War in the Urban Jungles

Dec. 1, 1998
Marine Corps Cpl. Lynne Blanke in 1998 learned firsthand the dangers inherent in urban military operations.

Earlier this year, the civil affairs specialist was working in Bosnia in the Croat-dominated town of Drvar. She returned from a patrol to her unit’s downtown offices only to discover that an ill-tempered, unruly Croat mob had formed in the city center. The protestors were enraged by the repatriation of 150 Serb refugees.

Blanke and her colleagues, lacking prior intelligence warning or adequate backup, decided to evacuate. Before they could leave the building, rioters stormed it and set it on fire. Outside, the mob surrounded Blanke’s Humvee, smashing its bulletproof window.

Blanke, thrown onto the defensive, reached for her side arm to fire a warning shot but held back. It turned out to be the right move: The protest petered out and an uneasy calm returned. Yet things might easily have gone the other way.

“That was hard to take,” she said. “That incident proved to me that once you sense something isn’t right on the street, it’s probably already too late.” She added grimly, “Things can go wrong really quickly here.”

That is the fundamental lesson of urban warfare, and it is being learned today by more and more US servicemen and –women. US forces in the past decade have fought pitched battles in the mean streets of Panama City and Mogadishu, Somalia, and conducted perilous urban operations in cities ranging from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Tirana, Albania.

Bouts of MOUT

In the murky world between peace and all-out war that has come to characterize much of the post-Cold War era, the breed of activity the Army calls Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain–or MOUT–is increasing. Each of the Army’s major deployments of the 1990s–with the notable exception of the Gulf War–entailed urban operations. The same is true for Marines.

On any given day, US forces confront the myriad dangers of operations in Bosnian cities such as Sarajevo, Tuzla, Drvar, and Zvornik, where they average 100 patrols a month through the heart of angry, sullen, and potentially dangerous populations.

Tasks as mundane as moving people and supplies from base to base require detailed, painstaking planning, much as would be the case in combat. Four-vehicle convoys are mounted, missions are briefed, and force protection measures meticulously rehearsed.

For regular military forces, urban warfare is like a knife fight-chaotic, close range, and extremely bloody. The cities are brutal and dangerous, and US military doctrine advises the services to avoid urban conflicts whenever possible. Despite that, the Marine Corps and, to a lesser extent, the Army, take a different view. To find it, one need look no further than Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the commandant of the US Marine Corps.

“For our entire lifetime,” said Krulak, “our whole doctrine has said, ‘Do not go into the cities; avoid them at all costs,’ and yet, that’s where the center of gravity is going to be. Take everything you’ve watched on CNN since Desert Storm and try to remember anytime when you saw a conflict taking place that it wasn’t in an urban slum or city. You can’t.”

According to Krulak, the US has to go into the urban warfare business for a simple reason. “If there is an enemy out there that wants to make a difference, he can only make a difference by getting us into a complex, chaotic, deadly environment that negates our technology, negates our strength, and capitalizes on their strengths. That place is called the cities.”

Some analysts, while acknowledging that it might be prudent and necessary for US forces to hone their urban warfare skills, argue that nothing in the future would compel American forces to enter or to fight in cities; the US would go in only after having chosen to do so. In so doing, it would be choosing to discard its trump card-its highly trained, technologically superior conventional forces.

These experts caution against taking the view that urban combat is the unavoidable wave of the future, lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I think there’s some danger in confusing that which may become common with that which threatens our vital interests,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link, the officer who served as the Air Force’s point man for both the National Defense Review and Commission on Roles and Missions studies.

Seoul Cleansing

As an example, Link noted the kind of situation that could occur in a new Korean conflict. “Rather than sending thousands of young Americans to clear Seoul, city block by city block, … I think you work the problem in other ways,” said Link. “Maybe you encourage the South Koreans to take on that task, while US forces focus on attacking the enemy at his nerve centers.”

