The city is the battlefield of the future

Staff Columnist

“The Mosul experience shows the difficulties of urban warfare – and the need for better training.”

( by John Spencer in the Wall Street Journal, Thursday, July 20, 2017 )

Major Spencer is an Army infantryman and deputy director of the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.N.Y.

“The battle for Mosul represents the future of warfare – and it wasn’t pretty for America’s allies.  A ragtag army of a few thousand Islamic State fighters managed to hold the city for months against some 100,000 U.S. backed Iraqi security forces.  The ISIS fighters communicated via social media and were armed with crude explosive devices and drones available at Wal-Mart.  In the end the rebel fighters were dislodged, but not before an estimated 7,000 people were killed and another 22,000 wounded.

U.S. Commanders ought to imagine how they would handle a similar environment.  Future American conflicts will not be waged in the caves or craggy mountaintops of Afghanistan, much less the open deserts of Iraq or the jungles of Vietnam.  They will be fought in cities – dense, often overpopulated and full of obstacles: labyrinthine apartment blocks, concealed tunnels, panicking civilians.  The enemy will be highly networked and integrated into his surroundings.  America’s next war will be the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu on steroids.”

Spencer continues:  “The U.S. military must wake up to the reality of demographic trends.  Over half of the world’s population resides in cities, and the United Nations estimates that figure will reach 60% by 2030.  By that same year, the number of ‘megacities,’ those with more than 10 million residents, will climb from 31 to more than 40.  Such urbanization makes less plausible the traditional tactic of coercing civilians out of conflict zones to give the military free rein.

This in turn makes cities increasingly attractive to bands of violent nonstate actors in places like the Middle East and northern Africa.

Dense populations, advances in communication technology, and the often-poor coordination between city and national-security forces can allow terror groups to control urban territory at a fraction of the cost states spend to fight back.  No amount of money thrown into the U.S. defense budget will correct this urban disadvantage without a major shift in the way Americans prepare to fight.”

More:  “Surprisingly, few militaries specifically train for major urban operations.  The U.S. military has no location that can adequately replicate a big city.  The training sites on Army bases that are generously labeled as ‘urban’  include a few dozen buildings at best.  The three centers that certify units for combat – the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La, and the Joint Multinational Readiness Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany – are in rural places.  We don’t transport sand into the woods to train for desert warfare or build greenhouses to simulate jungles.   We train in those environments, and we should train for urban warfare in cities.

The only site available to the Army that comes close to what’s needed is the Indiana National Guard’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.  This 1,000 acre facility has 68 buildings, a reservoir, a system of tunnels, and more than nine miles of roads.  But Muscatatuck still lacks the density American and allied forces have repeatedly faced since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.

American forces also need to be equipped to operate in large cities with new equipment, formations and doctrine.  Nowhere in the U.S. Army’s doctrine – the manuals of concepts and operating procedures that guide the action of its forces – does the word ‘siege’ appear.  But this oldest form of warfare has become the chosen tactic to end urban fights in Iraq and Syria.  Islamic State was able to drag out conflicts in Mosul and Raqqa while U.S.-backed forces struggled to cut off supply routes.”

Spencer’s suggestions:  “What can be done to level this imbalance on urban terrain?  A first step would be to create an authentic, full-scale

Training site to prepare American troops.  I imagine a school in an actual city, analogous to the mountain, desert and jungle operations  centers the U.S. currently maintains.”  (He further suggests that major cities such as Detroit and the outer boroughs of New York have large abandoned areas that could safely be redeveloped as urban training sites.)

Spencer concludes:  “This is a long-term investment:  A new training facility would not prevent quagmires like Mosul overnight.  Critics might argue that the U.S. should focus on retaining its advantage against strategic adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea.  But strategic deterrence and battle-field readiness are not mutually exclusive.  Equipping soldiers to fight in cities is one way to deter enemies – state and nonstate actors alike – from challenging America directly.”

— With Thanks to Major John Spencer


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