Small Wars Journal

Fighting in the Phone Booth: An Urban Pivot for the U.S. Army

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 5:59am

Fighting in the Phone Booth: An Urban Pivot for the U.S. Army

Sean Parrott

The United States Army is training to fight the wrong war. At the tactical level, units are preparing to meet near-peer threats in open terrain. A typical field exercise sees soldiers patrolling the woods or fighting pitched tank battles in the open desert. What you will not see is a rifle squad clearing a city block or practicing urban breaching techniques. Reconnaissance assets are not constructing hide sites in a building, and the complex integration of vehicles and dismounts in the city fight goes untested. With the rapid global population boom, large scale conflict in cities isn't becoming an inevitability; it’s already happening. While the Army must continue to build its capacity to wage war on a large scale, across all domains, the ability to effectively fight and win in population centers is crucial. The sovereignty of a nation derives from the ability to protect its populace, making cities an unavoidable strategic target. The Army, as currently constructed and trained, is unprepared to prosecute war in city centers. The unique tactical and strategic challenges presented by densely populated urban areas are not being addressed in any institutional or unit level military training. The Army's pivot to near-peer conflict cannot come with the assumption that the future fight will resemble Cold War-era battlefields. To ready itself for future combat operations, the Army must take action to ensure combat units are trained and proficient in urban warfare. Doctrine and best practices for fighting in cities must be developed and spread throughout the force in institutional education.  Finally, realistic training facilities must be built to allow units to hone their ability to operate within the complexities of the urban fight.

The Army must have a unified vision for military operations in cities. The logical first step would be the development of urban warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). A veritable treasure trove of experience exists in American combat formations, lessons hard learned during decades of house to house conflict in the Middle East. Stakeholders from across the spectrum of urban warfighting must collaborate to develop, test, and package these concepts for dissemination to the broader force. A good foundation is ATP 3-06, Urban Operations, a joint effort by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. While current doctrine provides an excellent theoretical base for understanding the challenges posed by city fighting, we need handbooks, publications, and instructors that can effectively translate concepts into concrete TTPs equally useful to the rifleman and commander. Leveraging the shared experiences and observations of the joint force, be it the SOF community, conventional infantry, or sister service maneuver units to create and disseminate a shared vision for how the Army will fight in cities is a foundational first step in the towards urban proficiency.

What good is doctrine if not emphasized and taught? An effort needs to be made to distribute these best practices during all phases of training, from the schoolhouse to the operational units during home-station training. Leaders from the small unit level to operational commanders should have a firm grasp of the complexities of urban combat, and the blending of operational and strategic considerations that come into play when fighting amongst a densely distributed population. The Army’s institutional schooling for officers and non-commissioned officers fails to prepare leaders for the reality of future war: that urban combat in the city center is inevitable. The first time a company-grade officer is faced with the unique considerations of city fighting, balancing collateral damage to people and infrastructure with the three-dimensional battlespace cannot be when the bullets are real. Every effort should be placed into ensuring that scenarios involving urban warfare are present in training, from wargaming to field exercises. Leaders must be confronted with the challenges the city presents, as a tactical decision can have strategic consequences. This line of thinking must follow Army leaders from the schoolhouse to operational assignments, reinforced through leader professional development sessions and leaders' time training. The Army must make the strongest effort to build its capability to wage war in urban environments, from institutional education to realistic scenario-driven field training exercises.

Having a solid theoretical understanding of the fundamentals of urban combat is a necessary foundation for Army leaders. However, building the most ready force requires the repetition of fundamentals at the team level. Whether training on room clearing, sniper reaction drills, or urban hide site construction, soldiers need the time and resources to practice and build upon their TTPs. Critical to this end, training areas at installations and combat training centers need to develop and maintain the appropriate facilities to replicate the unique challenges of the urban fight. The bulk of city fighting will be done by infantry brigade combat teams who train to fight Cold War-style battles against a simulated mechanized threat, on wide-open terrain reminiscent of Eastern Europe. Soldiers need to experience the three-dimensional nature of city fighting before the bullets are real. The token MOUT sites and mock villages currently used to fill this shortfall are inadequate to prepare the warfighter for the battlefield of the future. A good model for these facilities is the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex (MUTC), a thousand-acre sprawling mock city that includes subterranean features and architecture modeled after modern city centers, an invaluable resource underutilized by conventional combat units. The development of these training areas must be two-pronged. First, all tactical units must have access to sophisticated and customizable shoot houses. Clearing buildings is a skill that can only be mastered through repetition, and modern conventional infantry units are already underprepared and untrained to execute simple multi-room clearing operations. In the added complexity of the urban fight, the nuances of sweeping multi-floor structures, subway systems, or dense residential complexes are an afterthought. In this vein, the aforementioned mock city centers are essential training areas for larger units to have regular access to train on and in. Larger field problems should strive to incorporate the transition from the exurban to the suburban to the city block itself to best prepare leaders at echelon for the unique challenges of urban combat.

Urban warfare is violent and costly by nature. In the history of recorded warfare, attacking population centers has been considered a grievous tactical error. With explosive population growth and urbanization, especially in inherently unstable areas of the globe, avoiding the city is a luxury commanders of the future can ill afford. With this in mind, the Army must recognize this inevitability and begin a process to train and equip soldiers and leaders for the complexity of urban combat. The path is clear: the Army must develop the requisite doctrine, proliferate it through institutional education, and develop appropriate facilities to allow units to train for future combat. The United States has spent significant blood treasure learning the hard lessons of urban warfare from Mogadishu to Baghdad, and from allies in Mosul and Kobane. The Army owes it to soldiers to ensure they are trained, equipped, and prepared for war in the concrete jungle.

About the Author(s)

Sean Parrott is a First Lieutenant and Armor Officer currently serving in the 101st Airborne Division. He is presently the Logistics Officer for 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment and most recently served as a Platoon Leader. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:49am

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Fair point. I believe this to be a false dichotomy, however. The next near-peer fight will likely involve urban conflict against great power forces or their proxies. We must be prepared to meet them in any terrain.

While the old trope is generals planning to fight the last war, I believe the more common error is generals planning for the war they want, which is not necessarily the war they are going to get. Continued preparation for high-intensity combat against Russian/Chinese/analog formations definitely sounds like this.

However, generals may be old but they aren't stupid. While 1LT Parrott believes we should prepare for urban fighting because he personally is most likely to be sent into an urban fight, and he personally can't afford to lost that fight, the GOFOs in the Pentagon probably have a different perspective, and not all wars are equally serious to the United States as a whole.

We can afford to be okay at urban warfare and periodically suffer to relearn the finer points, but we can't afford to struggle against peer threats.