Sadr City 2008: a new model for urban combat?

RAND recently published a short study of the 2008 battle for Sadr City. This study is the first of what RAND intends to be a deep dive into the lessons learned from that battle.

RAND’s authors assert that “the coalition victory in the Battle of Sadr City offers important lessons for the prosecution of future urban operations” and that the battle “has doctrinal, organizational, materiel, and training implications for both the U.S. Army and the joint force.” The current conventional wisdom holds that irregular adversaries can still use complex urban terrain to prevail in the “finder vs. hider” matchup, especially when the finders are Western expeditionary forces playing an “away game” in the irregular adversary’s city.

The tactics, techniques, and procedures used against the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia in March through May 2008 in Sadr City are offered up as a way to dismiss this conventional wisdom. Unlike Grozny in 1999-2000 or Fallujah in 2004, coalition operations in Sadr City employed scalpels not sledgehammers and succeeded in carefully carving out JAM without either laying waste to the city or requiring the civilian population to evacuate. Even more impressive, a single task-organized U.S. Army brigade (3-4 BCT) completed this mission in an objective area half the size of Manhattan Island but with three times Manhattan’s population density.

The RAND report describes how the battle staff integrated available ISR assets; made use of heavy armor, snipers, and guided munitions; and cleverly used engineers for mobility and counter-mobility applications. The authors also noted how 3-4 BCT quickly adjusted from counterinsurgency to high-intensity operations then back to COIN over the span of a few months.

U.S. force planners and doctrine writers should assume that U.S. ground forces will find themselves squaring off against irregular adversaries in urban terrain, the adversary’s preferred habitat. The issue for planners will be whether Sadr City actually is a useful model for this scenario. Skeptics might note that the ground maneuver element enjoyed a very rich abundance of ISR support, other specialized enablers, and the support of indigenous security forces, assets that one should not assume will be present for future contingencies. And if they are not, where would that leave the Sadr City model?

After reading the report for yourself, please comment whether you think there is a “Sadr City model” for operations in urban terrain and if so, whether it has useful applications for future contingencies.

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