Small Wars Journal

Redeveloping Regimental Combat Teams (RCTs) for Large-Scale and Mega-City Combat Operations

Sun, 07/23/2023 - 7:49pm

Redeveloping Regimental Combat Teams (RCTs) for Large-Scale and Mega-City Combat Operations

By Justin Baumann


“As USARPAC [United States Army Pacific] reminds us frequently, is that wars may start at sea, but they finish on the land” [1] – Brigadier General Pat Ellis

In his commencement address to West Point graduates in 2022, describing the battlefield of tomorrow, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley stated, “Additionally, the battlefield will be highly complex and almost certainly decisive in urban areas, against elusive ambiguous enemies that combine terrorism and warfare alongside conventional capabilities, all embedded within large civilian populations. In this world, your world, you’re going to have to optimize yourselves for urban combat, not rural combat. That has huge implications for intelligence collection, vehicles, weapons design, development, logistics, commo, and all the other aspects of our profession. The battlefield is going to be non-linear, compartmented, and units are going to have non-contiguous battle space, with significant geographical separation between friendly forces … This type of battlefield is going to place a very high premium on independent, relatively small formations that are highly lethal and linked to very long-range precision fires.” [2] 

The main thesis of this article is that the US Army’s force development doctrine for large-scale combat operations reached its culmination near the end of the Korean War and that the lessons learned from that conflict can significantly benefit Army force design into the future. [3] The leaders and Army at that time, especially General Ridgway, were personally familiar with large-scale combat operations across the European and Pacific theatres of WWII, [4] and they incorporated the difficult lessons learned into their force designs when fighting in Korea to great effect, reversing early defeats and turning the Army into a more efficient fighting force before the armistice was signed in 1953. [5] [6]

After Korea, Army doctrine distracted itself by experimenting with the Pentomic Division based on strategic nuclear developments, pivoting to the Vietnam War, adjusting to the Cold War, and finally, designing AirLand Battle with the Big Five as a framework, ending with the Counter Insurgency (COIN) failures in the Middle East. [7] This article seeks to incorporate the knowledge and lessons about large-scale combat operations from these previous doctrine periods into the RCT force design concept presented here, in contrast to the division-centric approach currently favored by the Army, [8] with the intention of creating a more effective and lethal multi-domain land Army spearheading the joint force prepared for positional, maneuver, proxy, and attritional warfare. [9]

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

“Russia has historically chosen to destroy cities rather than fight for them.” - Benjamin Arbitter and Kurt Carlson [10]

Russian warfare in the Ukraine, albeit poor, does offer some insights into modern combat. LTC Amos Fox wrote in 2017, “Russia’s military strategy is not naïve enough to assume that unconventional, covert action is a silver bullet. Russian policy necessitates an operational approach that embodies the Clausewitzian notion of war as ‘a pulsation of violence,’ variable in time, speed and intensity. Therefore, Russian hybrid warfare operates in the shadows during times of perceived peace to destabilize enemies, while possessing the capability to pulsate to the conventional end of the spectrum to fight and win conventional engagements, battles and operations in proximity to the Russian border. The results are an escalatory hybrid-warfare model that first seeks to achieve its political objectives through covert action, then uses partisan forces if covert action is ineffective or insufficient. If partisan forces are unable to achieve objectives, Russian hybrid warfare will commit conventional Russian troops. In transitioning from partisan warfare to overt conventional warfare, Russian forces attempt to keep a partisan face forward, while quickly melting into the countryside or back across the Russian border upon the completion of localized hostilities.” [11]

It’s important to remember that the Russian army is gaining a lot of LSCO experience in Ukraine, especially in urban warfare, despite their losses. As the character of the war changes, so will their operations. Their process of throwing conscripts into the fire may be an advantage long term for Russia as these young soldiers will be trained in modern warfare fundamentals without formal military training, albeit with heavy losses. In other words, casualties are being traded for experience. While the current Russian army has displayed itself to be ineffective in toppling the Ukrainian government, a future Russian army molded and shaped by current experiences in Ukraine may pose a much greater threat to Eastern Europe, principally using their playbook of pulsating hybrid warfare. [12]

