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04-26-04, 07:23 AM

Iraq Shows Intense Urban Warfare Training Need

By William F. Sauerwein

The eruption of violence by Iraqi insurgents in the Sunni Triangle and the Shiite city of Najaf has forced the U.S.-led coalition to respond in what has turned into a series of sharp, if not large-scale, urban battles in Iraq.

Military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) demand the most intensity, yet are the least practiced of military tactics. Technological advances in firepower and equipment provide American forces a distinct advantage; however it has little effect on MOUT operations. Commanders at all levels seek open, maneuver warfare for displaying their expertise at using that technological “force multiplier.” They also hope to avoid the murkiness of urban warfare, which includes separating enemy combatants from civilians.

The most prolonged MOUT combat of American forces was during World War II, especially the European Theater. Anyone who has been to Europe knows its population density, with small towns in almost every grid square. American troops learned to capture these towns largely through the bloody trial-and-error technique. Those who survived taught the replacements of those who did not, and the war continued.

Urban combat tactics remain basically unchanged, small units engaged in bloody house-to-house fighting. This intensity requires extensive training of these small units; so why is this training so rarely performed? Units in Germany, where urban combat was expected, only trained about twice per year in small sites. Berlin supposedly possessed the best MOUT site, but scheduling it was almost impossible, even had commanders desired to use it.

The main problem in Germany was that unit-training evaluations occurred at the Hohenfels maneuver area. The commander’s career depended on a successful evaluation, as well as his/her staff and all subordinate leaders. Therefore most of the unit’s training revolved around those tasks that would be used in this exercise. While I remember seeing a MOUT site at Hohenfels during the 1980s, my units never used it.

The same is true of CONUS-based units, whose training evaluations occurred in the desert at the National Training Center (NTC). During my several rotations there, I was unaware if NTC possessed a MOUT site, or not. MOUT training in South Korea during my two tours was nonexistent, even though Korea is densely populated.

Since no one enjoys performing distasteful tasks, and urban combat is most distasteful, it is simply ignored in training. Commanders cannot bring their massive firepower to bear, killing the enemy at long range, or out-maneuvering them. Furthermore, commanders and their staffs cannot micromanage their subordinate units, since urban warfare is primarily a small unit battle.

This places the success, or failure, of the battle into the hands of 18- and 19-year-old soldiers, led by 21-year-old sergeants. While fear is common among all soldiers, it is especially daunting for the youngest and least experienced. They must have the training and confidence to overcome their fear, and make split-second decisions. Following a battalion scheme of maneuver as a “cog” in the “machine” does not develop these necessary skills.

Company and battalion commanders lose effective control of the battle once penetrating an urban area. In urban combat, a squad must force an entry into a building, normally supported by its parent platoon. One soldier “cooks off” a hand grenade, usually covered by fire, and throws it into the room. Following the detonation, two soldiers then enter the room with weapons blazing, and clear the room. Using similar tactics, the rest of the squad clears the remaining rooms in the same manner.

Urban combat is very “personnel intensive” as the effectiveness of each soldier is reduced by the restrictive terrain. Just as in clearing trench lines and bunker complexes, a unit does not capture more terrain than it can defend. Depending on the size of the building, and casualties taken, a squad can realistically capture one building. Reduced visibility limits the fields of observation and fire, limiting a unit’s area of influence.

As in open, maneuver warfare, the desire of urban combat is striking the enemy from where least expected. This includes blowing holes in walls, floors and ceilings, as well as using sewer systems and pre-constructed tunnels. Therefore, each cleared room must be defended against counterattack by two soldiers, reducing the number of troops available for continuing the attack.

Under these “worst-case scenario” conditions, an infantry company can realistically capture and hold about one city block. Leaving a cleared building unguarded invites the enemy to move back in, and create havoc in the rear. Our forces in Iraq are currently facing the reality of this as the insurgents attack their supply convoys.

Resupply is extremely important since urban combat requires more ammunition, particularly hand grenades, than traditional warfare. Troops must be diverted from the front for defending lines of communication and protecting convoys. Support troops must be better armed, and better trained, in rear area combat, particularly reacting to ambush.

Even if MOUT training held a higher priority, no existing training site possesses the scale of the large cities where we currently fight. Troops cannot fight through cities like this without periods of rest and re-supply, or casualties will increase. Yet, combat units must maintain the momentum, requiring additional forces for relieving those on the front.

Our technological “force multiplier,” said to compensate for our reduced personnel strength, is largely negated in MOUT operations. Long-range tank fire is almost nonexistent once inside an urban area and vehicular vulnerability is increased. Enemy tank-killer teams can achieve remarkable success, as demonstrated recently in Iraq. Once soldiers or Marines penetrate a town, the infantry must precede the tanks, protecting them from these teams.

Artillery and mortar fire is most effective in firing behind the enemy, preventing their escape or reinforcement. Most of the combat will be at close range, and the lethality of indirect fire makes it a danger to friendly forces. In the close environment of urban areas, adjusting indirect fire may prove difficult as terrain features may obscure targeting.


04-26-04, 07:23 AM
Air supremacy has been our “ace in the hole” since World War II, but it too has its limitations. The first is our national will to use it effectively, something we failed to accomplish in Vietnam. It further has the same limitations as described above for indirect supporting fires. Urban terrain further provides more cover for enemy air defenders, including anti-tank weapons fired from upper levels of buildings.

I believe one use of air power in urban warfare could be a combat air patrol engaging targets of opportunity. This would keep enemy troops disorganized and unable to rest and re-supply. It could also provide timely information regarding enemy troop movements, allowing our ground forces quicker reaction.

Perhaps the most troublesome and the hardest problem is the number of civilian casualties. Urban areas are population centers, including refugees fleeing the fighting in the countryside, making these casualties difficult to avoid. Thousands of civilians became casualties in the crossfire of urban combat during World War II.

While American forces avoid inflicting civilian casualties, the lethality of modern combat makes total avoidance impossible. Our development of “smart” weaponry is specifically designed to avoid unnecessary destruction. The problem we face is balancing the avoidance of civilian casualties against placing undo risk on our soldiers’ lives.

This becomes more difficult when the enemy acts contrary to the laws of warfare. Currently the Iraqi insurgents blend in with the civilian populace, and use them as shields. The current wave of terrorist bombings has harmed more Iraqi civilians than coalition troops, and they fire from mosques, hospitals and other protected sites. They hope that this will inflame the local population, and adversely affect world opinion.

The primary concern of coalition forces must be accomplishing their mission and minimizing friendly casualties. Defeating the enemy is the surest way of reducing civilian casualties, and accomplishing the humanitarian tasks.

Training conducted for years at the NTC enabled the brilliant battlefield successes of both Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. I believe a similar urban combat training center would develop the same proficiency. During the base closures of the early 1990s, one of these installations could have been developed as such. Since many of these installations still lie dormant, the potential for this still exists.

The Most effective concept would be to create a MOUT site that consists of more than a few vacant buildings, taking only about an hour to capture. The Army and Marines should create a NTC-style exercise against a dedicated opposing force (OPFOR), including “civilians” and “local security forces.” Our military commanders should require units to undergo this training with the same frequency as the NTC, with the stakes just as high.

Creating and maintaining such a facility would be an expensive enterprise, as well as funding training of the rotating units.

However, we must accept the current reality that our forces are now engaging in urban combat, and we must adequately train to win. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the same situation of today, experimenting with tactics while under fire. Certainly decisively crushing the enemy and reducing the loss of our soldiers’ lives is worth the effort.

William F. Sauerwein is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mono@gtec.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.