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Author Topic: NATO Military Map Symbols - Explained  (Read 70459 times)
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« on: 19 September 2009, 01:59:50 »

The following text is based on an article by P. Antill, from August 27, 2000: "NATO Military Map Symbols", and it has been adpted for WaT by me.

All armies use a system of codified symbols to enable command staffs to mark paper maps, sand tray mock-ups and computer displays.  These so called "Military or Tactical Map Symbols" are used to show what military forces are doing at the moment, what has been planned for them to do in the future, or if a particular event has happened, such as a nuclear explosion or a unit's movement:

pic 1: This example shows a move of Fourteenth Mechanised Infantry Brigade to a new location, represented by NATO Tactial Map Symbols:

The tactical symbols can also show some basic information about the forces themselves, such as a unit's location, it´s ID, role, type and size or a weapon's type, caliber and location.

pic 2: Tactical symbol showing location of the Main HQ for the Third Infantry Division

pic 3: Tactical symbol describing a Heavy Mortar (140mm caliber)

In addition, by using the same system of tactical symbols, the hierarchical organisation of a particular unit can be shown, in a sort of family tree style:

pic 6: Depicts a mechanised infantry brigade with three mechanised infantry battalions (far left), one tank battalion (second from left), a mechanised artillery battalion (second from right) and an engineer company (far right)

As such, displays that include a great deal of information can be built up using this relatively simple method. While this sort of symbology is obviously used a great deal in today's armed forces, it can also be seen in the wargaming and simulation arena.

The most common system is that developed by the NATO alliance, and used by its member states, the states that have joined the Partnership for Peace and an increasing number of non-member states, such as Australia and New Zealand, and this article will focus exclusively on this system.

All Tactical Symbols are composed of a base symbol, various size and type symbols and/or by symbols for unit equipment. Letters and numbers are combined with the symbols for ID and designation purposes.

Base Unit Symbols:

The basic unit symbol is a rectangle, with the lengths of the horizontal and vertical lines having a ratio of approximately 3:2:

A variation on this is the symbol for a headquarters unit (HQ)  that has a vertical line dropping down from the left corner (so it looks a bit like a flag):

Another basic symbol is a triangle facing upwards, which denotes an Observation Point (OP):

A circle denominates a logistic or administrative unit:

Unit Size Symbols:

The above base symbols are combined with size symbols to indicate the size/strength of a unit. Unit size details are placed on top of the base symbol.

Units that are of regimental-size or below are represented by a series of dots and vertical lines:

Units that are of brigade-size or above are represented by a series of crosses:

Units of unknown size are represented by a question mark:

Re-inforced or detached units are represented by a plus or minus sign in parenthesis that are plasced at the side of the base unit symbol:

Units that are non organic or just a temporary group have a box around the size symbol.

Unit Type and Unit Equipment Symbols

Unit type or equipment symbols are placed inside the base symbol.

The three basic type symbols are the infantry (a diagonal cross representing their webbing cross-straps), tank or armoured (a stretched circle representing the caterpillar tread) and artillery (a circle representing a cannon ball).

Many of the unit symbols available are variants of these, although a number of additional symbols are used as well. For example, mechanised infantry is represented by a combination of the infantry and armour symbols, whereas parachute infantry often have the infantry symbol with an additional 'bird' symbol underneath.

Unit Location:

A unit's location is usually assumed to be at the centre of the lower edge of the symbol, or sometimes a line can be drawn from the centre of the lower edge to where the unit is if its necessary to offset the symbol:

pic 15: The location of the HQ, 5th Infantry Division, and the 1st Infantry Division in Bremen

Also, if a unit is spread out and covering a larger area than normal, its area can be indicated by drawing a amorph form with the unit symbol at the centre:

pic 16: 3rd Mech Inf Bde is spread out over the "blobb" area

If indicating a unit in its current position, the unit is shown with solid lines, if it is showing a future position, the lines are broken:

In some instances, a boundary can be shown between units, for example, if units are tightly packed covering a common frontage. This is more common for maps and diagrams covering higher-level formations, such as one depicting corps and army level formations in Germany on NATO's Central Front during the Cold War.

Where a boundary separates two units of different size, the symbol for the larger unit will ordinarily be shown. The exception is where a unit rear boundary is shown that will show the size symbol of the unit concerned and not the symbol of the larger unit.

Unit Designations

The unit title is usually placed on the left-hand side, either in the centre or at the bottom corner and must agree with the unit type and size symbols:

pic 22: The 5th Infantry Division

In addition, the identification of higher formations can also be placed on the symbol, on the right-hand side, either in the centre or at the bottom corner. The higher formations are listed - from left to right - in the order of battalion, brigade, regiment, division, corps and army, separated by a '/':

pic 23: The 3rd Infantry Battalion, from the 4th Brigade of the 5th Division. '0' indicates that there is no regimental-level (as in the British Army, for example)

If it is necessary to show the time, a date/time group (DTG) is placed at the top left-hand corner of the symbol and consists of six figures and three or four letters. The first two numbers show the date (prefixed with a 0 if between 1 and 9), the next four numbers show the time (using the 24-hour clock), optionally followed by a letter denoting the time zone (e.g. "Z") and finally, three letters indicating the month.

pic 24: The location of the 4th Infantry Brigade as of 13.20 on 5th June, no time zone specified


In NATO, the designation of friendly units is indicated by them being blue, while enemy forces are red:

If the symbol is monochrome (no color), friendly forces are indicated by a single-lined base symbol and enemy forces by a double-lined base symbol

Hope you found this little discourse helpful,

« Last Edit: 19 September 2009, 05:51:31 by Rattler » Logged

"War does not determine who is right, war determines who is left...": The Rattler Way Of Life (thanks! to Solideo)... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9v3Vyr5o2Q
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« Reply #1 on: 20 September 2009, 13:14:39 »

Great review material Rattler!


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« Reply #2 on: 15 March 2011, 19:19:55 »

That's by far the best explanation I've ever seen done.

Good Hunting.

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« Reply #3 on: 15 March 2011, 19:55:58 »

Re-reading it 2 years later (and having had forgotten about it completely) I can see I have to change a) a few typos, and b) exchange the underscores (which in a web page represent links) for bold, willco at the first opportunity. (Edit: DONE)

Thanks anyway, at least it shows someone is reading it Smiley

The cudos should go to Peter Antill who - unknowingly I presume - provided me with the base for the article, I just did some editing that I found cleared things for non mil people:



"War does not determine who is right, war determines who is left...": The Rattler Way Of Life (thanks! to Solideo)... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9v3Vyr5o2Q
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