These changes have already occurred and will continue to occur as the war goes on. In one example, they have created new assault groups to deal with their challenges, [13] as well as using 20-man storm groups in Ukraine with combined arms enablers, after their larger forces suffered casualties. [14] These units vary in size and the Russians and Ukrainians will continue to adjust their units based on battlefield developments. [15] This is consistent with the size of urban fighting units in Mosul. [16]

Another feature of Russian tactical adaptations is their use of mercenary groups. These groups have been used by Russia for many years, but this war has featured their increased usage most notably the Wagner Group in Bakhmut. This is a tactical political-military crossover relationship and with reports of disagreements and political infighting, only time will tell whether Russia’s reliance on mercenary groups will be a success or failure.  [17]

Finally, Benjamin Phocas and Jayson Geroux wrote in a Modern War Institute article that “Small antitank teams are extremely effective against armored formations. Small Ukrainian hunter-killer teams have been effective maneuvering in urban terrain to launch antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) into the thinly armored roofs of Russian tanks. These teams are flexible and mobile and can move in close before attacking, mimicking the tactics used previously by the Chechens in Grozny in the 1990s. In one video, the members of a Ukrainian antitank team used ruined buildings to mask their location while they engaged three Russian tanks. The tanks seem to be at a loss as to how they should react and one of them is seen firing in the wrong direction. Antitank teams skillfully using the cover and concealment offered in an urban setting can maneuver to maximize the effectiveness of their weapons against the enemy.” [18]

While still ongoing, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does provide relevant assessments of modern war and its use among, within, and around population centers. [19] The Russian misadventure in Ukraine has provided Army planners with a breadth of new data on urban operations to evaluate. As chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute John Spencer says, “We need new concepts to address these challenges which through analysis, experimentation, exercises, and actual experience can evolve into a comprehensive urban warfare doctrine.” [20]

Urban Warfare

“[A]n examination of military history reveals that urban warfare is common, and in fact is more common in the history of warfare than classic battle in the open field.” – Louis DiMarco [21] 

Traditionally, doctrine favored bypassing cities as the cost to take them would be too high. [22] However, modern armies learned from the First Gulf War that pitched battles against America’s forces in the open was a losing proposition, and armies around the world have adapted. [23] Being able to fight and win in urban areas by RCTs will increase their “resilience in complex adaptive systems” and their avoidance of failure. [24] Isolating adversaries in the cities will help lead to their destruction, and the current preferred division-centric model does not seem to support this with its narrow focus on large division formations bypassing cities. [25] [26] [27]

Lieutenant General (Retired) David Barno, in his paper, “The Future of the Army”, says that “The Army should begin designating selected BCTs to focus on urban operations and tailor their mission essential task lists and organizational structures accordingly. This should be done as soon as possible, since urban operations are already an important requirement, and operational units currently do not focus much attention on their unique demands. These missions may often resemble the “three block war” that Marine General Charles Krulak famously described, where forces may fight, conduct peacekeeping, and provide humanitarian aid on adjacent city blocks—all under the scrutiny of international media, and now among a social-networked populace. These designated units could serve as first deployers into future urban operations, but they would also spur innovative thinking by identifying new requirements, testing new technologies, and evaluating potential doctrine. Such units should develop new concepts by experimenting with different mixes of people and equipment—such as combining tanks with light infantry and drones, for example, or operating with special operators, attack helicopters, and Stryker battalions.” [28]

An Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) report on lessons learned from urban operations in 2016 found that “Doctrine, tactics, training, and equipment meant specifically for urban warfare improves military effectiveness in urban environments.” [29] And the Marine Corps Urban Warfare Study cited by AWG found that “Standard military unit configurations are often inappropriate for urban combat” and, “Forces operating in cities need special equipment not in standard tables of organization and equipment.” [30]