Link said that “another alternative would be to use your dominance of air and space to isolate enemy forces in Seoul and attrit them very carefully.”

Urban operations, of course, are not new for US military forces. In World War II, roughly 40 percent of the battles fought in Europe took place in urban areas. The Korean War also included significant urban combat, as did the Vietnam War during the 1968 Tet Offensive, when US forces fought street-to-street to dislodge Communist units from Hue.

If anything, however, those engagements provide a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of urban warfare. More recent warnings abound. They can be seen in the disastrous experience of the Russians in the rebellious city of Grozny or in the British difficulties coping with sectarian strife of Belfast.

The view that urban operations constitute the future of war stems from at least three factors:

Rampant Urbanization. Demographic trends suggest that most of the world’s population soon will live in the cities, many of them megacities. Given a seemingly inexorable movement of rural populations to cities-and of urban sprawl–an estimated 70 percent of the world’s population is likely to reside in urban centers by 2015.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a key urban warfare proponent, sees an obvious message: “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world.”

US Military Supremacy. Some experts also believe that the US military’s overwhelming conventional military superiority, as revealed in the Persian Gulf War, will drive future enemies to search for friendlier venues in which to challenge US power-with urban cityscapes being one that might negate superior American mobility, command and control, and standoff weapons.

The most harrowing example was seen in Somalia, where 18 American soldiers died in a close firefight in the labyrinthine alleys of Mogadishu. Two multimillion dollar helicopters were downed by ground fire.

The Humanitarian Imperative. As some analysts see it, Third World cities are collapsing under the weight of population and poverty, and such developments may trigger humanitarian crises characterized by famine and disease that could require military involvement. According to one recent federal study, “We must also expect to be involved in cities while conducting … peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations.”

These factors, taken together, have convinced some commentators that a large urban danger awaits. The final report of the National Defense Panel, which reviewed US military forces and strategy in late 1997, gave heavy emphasis to the challenges presented by global urbanization.

The Marine Corps has taken the most aggressive stance in tackling the issue of urban warfare. For the past two years the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico, Va., has conducted a series of experiments dubbed Urban Warrior. The goal of the program, which will conduct final phase exercises early next year, is to find innovative concepts, tactics, and technologies that will aid Marines in future urban operations.

“We Can Get Beat”

“Why are we spending two years on Urban Warrior?” asked Krulak. “Because that’s where we can get beat. We don’t know how to fight there.”

Much of the focus of Urban Warrior has been directed at trying to better understand the urban environment and the unique challenges it presents to military commanders and forces.

In one exercise, Marine Corps participants received an in-depth tour of Chicago. Local police and fire officials acted as tour guides as they explored underground sewer networks and power grids. In another exercise, participants visited New York City and experimented with equipment that might allow them to travel from skyscraper to skyscraper without descending to street level, the traditional killing ground of urban warfare.

In Charleston, S.C., Marines worked with emergency response teams trained to cope with chemical and biological weapons. Their goal: to better understand how weapons of mass destruction can alter the dynamic in an urban warfare setting.

Urban Warrior also tapped the minds of some of the most experienced urban fighters. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, a company commander during the battle of Hue, discussed how the dispersed and chaotic nature of urban battles makes them “squad leader” wars. With communications technology being pushed down to the lowest levels, and massive firepower in the hands of junior officers, squad leaders in future urban battles will need to master skills required today of company commanders.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Emil R. Bedard, who served in Somalia, emphasized the importance of constant patrols to stabilize an area and calm local inhabitants; the need to protect convoys to ensure the safe movement of people and supplies in potentially hostile urban areas; and the use of strategically placed road blocks to gain control over sizable urban areas.

Urban Warrior participants concluded that, in at least one way, urban warfare has become more complex and deadly than ever.

“We realized that the strategies and tactics of urban warfare used in World War II and Korea, which was essentially to go in and destroy parts of the city and push an enemy out, are no longer relevant,” said Timothy Jones, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico.

By that, he means that heightened US domestic political sensitivity to civilian casualties will make it impossible to use certain tried and true tactics-for example, clearing a room by first blindly lobbing in a grenade.

Three-Block War

“Our experiences of the past decade have convinced us that we’re probably not going to see that kind of warfare again,” said Jones.

“In places such as Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia,” Jones continued, “we’ve had to essentially fight a three-block war in urban settings. On one block, we may be conducting humanitarian operations. On another we may be involved in a peacekeeping mission. In the third block, we may be fighting an all-out battle. So we have to develop the concepts, tactics, and Marines flexible enough to do all of those things.”

The Army has also been studying the unique challenges of urban operations through a series of experiments on urban warfare funded as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration. Most of the work has been conducted at the Army’s Dismounted Battle Space Battle Lab, at Ft. Benning, Ga.

While the study is still very much in flux, both the Marine Corps and Army have identified some common themes and challenges associated with urban operations.

They say that urban operations will put a premium on reliable and timely intelligence. Intelligence becomes even more important in light of the fact that US troops will operate on unfamiliar and unfriendly turf, where even a wrong turn on a city street can channel forces into a “kill sack.”

Urban warfare exponents maintain that many of the intelligence systems used to great effect in the Persian Gulf War will have only limited utility in the city, meaning that greater emphasis will be placed on human intelligence. One Urban Warrior participant even suggested that squad leaders in urban combat carry around wads of cash in small denominations to readily buy information and assistance from local inhabitants.

“Military intelligence must be profoundly reordered to cope with the demands of urban combat,” Peters argued in the article “Our Soldiers, Their Cities,” first published in the US Army War College’s Parameters. “From mapping to target acquisition, from collection to analysis, and from battle damage assessment to the prediction of the enemy’s future intent, intelligence requirements in urban environments are far tougher to meet than they are on traditional battlefields. … From language skills to a knowledge of urban planning, … many of the abilities essential to combat in cities are given low, if any, priority in today’s intelligence architecture.”

Because urban operations largely would be the purview of dismounted infantry, they are also notoriously manpower- and casualty-intensive. Veterans of Operation Just Cause, the brief 1989 conflict in Panama, have noted that Panama City absorbed every soldier the United States could pour into it, and American forces still found it difficult to adequately sweep the city. During the operation, 23 US troops died and 320 were wounded against outgunned and disorganized opposition forces.

The fact that only four of the Army’s 10 divisions are light infantry organizations has led some experts to suggest that the service would struggle to cope with the demands of a major urban operation in the future. The present division structure also may not provide enough specialized units whose skills are optimized in an urban setting, especially military police, civil affairs, and psychological operations units.

Shadow of Mogadishu

Given that they provide excellent cover for ambushes, city centers also present major challenges in terms of force mobility. US forces in Bosnia, for instance, are not allowed to leave base unless in four-vehicle convoys with a crew-manned .50-caliber machine gun. In Mogadishu, several Army Humvees had to be abandoned because they did not provide enough protection from ambushes. Former Defense Secretary Les Aspin was forced to resign when lawmakers learned he had denied the military’s request for armored forces to operate in the city.

The firefight in which 18 American soldiers died also revealed that low-flying helicopters are especially vulnerable in urban environments. Individual soldiers who may have to rapidly ascend in skyscrapers or maneuver in sewer systems, meanwhile, cannot be overly burdened by heavy equipment or packs.

Urban centers would pose major challenges to command-and-control and communications systems. Units dispersed in such areas would be dispersed and operating largely independently, meaning communications systems would have to be distributed down to the individual soldier in some cases. Dense city structures would also significantly degrade radio reception.

“Communications is a major problem in urban environments. We know that transmissions in city centers dominated by steel and concrete structures will be very difficult with FM radio systems,” said Jones. “We’re looking hard at digital burst radios and possibly even cellular systems to possibly solve the problem.”

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has also experimented with equipping squad leaders with handheld computers that might allow them to tap into the same data stream as a shipboard commander of an entire Marine Expeditionary Unit. “We’re trying to figure out exactly what kinds of information a squad leader might need to know in an urban setting,” said Jones.

While cityscapes negate many of the traditional technological advantages enjoyed by US forces, Marine Corps and Army experts are directing research efforts at specific technologies which might solve some of the thorniest challenges of urban operations.

The Army’s Dismounted Battle Space Battle Lab, for instance, is looking into various types of body armor that could cut down on injuries and casualties in city settings. Items as simple as kevlar knee and elbow pads, and eye and ear protectors, for instance, can help soldiers avoid injuries from splintering wood and masonry and percussive sound in close-in firefights. Other researchers are studying the use of camouflage uniforms specially designed for urban settings.

Researchers are studying thermal imaging systems and advanced sensors that would offer greater situational awareness inside dark buildings and sewer systems. Daylight cameras and remotely operated weapons may, one day, allow soldiers to look around corners and engage targets without exposing themselves to hostile fire. At a minimum, personal weapons will have to become lighter and fire at a more rapid clip.

Enter the Robots

Robots could prove a critical tool in future urban battles, with soldiers using them to clear minefields, locate snipers, or detect chemical and biological weapons.

Some experts argue that the demands of urban warfare may well place a premium on airpower and close air support over traditional artillery and indirect fire. In the future a premium may be placed on precision guided munitions that are designed not to take out whole buildings but perhaps destroy only a single room. “Because of attack angles and the capabilities of precision munitions, airpower will prove much more valuable and will function as flying artillery,” wrote Peters.

The demands of urban warfare will also likely revolutionize armored vehicles. The tanks and armored vehicles of the future, Peters argued, will have to boast different and more varied weapons, be faster in sprint mode and more maneuverable, and offer greater protection than today’s models. “The primary job of armored vehicles in urban areas will be to protect maneuver, movement, and resupply,” Peters wrote in Parameters. “Because urban environments promise endless ambushes, we need new forms of armored protection–not just layers of steel or laminate or ceramics, or even reactive armor as it presently exists. Tomorrow’s layers of armor will begin with spoofing techniques that complicate target detection on the part of enemy systems.”

While advanced research efforts hold promise, however, Jones and other experts on urban combat caution against hopes that high-tech gadgetry would somehow solve the challenges or negate the unpleasantries of urban combat. “Hopefully technology will help enable us in urban settings, but I don’t want to imply that it’s going to be a panacea,” said Jones. “No technology is going to substitute for leadership, training, and physical toughness.”

To drive home that point, both the Army and Marine Corps have focused much of their efforts on improving training for urban operations. The Army has constructed numerous mock cities for this purpose. The service has MOUT training facilities at Fts. Hood, Campbell, Bragg, Lewis, Drum, Stewart, and Polk.

Before deploying to Bosnia, troops train in urban settings either at the 7th Army Combat Maneuver Training Center, Hohenfels, Germany, or at the service’s premier MOUT facility at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Ft. Polk, La. The Army is also developing the Transportable Instrumentation System that will replicate the instrumentation technologies at the National Training Center, Ft. Irwin, Calif., allowing the service to adapt any urban terrain into a high-tech training area.

The Army, even though it is devoting more energy to the preparation for urban warfare, has resisted suggestions that it embrace urban warfare as the inevitable wave of the future. Army officials have gone on record against recommendations that it turn some of its divisions into specially trained and equipped “urban combat” units.

Even the Marine Corps shies from basic changes as a result of urban warfare. “Because we can easily envision missions that would require us to operate in an urban setting, we see this as something else we have to prepare and train our Marines to do,” said Jones. “However, we don’t see urban warfare as changing our fundamental nature. We still have to be able to conduct high-intensity warfare in open settings.”

He added, “To the extent we can bypass urban centers and still achieve our objectives, it still makes a lot of sense.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Nuclear Adjustments,” appeared in the August 1998 issue.