Operating at a wartime pace, the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency says it has shipped 35 million maps to the roughly 300,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Persian Gulf area.
That may seem like overkill. But the military needs maps of varying detail and intricacy, with many to be used once and discarded, the agency says.
"We certainly hope it doesn't come to war, but if it were to become a hostile action, we want our troops to have the best products they can," said Dave Black, the agency's director of public affairs. "When the Joint Chiefs of Staff lay out the requirements, we meet them."
Cartographers at the agency's two major production centers in St. Louis and the Brookmont area of suburban Maryland have been working 10- to 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, since shortly after the United States began sending forces to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield.
All of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq have been committed to paper, Black said. The agency has had every country in the volatile Middle East mapped for several years, relying heavily on detailed satellite photos.
About 4,500 different maps have been used in the territory covered by Operation Desert Shield, breaking down the topography into relatively small-coverage areas for pilots, tank commanders, admirals and ground troops.
Generally, pilots need the big picture. But pilots of low-flying aircraft -- including helicopters and jets launched from aircraft carriers -- need more specific information about hills and other terrain than bomber pilots. Soldiers on the ground need to know where roads and power lines are.
The number of maps shipped to the gulf include countless spares. Pilots might mark out a mission on a map, then discard it. Ground troops do likewise for another reason.
"You've got these things folded up and stuffed in your pocket, so after a sweaty day in the desert they literally come apart," said A. Clay Ancell, deputy director in charge of production at the center in St. Louis, where aeronautical maps are made. Maps for land and sea are produced at Brookmont.
Nearly every soldier in the desert has some sort of map. The first ones began arriving in Saudi Arabia about a week after the first U.S. troops landed.
Thanks to improved technology, map production has already exceeded what was done during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"During the Korean War, the presses ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week for years," said Otto Stoessel, graphic arts chief of the aerospace division. "We turned out a lot of work, but compared to Operation Desert Shield it was nothing.
"We've done 10 times the amount of work in the last two months that we did during all of Korea," he said.
The Defense Mapping Agency has been in existence since 1972. Before that, each branch of the service took care of its requirements, which often caused duplication.
About 8,000 people are employed at the centers in St. Louis and Brookmont, and even before the Persian Gulf crisis they were busy, said Ancell.
Maps constantly must be updated, and before last August the agency also was busy making maps used in the nation's battle to stop the flow of drugs from South America.
"We're always playing catch-up," Ancell said. "If you would gather up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, none of them would be happy with the support that their command receives. They always want more."