This may seem obvious, but this gap is not being addressed by the shift to division-centric formations. Lacking urban-focused unit formations will hamper the Army’s ability to conduct offensive campaigns at scale, and force structure should address these challenges. [31] If the US finds itself in future urban battles, the Army will be more effective if it has formations designed to fight and win in those environments. [32]

Redeveloping American RCTs

“… [The US Army] must present to policy makers in the Department of Defense, the U.S. Congress, and the White House a convincing rationale that justifies support for a purpose-built ground force capable of deterring, and if need be, defeating both peer adversaries and a complex array of rogue state, nonstate, and terror organizations in a variety of expeditionary settings America can continue to win through superior force generation.”  - Nathan Jennings [33]

In their 2018 article “The US Army is Wrong on Future War”, authors Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro state: “In August 1945, when America initiated the atomic age, the dominant character of land war between great powers transitioned from operational maneuver to positional defense. Now, almost a century later, the US Army is mistakenly structuring for offensive clashes of mass and scale reminiscent of 1944 while competitors like Russia and China have adapted to twenty-first-century reality. This new paradigm—which favors fait accompli acquisitions, projection from sovereign sanctuary, and indirect proxy wars—combines incremental military actions with weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence. The Army’s failure to conceptualize these features of the future battlefield is a dangerous mistake.” [34]

The current lack of urban warfare planning in the division-centric force structure presents problems for Army strategists and operational planners. During his talk at the Maneuver Warfighting Conference at Ft. Moore, GA, in March of 2022, Colonel Ryan Morgan, Army Capabilities Manager - Infantry Brigade Combat Team, lists “The BCT must bring together capabilities in all domains to win the close fight” and “The Division, as the unit of action, possesses the bulk of the capabilities” as answers or assumptions of fact to the problem statement slide regarding building the Army for 2028. [35] It’s plausible this is a critical design flaw that will lead to BCTs training to fight and win without the capabilities required to win. Over-centralizing capability decision authorities at a high level (Divisions as units of action) will slow down tactical and operational reaction times, especially in a decentralized urban fight where every second counts. [36] BCTs and Divisions will spend valuable time fighting each other for capabilities they need, rather than employing the ones they have effectively in multi-domain combat operations.

BCTs will be challenged to synchronize multi-domain operations when the capabilities for other domains are located at higher levels of echelons. Different echelons are being expected to fight in different domains, and this could lead to incoherency and disjointed combat operations. Even Colonel Morgan admits these flaws in a 2021 Infantry Magazine article: “While the MBCT and LBCT concepts display many advantages over the current IBCT, they do have a downside. While being more deployable and responsive, their designs lack some of the key capabilities of the current IBCT such as fires, protection, and sustainment. While the new BCT concepts would retain limited reconnaissance, the parent division would have to provide the larger reconnaissance capability. Both the MBCT and LBCT will be dependent on their parent divisions for direct or general support of some or all these capabilities, whereas the IBCT currently retains these abilities.” [37] Additional complexity to employ these capabilities will only increase the time and ability to deploy them effectively.

If the Army wants to look at WWII for the basis of LSCO formations, the Regimental Combat Team (RCT) concept could provide a more efficient model for integrating combined arms with the new influx of technologies such as drones, AI, and loitering munitions, as well as others. The RCT has been discussed before. In his 1984 Combat Studies Institute Research Survey, “Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization,” Captain Jonathan House found, “Regardless of the terrain or enemy involved, most divisions in Europe and many in the Pacific believed that they needed tank, antiaircraft, "tank destroyer" (antitank), and nondivisional engineer support in virtually all circumstances … Thus, the RCT was a combined arms force, a small division in itself” [38] [39]

