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To Beat ISIS, We Ought to Try Robotskrieg
If we aren’t willing to use American infantry against ISIS, perhaps we might consider using robots. To date, most candidates in the 2016 presidential race concede that something more forceful has to be done about destroying the terror sanctuary that the self- proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State has become. However, no remaining candidate has come out and declared that he or she would use American ground combat forces to do the job. Most would go so far as to embed US trainers and teams to call in precision airstrikes. The problem is that it will likely take years to train coalition assault troops in the urban tactics needed to retake large urban area such as Mosul and Raqqa from the thousands of dedicated hard core fighters that would defend those cities. When Iraqi troops retook Tikrit and Ramadi, they faced only a few hundred ISIS fighters and overwhelmingly outnumbered the defenders. Even then, the battles were long and bloody. Ergo, robots.
Urban combat is the most difficult and dangerous kind, and the defender has all the advantages. OPERATION PHANTOM FURY, the battle waged by U.S. Marines to retake mid-sized Fallujah in 2004, was the bloodiest Marine Corps battle since the Vietnam War. Fallujah was defended by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which was the linear predecessor of ISIS. Some of the senior Islamic State commanders today are veterans of that fight. The Marines faced snipers, booby traps, suicide bombers, and tunnels. AQI blew mouse holes in the walls that connected the buildings so they could maneuver between buildings without exposing themselves to American aircraft.
The Americans had two advantages that Iraqi, Kurdish, or Free Syrian troops will not have in assaulting places like Mosul or Raqqa. AQI made the mistake of allowing much of the population to leave Fallujah before the fighting began. ISIS has made it clear that it will not repeat that error. Second, the Marines had anticipated the problems of urban combat based on their experience in Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. From 1998-2001, the Marines engaged in a massive program of urban training and experimentation to prepare for offensive combat in cities. The tactics and equipment Marines used in Fallujah were direct result of URBAN WARRIOR. Our coalition allies will benefit from some of that experience from American trainers, but it will take many months to bring our allies up to speed. This is where robotics might help.
One of the things those of us who were involved with URBAN WARRIOR examined was the use of remotely operated unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) as assault units to clear buildings in the belief that the robotic vehicles would be less vulnerable than humans to sniper fire, IEDs, and suicide bombers. Unfortunately, early experiments and war games showed that the technology at the time was simply not mature enough to make urban assault UGVs feasible.
It is now nearly two decades later, and many of the technologies we wanted to put aboard the assault UGVs are now mature enough; so are the robotic platforms available today. Many of the types of UGV platforms that fight each other on popular TV shows are now small and agile enough to operate inside buildings. The robots do not need months of training and discipline. Once the assault UGVs have cleared a building, coalition troops could move in and hold it; this kind of operation requires less training and experience than urban assault.
The theory here is that by attaching five or six robotic teams to each coalition assault battalion, we could prepare existing allied infantry for urban combat relatively quickly. The weapons systems and platforms needed to accomplish this exist; they merely need to be married to capable UGV platforms. This would not require an American effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project that developed the first Atomic Bombs. We are probably talking about a four-to-five- month science project with a couple of more months of work-up with our coalition partners.
Any technology can be countered eventually, but the object of this exercise would be to deny ISIS time to counter it. Although ISIS is estimated to have about 30,000 followers, the number of highly trained jihadist light infantry that comprise the core of their army is in the low thousands. Once they are gone, those fighters will be irreplaceable in the foreseeable future. With its army destroyed and stripped of its urban sanctuaries, ISIS will become just another wandering bunch of extremist thugs. Robots are worth a try.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel. He was the Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory during the URBAN WARRIOR experiments.