The Calamity of Urban Warfare

Readers must familiarize themselves with these subtopics to understand the concepts discussed in this chapter. These articles are linked within this chapter, but it may be easier to read them in advance.

Modern Infantry Squads - with a rockets and heavy rifles

Magbomb - big hand grenades are needed

Combat Ponchos - are needed to mask infrared signatures

The Infantry Square - tactics for sustained close combat

Combat Fatigue and Sociopaths - neglected issues

Combat Bullhorns - simple, reliable comm

Video-Guided Missiles - infantrymen can guide missiles fired skyward

Rhinos - compact heavy armor

RAH-60 Gunhawks - use the AC-130 concept to fire guns from above


"And the worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative... The General, unable to control his impatience, will order his troops to swarm up the wall like ants, with the result that one-third of them will be killed without taking the city.  Such is the calamity of attacking cities.

                                                                                                 Sun Tzu  

     Roughly 3.9 billion people live in cities, nearly three-quarters of them in the developing world. Huge cities can become "forts" of the modern era.  These forts do not have one large wall but an endless series of city block walls that  provide defense-in-depth. Rather than fight a powerful, modern army on the field of battle, future opponents may offer to fight man-to-man in cities.  If large numbers of civilians remain in a city, using heavy firepower becomes a political matter and creates huge mounds of rubble passable only by foot infantrymen. Aircraft have trouble locating targets in cities and their angle of attack is often limited. Tanks have little maneuver space and are vulnerable to ambushes by shoulder-fired rockets when infantrymen appear from above or behind.

     During World War II, the mighty German Army was never able to take Leningrad or Stalingrad. One of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific occurred when US troops engaged a few thousand Japanese troops in Manila. Fortunately, most Japanese troops had withdrawn to defend from the mountains to the east of the city.  The bloodiest battle for US forces in Vietnam occurred during the recapture of  Hue City. When Russian armored forces attempted to put down a rebellion in Chechnya from 1994-96 they were slaughtered in urban fighting by light infantry with modern weapons. This was because widespread use of the simple Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) has made foot infantry much more powerful than in previous wars. Recall that  thousands of illiterate Somalis mauled US Army Rangers in 1993. Providing AK-47s and RPGs to several million men in a major city can create a deadly force, albeit not one capable of major operations.  

Urban Warfare Equipment and Tactics

     An army attacking a city faces a tough choice. It can try to limit damage and civilian deaths but will take heavy casualties clearing buildings with police-type SWAT tactics, or they can use heavy firepower to blast buildings that defenders occupy. Armies almost always choose the latter, blasting away and causing massive destruction. Generals do not like this option, but a concrete building easily becomes a concrete bunker. It can take days to clear out a large office building, which is why fighting in Beirut lasted for years. 

     During World War II, crafty German fighters bloodied American infantrymen in urban fighting by setting booby traps in doors and windows and setting up indoor ambushes. One US Army veteran wrote that they learned to never enter a door or window if enemy soldiers were thought to be inside. They used explosives or a bazooka to blast a hole in a wall and rushed in.  The enemy was always surprised and somewhat dazed as GIs stormed through the hole. In many cases, GIs secured a city block by moving inside buildings by blowing holes in each wall.   

     Tanks remain key weapons in urban warfare. They are well-protected from RPGs, assuming the enemy does not appear from the rear, and provide devastating firepower. However, Generals must limit firepower like air strikes because civilians do not understand the logic of destroying a city in order to liberate it. After the US Army retook Manila in 1944, many Filipinos were furious at the American liberators for causing major destruction. This is why Sun Tzu advised never to surround a city to trap an enemy. It is best to leave your enemy and civilians an escape route, which they will take if confronted by a stronger force inside the city. Once outside the city the enemy is easier to chase down and kill or capture. However, if trapped in a city they may fight to the death.

     The mighty Israelis had routed well-armed Arab armies several times in the open desert.  In 1982, they rushed to Beirut to finish off the PLO. After several weeks of bloody urban fighting against lightly armed guerillas, they went back home. Even "peacekeeping" forces may resort to the firepower solution, as US Marines demonstrated in 2004 when they "secured" the Iraqi city of Falluja by destroying it. The Israelis tried to crush Hamas in Gaza in 2014, but after several days of nasty urban fighting they pulled back, bombed buildings, and declared victory. Tall buildings are particularly troublesome as tank guns cannot elevate very high and aircraft have trouble attacking vertical targets. In addition, too much firepower may cause parts of a building to collapse, killing friendly infantrymen inside or on the street below.

     Urban fighting is very decentralized and requires heavier firepower at the squad level, with large hand grenades like magbombs. Troops also need a man-movable precision-guided weapon like a video guided missile (VIGUM) to destroy precise targets. Since night vision equipment has become common throughout the world, urban night fighting will become more common. While modern military forces have excellent night vision equipment, they need special combat ponchos to shield themselves from infrared detection. Urban warfare requires patience and an understanding of how to conduct sustained combat in urban operations. A frequent rotation of units is key, which works well with an Infantry Square.  The strain of prolonged combat will cause as many mental casualties as physical casualties, so officers must understand combat fatigue and how to deal with this common problem. 

     One valuable item for urban warfare are bullhorns. This allows nearby units to communicate when they become confused about each others exact position. It also provides a means of communications when radios fail due to interference from massive buildings or even just a lack of batteries. However, their big value is communicating with nearby civilians and enemy defenders. A translator can warn civilians that they must leave a building before it is destroyed. Even if they refuse to leave, this makes attacking soldiers feel better that they were given an opportunity. Likewise, enemy defenders are often demoralized and exhausted.  They may surrender if someone with bullhorn tells them how.

     Infantrymen need firepower support in urban warfare. Tanks are important, but employment is limited by their size and the blast problem their big gun presents to friendly infantrymen. Infantrymen really need small yet heavily armored Rhinos for close-in street fighting. The need for air support is understood, but jet aircraft have trouble finding targets on the dense urban battlefield, and fear hitting friendly troops who are often just meters from enemy units. Attack helicopters are good but they are easily ambushed by enemy anti-aircraft systems in large buildings. The best air support can be provided by RAH-60 Gunhawks hovering high overhead.

     One tactic that surprises an enemy is using paratroopers to land atop buildings. If dropped at night in good weather with modern steerable parachutes, most paratroopers could land safely on large buildings, especially if they have GPS to help guide them. In addition, mortars can fire illumination to light up the top of the building just before they land. These tactics are dangerous, but much better than grinding street battles and fighting door-to-door and up flights of stairs in large buildings. This is how German paratroopers quickly seized Belgium fortifications in 1940. Ideally, paratroopers land on a building a couple blocks behind enemy fighters so they can secure the building with little fighting. Once defenders learn the enemy has somehow secured a large building behind them, they are likely to withdraw to avoid entrapment.

     If a large enemy force is trapped in a skyscraper or huge complex and fighting is bloody and the enemy refuses to surrender, the Sun Tzu tactic of allowing an escape route should arranged. If this is not possible or the enemy thinks it a trap, they may agree to leave a building if allowed to take their weapons. They will be allowed an hour during a ceasefire to leave the area and flee into the countryside or residential neighborhood. They know this will make them more vulnerable, but they also know that staying in the building will result in certain death and they probably have many serious casualties they would like to surrender.

     Once freed from certain death, many of the enemy will flee for home or can be engaged in open country. The large building is saved from destruction while friendly and civilian lives are spared. This strategy was used in the great movie "The Last of the Mohicans."  The French had trapped the British in a fort and a lengthy siege ensured. Since the British General refused to surrender, the French General offered to allow British troops to honorably march out of the fort with all weapons and promised not to attack them. The British General accepted, only to be slaughtered in open country by a major Indian attack, while the French captured the fort without firing a shot.

Urban Warfare Training

     The US military recognized the need for urban warfare training many years ago and several Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) facilities have been constructed. However, these expensive complexes are just tiny villages often just a few cinder block buildings. There are no sewers, utility poles, large buildings, or rows of houses. As a result, the US Marine Corps has trained on parts of the closed George AFB in Southern California. The Army's solution was to invest hundreds of millions of dollars at Fort Knox for a "town" (below). While this is a big MOUT facility, it is certainly not a city.

     Fortunately, the US military needs to close excess bases. The US Army only closed two of its thirty largest bases in the four base closing rounds (Fort Ord and Fort Monmouth).  If the Army is serious about future warfare it needs to convert a surplus base into a huge urban warfare training center. The base wouldn't be closed, although the base population would become smaller as tenants move elsewhere while it becomes an urban warfighting complex. It would be 100 times larger than today's MOUT complexes to allow division-size operations that last for days. Soldiers would have to deal with large buildings, mines, snipers, civilians, and even tanks that roll out of buildings.

     The ideal base would have a large urban area in the center near a vacant military housing area to provide maneuver room around the "city" and a sound buffer from the local community. An open area outside the "city" allows for large helicopter or airborne landings and ideally an airstrip. This would allow for realistic operations as units deploy from its home base directly into the training area as part of the scenario. A large multi-day operation would require logistics from an airhead, requiring the "invading" brigade to land and distribute food, water, and ammunition to units, or secure sources nearby. It would need to establish electric power, a medical aid station, latrines, a POW camp, and communications with its home base.  There is no reason why such operations cannot last for three weeks like the current armored brigade rotations at the National Training Center in the desolate California desert.

     The base should not provide logistical support for airmobile operations, however, C-130 logistical sorties could be simulated to save money by positioning C-130 size loads near the airfield, which umpires only release for use according to a realistic timetable.  The base would have facilities around the edge of the base to support the administrative and training staff for the world's largest urban warfare complex. The base can earn money as well since Hollywood producers often need a war torn setting for movies.

     Fort Polk in Louisiana is ideal since it already hosts the Joint Readiness Training Center with a tiny village now used for urban ops. It has an Army airfield, a larger airstrip just outside the base, and port access in nearby Beaumont, Texas where soldiers and marines can arrive from ships. Movement of equipment by ship to Fort Polk provides ideal expeditionary training. The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment may move elsewhere and the base downsized so that most of the urbanized part of the base can be added to the training area. At the very least, North Fort Polk could become a huge urban warfare training area.

     This new complex would cost almost nothing. Temporary barracks and warehouses for visiting units already exist. A hundred old cars and trucks can be added along with some old destroyed military tanks and vehicles. Control towers can monitor the range and run exercises. Ideally, the range includes a few hundred military minimum security prisoners serving a short sentence. This cheap labor lives in the "city" and help maintain the training area and provide extra manpower to act as OPFOR urban guerillas and local civilians. This base should become nation's most  important "National Training Center"; more prestigious and better funded that the old one in the California desert where soldiers learn to defeat mass Soviet tank attacks. As the US Army abandons bases in Germany and Korea, those nations should convert a base into a major urban warfare training center.  

     Urban warfare tactics are debated in professional journals. For example, some feel that soldiers should use a police tactic and stack soldiers in a row to flood into a room after knocking down the door. Others point out that police are usually after a guy with a pistol or rifle, while enemy soldiers have automatic weapons and grenades so "stacking" bodies is dangerous. Three movies offer excellent depictions of urban battles: "Stalingrad", "Enemy at the Gates", and "Blackhawk Down," which is also a great book. Urban warfare will grow in importance as the world's population continues to urbanize, so armies must spend as much time training for urban fights as they do training for warfare in the countryside.