In his 1996 Army War College paper “Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century”, LTC (P) Douglas Macgregor found that in WWII “Many of the nondivisional elements were permanently organized with the division's infantry regiments to form regimental combat teams (RCT). The RCTs had their own artillery, engineers, tank destroyers, self-propelled antiaircraft guns, medical and logistical support. In practice, the RCT evolved into a small division in itself. As the Second World War in Europe progressed, the division headquarters provided support to the RCTs which actually fought the tactical battles.” [40] He went on to say, One way to modify the division organization without dramatically changing the existing warfighting structure is to disestablish divisions as standing organizations and to convert the current brigade task force into what amounts to a regimental combat team.” [41]

I would invite readers to do more research and analysis into the RCT as a potential unit of action over the current division-centric plan. [42] Figures 1 and 2 illustrate potential units contained within hypothetical Mechanized and Airmobile RCTs: [43]  

Figure 1: Airmobile RCTs

Figure 2: Mechanized RCTs


Part of this restructuring could necessitate changes and additions to infantry Military Occupational Specialty categories. Based on the concepts above, some of these could include: 11W – Weapons Specialist, 11C – Mortar/FO Specialist, 11S – Sniper, 11D – Drone Engineer/Pilot, 11G – Grenadier, or 11U – Subterranean Specialist. [44] Finally, with the need for subterranean-specific units for urban warfare, Figure 3 shows a potential unit identifier for doctrinal clarity.  


Figure 3: Subterranean Unit Modifier



“When stormtroop detachments led the attack at Verdun in February 1916, many of them went into action with their rifles slung, leaving their hands free to lob stick grenades into surviving French positions.” – Ian Drury [45]

Close integration of artillery and infantry were a major component of German advancements in 1918 along with the newly developed infiltration tactics, before Germany succumbed to economic and logistic exhaustion. Centralizing our artillery at the division level, as the current reorganization is attempting to do, will likely result in disjointed combined arms at the tactical level. Tactical units will not have the time nor security to reveal their position, calling for fires to a division headquarters where communications may be jammed, cutoff, or intercepted. [46]

Captain Andre Laffargue, a French Army officer, wrote about his experiences on the Western front in 1915 and wrote “The Attack in Trench Warfare: Impressions and Reflections of a Company Commander”, which quickly gained interest in Germany alongside their own independent developments. [47] These developments by the French and Germans to break the stalemate resulted in the creation of grenadier type units. As Professor Stephen Bull found, “The increasing role of the grenade and its importance vis-à-vis firearms in trench warfare was recognised and built upon in official German literature during 1915.” [48]

Just like trench warfare took place in confined spaces, urban warfare is also conducted within limited maneuver space, and some tactical lessons from one environment may apply to the other. In this case, the Germans’ focused use of grenades in their offensive trench warfare tactics warrants much further study and tactical experimentation at CTCs with intended applicability towards creating grenadier-centric units for trench warfare and mega-city and large-scale urban operations. 

The current US Army grenadier capability has been diluted. By having the grenade launcher on the rifle, the grenadier in a current US doctrinal squad is half a rifleman and half a grenadier. This is not the way to properly and efficiently mass firepower at the squad and platoon levels. Attaching grenade launchers to rifles degrades rifleman accuracy and firing agility, as well as degrading grenadier functions with greater ammunition carrying requirements. These two should be separate. Grenadiers can be equipped with dedicated grenade launchers as well as pistol sidearms and carry more ammo for their grenade launchers. This facilitates their training and specialization focus on the main functions of firing a grenade over distance accurately and timely. The Marine Corps urban warfare study found that “Machineguns may be more valuable than assault rifles for urban combat.” [49] Experimenting with different weapons and tactics configurations at the CTCs will enable commanders and NCOs to find creative ways to become more effective fighting in urban environments. Figures 4 and 5 illustrate how to modify existing Bradley and Stryker organizations into grenadier specific formations for RCTs:

Figure 4: Bradley/OMFV/AMPV Grenadier Platoon Concept