NATO Military Symbols for Land Based Systems

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Nov 28, 2014
NATO Military Symbols for Land Based Systems was the NATO standard for military map marking symbols. It was published as Allied Procedural Publication 6A (APP-6A). The symbols are designed to enhance NATO’s joint interoperability by providing a standard set of common symbols. APP-6A constitutes a single system of joint military symbology for land based formations and units, which can be displayed for either automated map display systems or for manual map marking. It covers all of the joint services and can be used by them.

The APP-6A standard provides common operational symbology along with details on their display and plotting to ensure the compatibility, and to the greatest extent possible, the interoperability of NATO Land Component Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and Intelligence (C4I) systems, development, operations, and training. APP-6A addresses the efficient transmission of symbology information through the use of a standard methodology for symbol hierarchy, information taxonomy, and symbol identifiers.

APP-6A recognises five broad sets of symbols, each set using its own SIDC (Symbol identification coding) scheme:

  • Units, Equipment, and Installations
  • Military Operations (Tactical graphics)
  • METOC (Meteorological and Oceanographic)
  • Signals Intelligence
  • MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War)
Units, Equipment, and Installations consist of icons, generally framed, associated with a single point on the map. All sorts of graphical and textual modifiers may surround them, specifying categories, quantities, dates, direction of movement, etc.

Tactical graphics represent operational information that cannot be presented via icon-based symbols alone: unit boundaries, special area designations, and other unique markings related to battlespace geometry and necessary for battlefield planning and management. There are point, line and area symbols in this category.

Meteorological and oceanographic symbology is the only set not under the standard's control: rather, they are imported from the symbology established by theWorld Meteorological Organization.

The Signals Intelligence and Military Operations Other Than War symbology sets stand apart from Units, Equipment, and Installations although they obey the same conventions (i.e., they consist of framed symbols associated to points on the map). They do not appear in APP-6A proper, having been introduced by MIL-STD-2525B.

Icon-based symbols
Most of the symbols designate specific points, and consist of a frame (a geometric border), a fill, a constituent icon, and optional symbol modifiers. The latter are optional text fields or graphic indicators that provide additional information.

The frame provides a visual indication of the affiliation, battle dimension, and status of an operational object. The use of shape and colour is redundant, allowing the symbology to be used under less-than-ideal conditions such as a monochrome red display to preserve the operator's night vision. Nearly all symbols are highly stylised and can be drawn by persons almost entirely lacking in artistic skill; this allows one to draw a symbolic representation (a GRAPHREP, Graphical report) using tools as rudimentary as plain paper and pencil.

The frame serves as the base to which other symbol components and modifiers are added. In most cases a frame surrounds an icon. One major exception is equipment, which may be represented by icons alone (in which case the icons are coloured as the frame would be).

The fill is the area within a symbol. If the fill is assigned a colour, it provides an enhanced (redundant) presentation of information about the affiliation of the object. If colour is not used, the fill is transparent. A very few icons have fills of their own, which are not affected by affiliation.

The icons themselves, finally, can be understood as combinations of elementary glyphs that use simple composition rules, in a manner reminiscent of some ideographic writing systems such as Chinese. The standard, however, still attempts to provide an "exhaustive" listing of possible icons instead of laying out a dictionary of component glyphs. This causes operational problems when the need for an unforeseen symbol arises (particularly in MOOTW), a problem exacerbated by the administratively centralised maintenance of the symbology sets.

Unit icons
The icon is the innermost part of a symbol which, when displayed, provides an abstract pictorial or alphanumeric representation of an operational object. The icon portrays the role or mission performed by the object. APP-6A distinguishes between icons that must be framed or unframed and icons where framing is optional.

Equipment icons
Equipment icons are "frame optional".

Installation icons

Modifier Icons
All the previously mentioned symbols can be used independently as well as in combinations. There are also some symbols that cannot appear by themselves, but can only be used to modify other unit symbols:

Common combinations
Some of the most common combinations are:

Unit sizes
Above the unit symbol, a symbol representing the size of the unit can be displayed:

The typical commander ranks shown in the table are for illustration. Neither the actual rank designated for a particular unit's commander, nor the rank held by the incumbent commander alters the appropriate symbol. For example, units are periodically commanded by an officer junior to the authorised commander grade, yet a company under the command of a Lieutenant (U.S.) or Captain (Commonwealth) is still indicated with two vertical ticks. Likewise, some peculiar types of companies and detachments are authorised a Major, Lieutenant Colonel (personnel services companies) or Colonel (some types of judge advocate detachments); the company or detachment is nevertheless indicated with, respectively, one vertical tick or three dots.

While in Commonwealth armies, the regiment as a tactical formation does not normally exist, in some cases a regimental sized (i.e. larger than battalion and smaller than brigade) Task Force may exist where the operational requirement exists. These formations may be commanded by Colonels.

Note that, for brigades and higher, the number of Xs corresponds to the number of stars in the United States military's insignia for the typical general officer grade commanding that size unit. For example, a division is capped with XX and is usually commanded by a major general the American insignia for which is two stars.

Commonwealth air force ground combat forces are ground combat forces such as the Royal Air Force Regiment, which (despite operating on the ground) is part of the British RAF and charged with airfield defence.

The status of a symbol refers to whether a warfighting object exists at the location identified (i.e., status is "present") or will in the future reside at that location (i.e., status is "planned, anticipated, suspected," or "on order"). Regardless of affiliation, present status is indicated by a solid line and planned status by a dashed line. The frame is solid or dashed, unless the symbol icon is unframed, in which case the icon itself is drawn dashed. Planned status cannot be shown if the symbol is an unframed filled icon.

Affiliation refers to the relationship of the tracker to the operational object being represented. The basic affiliation categories are Unknown, Friend, Neutral, and Hostile. In the ground unit domain, a yellow quatrefoil frame is used to denote unknown affiliation, a blue rectangle frame to denote friendly affiliation, a green square frame to denote neutral affiliation, and a red diamond frame to denote hostile affiliation. In the other domains (air and space, sea surface and subsurface, etc.), the same color scheme is used.

The full set of affiliations is:

  • Pending (P)
  • Unknown (U)
  • Assumed Friend (A)
  • Friend (F)
  • Neutral (N)
  • Suspect (S) (Assumed Hostile)
  • Hostile (H)
  • Exercise Pending (G)
  • Exercise Unknown (W)
  • Exercise Assumed Friend (M)
  • Exercise Friend (D)
  • Exercise Neutral (L)
  • Joker (J) (Exercise Suspect)
  • Faker (K) (Exercise Hostile)
There are no "Assumed Neutral" and "Exercise Assumed Neutral" affiliations.

These colors are uses in phrases such as "blue on blue" for friendly fire, Blue Force Tracking, red teaming, and Red Cells.
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Nov 28, 2014
Battle dimension

Battle dimension defines the primary mission area for the operational object within the battlespace. An object can have a mission area above the Earth's surface (i.e., in the air or outer space), on it, or below it. If the mission area of an object is on the surface, it can be either on land or sea. The subsurface dimension concerns those objects whose mission area is below the sea surface (e.g., submarines and sea mines). Some cases require adjudication; for example, an Army or Marine helicopter unit is a manoeuvring unit (i.e., a unit whose ground support assets are included) and is thus represented in the land dimension. Likewise, a landing craft whose primary mission is ferrying personnel or equipment to and from shore is a maritime unit and is represented in the sea surface dimension. A landing craft whose primary mission is to fight on land, on the other hand, is a ground asset and is represented in the land dimension.

Closed frames are used to denote the land and sea surface dimensions, frames open at the bottom denote the air/space dimension, and frames open at the top denote the subsurface dimension.

An unknown battle dimension is possible; for example, some electronic warfare signatures (e.g., radar systems) are common to several battle dimensions and would therefore be assigned an "Unknown" battle dimension until further discrimination becomes possible.

The full set of battle dimensions is:

  • Space (P)
  • Air (A)
  • Ground (G)
  • Sea Surface (S)
  • Sea Subsurface (U)
  • SOF (F)
  • Other (X)
  • Unknown (Z)
The letter in parentheses is used by the Symbol identification coding (SIDC) scheme —strings of 15 characters used to transmit symbols.

The Space and Air battle dimensions share a single frame shape. In the Ground battle dimension, two different frames are used for the Friendly (and Assumed Friendly) affiliations in order to distinguish between units and equipment. The SOF (Special Operations Forces) are assigned their own battle dimension because they typically can operate across several domains (air, ground, sea surface and subsurface) in the course of a single mission; the frames are the same as for the Ground (unit) battle dimension. The Other battle dimension, finally, seems to be reserved for future use (there are no instances of its use as of 2525B Change 1).

Symbol modifiers

Graphic modifiers
  • Echelon (field B) Identifies command level (see Unit sizes, below).
  • Task Force (field D) Identifies a unit as a task force. It may be used alone or in combination with Echelon, like so:
  • Frame Shape Modifier (field E) A short textual modifier that completes the affiliation, battle dimension, or exercise description of an object ("U", "?", "X", "XU", "X?", "J" or "K"). It is treated as a graphic modifier, however.
  • Direction of Movement (field Q) A fixed-length arrow that identifies the direction of movement or intended movement of an object. It emanates from the symbol's centre except in the ground domain, where it is hooked to a short offset, straight down from the symbol's base centre (see diagram).
  • Mobility Indicator (field R) Depicts the mobility of an object (see Mobility, below). It is used only with equipment.
  • Headquarters Staff or Offset Location (field S) Identifies a unit as a headquarters, or indicates the object's actual location on the map when it has been shifted away in order to declutter the display. It goes straight down from the symbol's centre left, then angles towards the actual location (see diagram).
  • Feint/Dummy (field AB) Identifies a unit intended to draw the enemy’s attention away from the area of the main attack, or a decoy designed to fool enemy intelligence. It consists of a dashed chevron, placed above the frame, like the echelon graphic modifier (the standard is unclear as to how the two combine graphically). See Feints/Dummies, below.
  • Installation (field AC) Identifies a particular symbol as an installation. It sits atop the frame. See Installations, below.
  • Auxiliary Equipment (field AG) Indicates the presence of a towed sonar array (used exclusively in the sea surface or subsurface battle dimensions). It sits below the frame, like field R (see Auxiliary equipment, below).
  • Area of Uncertainty (field AH) Indicates the area where an object is most likely to be, based on the object’s last report and the reporting accuracy of the sensor that detected it. This can take various forms, such as an ellipse, a bounding box, or lines indicating probable bearing and distance.
  • Dead Reckoning Trailer (field AI) Identifies where an object should be located at present, given its last reported course and speed. This can take the form of a dotted line (extending from the symbol to the dead-reckoned position) or a dotted circle (bounding the zone the object may have reached since, when the direction of movement is unknown or uncertain).
  • Speed Leader (field AJ) Depicts the speed and direction of movement of an object. It is identical to the Direction of Movement indicator except that its length is variable (and there is no arrow head).
  • Pairing Line (field AK) Connects two objects.

APP-6 organization chart of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF):

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Dec 26, 2014
These symbols certainly enhance NATO's effectiveness and joint operations. When you have a single system adhered to by all members of NATO then proper formations can be deployed, whether they be by land, sea or air.
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Jan 1, 2015
I certainly agree that having a unified symbol for various systems is certainly an added advantage.


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Feb 10, 2015
I would like to thank you for posting this. The APP-6A is not only essential for military enthusiasts but personally also important for people who play grand strategy games, like me. Counters simply provide more information in so compact a space, which makes it useful even for "tabletop generals" like me and my friends.

I certainly agree that having a unified symbol for various systems is certainly an added advantage.
While I agree with you that this is an advantage for interoperability, would it not be possible that because the APP-6A is made public, then anyone (including the adversary or opposing force) can read it? I think that it is a question to consider, especially with war being more and more focused on information nowadays. Knowledge is, after all, power.