic). However,  at that time, the geography  used in defence studies was mostly deterministic, with an emphasis on physical geography, geology or climatology  supposed to condition human actions. Nevertheless,  the  use of German  Geopolitik by the  Nazi regime  has revealed  the dangers of such an approach. However,  the same deterministic and technicist approach seems to be promoted, in a more or less conscious way, with the development  of the Geoint. Even if the accuracy of the information given by digital tools is not called into question here, there is a risk of hiding the political dimension of human action behind technical expertise. Geographer  Louise  Amoore has clearly  shown  the reasons why governments and decision-makers base their security and defence policies on statistical expertise (Amoore 2013). Indeed,  how can  such a decision be challenged when the political choices seem to be hidden behind numbers?

Also, the question of the future of geography in defence studies, and more particu- larly human geography,  is now more important than ever. Several calls have already been made for critical reflection on geodata  and its uses (Amoore 2013; Kitchin  2014; Davadie  et al. 2016). Geography  must, therefore, take its rightful place in this evolving strategic reflection. Geographers must be able to combine technical approaches, based on the processing  of geodata, with qualitative  and critical  approaches from human geography  and the social sciences. Indeed, data analysis should not be limited to tech- nical criteria. It should integrate a more global approach, combining political, social, economic, cultural, or ethical dimensions. In this sense, the methodologies  of human geography and social sciences remain more relevant than ever in the interpretation of spatial phenomena in the study of defence issues.


1  Transcontinental lines in America  and Europe were created at the same time.

2  Having  converted to geography for health reasons, he obtained  his doctorate  in 1913 and became a professor at the University of Munich in 1919.

3  Galgano explains: “Distance links locations and may be viewed in both an absolute and a relative sense. The spatial separation between points, usually measured by some known standard (e.g. miles or kilometres),  defines absolute distance. In contrast, relative  distance translates linear measurements into other, more meaningful, spatial relationships” (Galgano 2011: 45).

4  This combat system aims at improving five functions of the warrior: communication, obser- vation,  lethality,  protection,  mobility  and human  support.  The soldier on the  battlefield receives and produces data.

5  Scorpion  is a large modernization program aiming at replacing a variety of aging infantry vehicles. All the new vehicles employ the modern Scorpion Information and Communications System (SIC-S),  which creates an integrated network of data sharing.

6  For instance, the “prediction of banalities”, meaning that neighbourhoods already known as “sensitive”  are systematically pointed out by the software. Therefore,  it increases the prob- ability that these neighbourhoods will reappear in future analyses.


Amoore, L. (2013). The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability, Durham, NC, Duke University Press. Aron, R. (1962). Paix et guerre entre les nations, Paris, Calmann-Levy.

Boulanger, P. (2002). La Géographie militaire française (1871–1939), Paris, Economica. Boulanger, P. (2006). Géographie militaire, Paris, Ellipses.

Boulanger, P. (2011). Géographie militaire et géostratégie, Paris, Armand Colin.

Boulanger, P. (2016). De la géographie  militaire au Geospatial  Intelligence, 153–168. In: Bou- langer, P. (ed.) (2016). Géographie et guerre, Bulletin de la Société de géographie, Hors-Série, Paris, Société de Géographie.

Cattaruzza, A., Limonier, K. (2019). Introduction à la géopolitique, Paris, Armand Colin.

Coutau-Bégarie, H. (2006). Géographie  militaire. In: De Montbrial, T., Klein, J. (eds)  (2000).

Dictionnaire de stratégie, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

Davadie, P., Kempf, O., Teboul, B. (Ed.) (2016). La donnée n’est pas donnée, Annecy  le Vieux, Editions Kawa.

Dunlap  Jr, C. J. (2014).  The hyper-personalization of war: Cyber, Big Data, and the changing face of conflict. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 15, International Engagement on Cyber IV, 108–118.

Galgano, F.A. (2011). An introduction to geography for non-geographer, 38–53. In Galgano, F. A., Eugene,  J. P. (ed.) (2011). Modern Military Geography, New York, London, Routledge.

Flint, C. (ed.) (2004). The Geography of War and Peace, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Godlewska, A. (1994). Napoleon’s geographers (1797–1815): Imperialists and soldiers of moder- nity, 31–54  In: Godlewska, A., Smith  N. (Eds.) (1994).  Geography  and Empire,  Oxford, Blackwell.

Himelfarb,  S. (2014). Can Big Data stop wars before they happen? Foreign Policy, 25, available online: (Con- sulted on 2019).

Kitchin, R. (2014). The Data Revolution, Sage, London.

Kremer-Marietti,  A.  (2017).  Le  positivisme.  Encyclopedia   Universalis,  Paris,  Encyclopedia Universalis2017.

Lacoste, Y. (1982). La Géographie, ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre. 2nd ed., Paris, Maspero. Lacoste, Y. (2012). Le « pivot géographique de l’histoire »: une lecture critique. Hérodote,  (3),


Mackinder, H. (1992). Le pivot géographique de l’Histoire  [1904]. Stratégique, n°55, available online: (Consulted on 2019).

Mareï, N., Richard, Y. (2018). Dictionnaire de la régionalisation  du monde, Paris, Atlande.

Mayer-Shönberger, V., Cukier, K. (2014). Big Data. La révolution  des données est en marche, Paris, Robert Laffont.

Motte, M. (2006). Géostratégie.  In: De Montbrial, T., Klein, J.  (eds) (2000).  Dictionnaire  de stratégie. Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

Motte, M. (2018). La géostratégie. In: Motte, al. (eds) (2018). La mesure de la force, Paris, Tallandier, 251–274.

Muscarà, L. (2018). Maps, complexity, and the uncertainty of power, 362–379. In: Coleman, M., Agnew,  J. (eds) (2018). Handbook  on the Geographies of Power, Cheltenham, Northampton, Edward Elgar Publishing.

O’Tuathail, G. (1999). Understanding critical geopolitics: Geopolitics  and risk security. In: Colin, C.S., Sloan, G. (eds) (1999). Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy, London, Frank Cass.

O’Tuathail, G., Dalby, S. (1998). Rethinking Geopolitics, London,  Routledge.

Rech, M., Bos, D., Jenkings, K. N., Williams, A., Woodward, R. (2015). Geography, military geography,  and critical military studies. Critical Military  Studies, 1(1), 47–60.

Woodward, R. (2004). Military  Geographies. RGS-IBG Book Series, Malden, MA, Oxford, Vic- toria, Blackwell Publishing.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

Articles: 14424

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *