The Urban Fight: A History of Disregard (Part IV of a series)

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This is the fourth article of a series on the Twelve Urban Challenges. You can access the series here


The previous and third blog of this series looked at the psychology of judgements about the risks of urban combat. It argued that armies that do not develop a capability for urban operations are revealing that they consider the risk of an urban fight relatively low. Risk is the product of consequence and probability. Since there is a broad professional consensus that urban combat can be expected to have serious costs (or consequences), logically such a risk assessment must flow from an appraisal of ‘low probability’.

The blog argued such appraisals are less a calculated judgement of low probability and more a perception of implausibility, a failure or inability to visualise which overrides any calculation of probability. The contention is that contemporary Western military culture, narratives and framing of war reject its urban form and that this is so deeply ingrained that it biases assessments of plausibility towards rejecting demanding urban scenarios. This blog examines the basis for a ‘rural’ view of war?

Western military cultural attachment to decisive battle in open country is long-standing and was reinforced by Cold War NATO doctrines, but it was not always so. Armies trained, prepared for and conducted brutal siege warfare for two millennia, reaching an apogee under the great engineer Vauban in the European Wars of the 17th Century.

The fight shifted away from cities as the astronomic costs of struggle between gunpowder artillery and ‘sappers’ on the one hand and ‘mathematically’ designed fortifications on the other, taught commanders like Marlborough to seek battle in the open where it could be immediately decisive.  This preference aligned with the cultural norms of the social elites who led 18th and 19th century armies and a concept of battle where success depended on the coordinated application of massed firepower and assault sustained by superior discipline and morale.

For the two centuries in which the great military theorists wrote, most interstate battles occurred outside towns (although armies did not hesitate to crush revolutions within them), leaving what SLA Marshall in 1973 called a ‘void in the literature of warfare’ – with little attention given to urban combat.   

Not until the 1930’s were urban areas extensively exploited for defence, especially by the Soviets who after 1942 fought a desperate series of urban defensive battles at key transportation nodes after the Germans invaded, and subsequently changed the course of World War II at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Nevertheless, and despite 60% of operations in Europe in the last two years of the war arguably being urban, the success narratives in Western armies were of ‘decisive’ mobile armoured warfare. After the war they reverted to preparing to fight those battles, neglecting hard-won urban capability. Techniques had to be relearned by United Nations forces for urban operations during the Korean War, and again by US troops during the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war.

In the immediate aftermath of defeat in Indochina, US military thinking focused on defending Europe against Soviet invasion and its 1970s doctrine of ‘active defence’ paid considerable attention to the use of urban terrain. However, in the early 1980s the US led NATO to shift to an offensively orientated defensive concept that sought to engage the enemy in depth – Air Land Battle.

While forces might hide in and ambush from urban terrain, the battle was to be one of swift manoeuvre in which slow offensive urban operations had no place. This preference combined with West German domestic politics.  Training to fight amongst the urban conurbation in the middle of Western Germany would have implied the politically intolerable notion of yielding the open country of the inner German border. The result was that, except for the multinational NATO force in isolated West Berlin, city fighting was largely excluded from preparation. 

Paradoxically, lower-level urban defensive fighting was not overlooked, as NATO planned to occupy villages from which to engage passing Soviet formations as well as defend key sites in urban terrain such as bridges.  NATO armies built small training facilities for this purpose, but this thinking and the small-scale facilities limited offensive urban training to unit level counter-attacks. 

The result was several generations of NATO officers who, having been exposed to a package of ‘village fighting’ in training that was billed as urban combat, did not recognise the chasm between the familiar small-scale problem and challenge of combined arms offensive city fighting.

An offensive manoeuvrist mindset may account for a lack of Western military interest in the protracted battles of Khorramshahr and other cities during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. More attention was paid to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and subsequent civil war, but the enduring problems for attacking forces within cities seem to have been overlooked.

The literature shows analysts were often either dismissive of the capability of the troops involved or attributing difficulties to poor leadership or political constraints. Such assessment continued through the Yugoslav wars from 1991, and the inept Russian initial operations in Grozny in 1995 probably reinforced such prejudices, and only later battles in that city by a reorganised and potent Russian army seem to have prompted a rethink

In the 90s, following their experience in their invasion of Panama and operations in Mogadishu there was a US-led surge of interest in the ABCA nations, with the construction of training facilities, development of new doctrine and trialling of specialised systems, but 9/11 brought capability plans to a halt. A shortfall was not immediately felt during the invasion of Iraq as Saddam Hussein failed to defend his cities as expected.

However, specialist engineer platforms and munitions might have avoided reliance on firepower during the first battle of Fallujah in 2004.  The destruction and civilian casualties caused domestic and international outrage, drove Iraqi soldiers to defect to the insurgents, turned the Iraqi Governing Council against the US and crystallised national resistance against the invaders. 

Ironically, the battle was fought by the US Marine Corps who had been the champions of new urban capabilities and whose commander, Lieutenant General Conway, contested the decision to attack, correctly anticipating its consequences.

Over the subsequent 15 years, the US military gained extensive exposure to urban combat in Iraq during their occupation – and subsequently in supporting the Iraqi army or proxies in battles against ISIS.  They have experienced the political and blood costs that are paid without appropriate capability. This understanding is reinforced by their close relationships with the Israeli military who have provided urban training and demonstrated the value of specialised platforms and techniques. 

The professional advocacy, dating from the 90s, for addressing urban operations is gaining visibility and momentum and there is acknowledgement of an urban future for war at the most senior levels of the US Military and strong professional advocacy for practical solutions.

Nevertheless, the capabilities of the leading military on the planet continue to reflect a cultural preference for open warfare and reveal acceptance of the political and casualty risks of city fighting with a force not designed for the purpose. Such challenges of dissonant understandings seems likely to continue, leaving armies poorly prepared for the challenges imposed by urban structures that are discussed in the next article.


About the author: Dr Charles Knight researches capability for operations amongst populations and structures at UNSW and CSU.  He has a practitioner and unconventional warfare background having served in the UK military and other armed forces. He also wrote the Australian urban doctrine and as a reservist is the SO1 Urban Operations at the Australian Army Research Centre. Views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @ChasAHKnight