Urban-warfare experts developing comprehensive battle plan

By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer

It's not as if they're trying to change what you do, but more how you think.

Fighting an insurgency in an urban environment is one of the toughest challenges a military can face. Separating friend from foe, avoiding collateral damage, trying not to alienate the community while still keeping your troops safe - all are daunting challenges to any unit commander. That's why the Pentagon is pouring millions of dollars and scores of experts into cracking the code of how best to fight in cities and still win hearts and minds.

In a collaborative effort with the Suffolk, Va.-based Joint Forces Command, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico has been gathering together experts in urban fighting - many of them veterans of some of the toughest combat zones in the world - to come up with ideas that will help small-unit leaders control the urban battlefield.

In early April, the Corps sponsored a final symposium and series of war games to home in on key lessons for the urban fight.

What they found weren't specific tactics; rather, experts stressed the need for commanders to think differently about where forces are operating.

"I wanted them to present how to think about small wars and urban operations and particularly to get people in the box - the things you need to consider how to think about operations in this complex environment," said Dave Dilegge, a civilian military consultant with the lab's war-gaming division who ran the Joint Urban Warrior '06 symposium. "This is what I said: 'What would you have liked to have known prior to your taking part in the experiences that you did?'"

And this wasn't just a bunch of eggheads sitting around a table coming up with doctrine that a platoon commander or squad leader would never see. The intent of the program is to funnel all that brainpower to the troops as quickly as possible - and not with a boring PowerPoint assault.

The Lab hopes to be ready to distribute a multimedia "Battle Book" soon to small-unit leaders - complete with video clips, pictures and an interactive lessons learned report - to help them prepare for urban fights.

"We believe this thing will be valuable and applicable to everyone from the strategic corporal up to the tactical general," Dilegge added.

During the multiday series of briefings and war games at the Marine Command and Staff College at Quantico, experts in urban operations from Australia, Israel, Singapore and the U.S. military briefed their experiences and put together some of their key lessons-learned on urban fights in Haiti, the Balkans, East Timor and Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military leaders and officials from government agencies such as the State Department and Coast Guard hashed out topics as wide-ranging as how to deal with the complex terrain of a city for targeting and movement, how to coordinate military operations with civilian agencies in an urban fight and how best to treat and evacuate casualties.

While the final battle book of the symposium is still being compiled, experts did gain surprising insights on how to better prepare Marines for an urban battle and to fight to win. These include:

• Push military education down the ranks. Take some of the schooling normally reserved for staff officers and staff noncommissioned officers and push it down to junior officers and NCOs. "They're making decisions that used to be made by a lieutenant colonel or colonel. We're not challenging [junior officers and NCOs] to think about these things when they're out on this dynamic battlefield," Dilegge said.

• Get more agencies into the fight. All the top brass say the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan depends on the careful integration of military force and government agency initiatives. But the Marine war game showed the pace is too slow. "There's very good intentions. … It's a given that it's an interagency fight. But there's not enough people there yet," Dilegge said.

• Cultural education. The Corps has done a good job injecting cultural training into its schools to better understand potential enemies, but what about our allies? "We keep focusing on the local environment we're going into. We're also part of a coalition. There's cultural aspects of forming a coalition," Dilegge said.

• Wings instead of boots. While war gamers found that troops were well supplied and tactically competent in an urban fight when it came to pulling the trigger, Frank Jordan, director of the Corps' war gaming division, said there was interesting discussion concerning the use of air power for urban patrols.

"Conventional wisdom is that there is not a significant or particularly effective role for tactical aviation in urban operations," Jordan explained. But based on examples of accurate strikes from recent urban operations, "I'm not so sure about that. … It kind of takes you into some realms of economy of force operations that might be fairly attractive."