Small Wars Journal

Has the U.S. solved the urban combat problem?

Near the end of his presentation last Thursday at the annual CNAS conference, General David Petraeus contrasted the 2008 battle for Sadr City with the 2004 battles for Fallujah. General Petraeus left the impression that if a U.S. commander is given a sufficient quantity of enablers," especially in the form of overhead surveillance assets, the U.S. will dominate urban terrain nearly as easily as it dominates open terrain.

Small Wars Journal grew out of work Dave and Bill did early this decade on the problems posed by military operations in urban terrain (MOUT). A decade ago U.S. ground forces realized that they could no longer ignore urban terrain as had been doctrine during the Cold War -- irregular adversaries had displaced to cities for concealment.

But is General Petraeus's implied assertion correct? Has the U.S. solved the urban combat problem, thus denying irregular adversaries perhaps their best redoubt? If so, how will these adversaries adjust?

Readers, please give your views in the comments.

Here are excerpts from General Petraeus's remarks to the CNAS conference, as delivered:

And so briefly, this is what we did in Sadr City, by the way. And we created this slide to capture an incredible moment: how we did Sadr City in contrast to how we fought Fallujah. Fallujah in 2004 was a bit more of the old -- because we didn't [have] all these enablers. We had to clear street by street. We used tanks. We used every enabler we had but we had nowhere near the number of platforms that we were able to put up over [Sadr City].


What we did over time as we -- to support one great brigade commander Colonel John Hort, 3rd brigade, 4th infantry division. He had the world at his disposal: 11 unmanned aerial vehicles include two [P]redators, armed full motion video with Hellfire missiles, special intelligence birds, special [SOF] bird and then these other Shadows and Ravens, three each, 24 hours a day, blimps with optics looking into the city, towers with optics looking into the city, ringed it with radars to tell us precisely where the rounds were coming from, and then everything even above it all the way up to national technical means, and all the way down to sniper, SEAL snipers, tanks, Bradleys, [Strykers], infantry and certainly Iraqi security forces.

And over time, in the course of a two to three-week campaign, we destroyed 77 rocket teams in the act of shooting rockets [which] were going back to their cache, because we had very good intelligence over time on this including folks inside the city, I might add, from various intelligence organizations sources. And then, also took [out] 780 militia members during very tough fighting because we had to clear and hold about one quarter to one third of the city just to deny one particular spot from which they had zeroed in with 107-millimeter rockets.

This is how we fight when we can with all of the assets that we have. And we are in fact shifting -- augmenting substantially the numbers of these kinds of assets in Afghanistan while still maintaining what we have to a large degree in Iraq so that we can indeed accomplish the tasks and the responsible drawdown policy strategy that has been established for Iraq and which is on track, I might add. So this is the answer.

So what do I mean in a contemporary context by solving the urban combat problem?"

1) The same end-state achieved from traditional" urban combat -- control of the geography and population,

2) No need for coalition ground forces to go house-to-house, wrecking the city in the process,

3) Much reduced risk to coalition forces, resulting in few friendly casualties,

4) Much reduced non-combatant casualties and refugee flows, resulting from persistent observation and precision fires,

5) Perhaps most important, no climactic drama and resulting media attention.

So was the 2008 battle for Sadr City a one-off, the result of unique circumstances? Or is it a model for future U.S. MOUT operations? If U.S.-led coalition forces can dominate urban terrain almost as cleanly and cheaply as open terrain, what are the consequences for irregular adversaries? And how might they adapt?

Readers, I welcome your comments.



Mon, 06/15/2009 - 3:58pm

Glad to see somebody admit how much Colonel Warden's theories on Air Power have been used to Win the War.

Ken White

Mon, 06/15/2009 - 1:43pm

What he said -- plus adding after 'Sadr City;' "and provided a similar array of surveillance devices is readily available to all committed US forces."

Adding after 'to dominate;' "Almost certainly that will include efforts to expand the battlespace to lessen our potential surveillance advantage and likely will include efforts to disrupt or destroy that capability. That will include decoys, feints and deception as well as technical efforts."

Either of us could probably add more but I believe a bottom line is that we should be very careful in accepting lessons that seem to promise success...

I am reminded of the Tactics instructors at Leavenworth once upon a time cautionary to their CGSC students: "What we are going to teach you will work in moderate terrain and vegetation on a clear day in June against an enemy that is roughly comparable to your force and if your force is at full strength, well trained and has all equipment present and operational. If any of those parameters are not present or change, you'll have to adjust..."


Mon, 06/15/2009 - 12:53pm

<I>"So was the 2008 battle for Sadr City a one-off, the result of unique circumstances? Or is it a model for future U.S. MOUT operations?"</I>
It is a model for future MOUT operations in cities that are substantially similar to Sadr City.

<I>"If U.S.-led coalition forces can dominate urban terrain almost as cleanly and cheaply as open terrain, what are the consequences for irregular adversaries? And how might they adapt?"</I>
Recognizing that we can dominate, they will deceive or outmaneuver us in order to entice us to fight in a way that allows them to dominate.