Small Wars Journal

Intelligence Challenges in Urban Operations

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 10:12am

Intelligence Challenges in Urban Operations

James Howcroft

SWJ Editor's Note: This Small Wars Journal article was originally published on 20 July 2014.

Military operations in an urban area are not normally thought of as a “Small Wars” concern, yet they are an important capability that will remain relevant as we address the issue of security in the 21st century.  From my experience, we avoid them like the plague, for good reasons, until we have no option but to commit resources and go in.  Our foes see great value in operating in urban areas. Urban operations are a form of asymmetric warfare, which degrades a number of advantages possessed by well-equipped and well-trained militaries.  (David Kilcullen’s recent book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla addresses these aspects in great depth). The population of our world is increasingly urbanized. Both the World Bank and CIA agree that more than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. There are the mega cities of Africa and Asia to consider, but the issue is equally important in the hundreds of thousands of smaller cities and towns throughout the world.  The Ukrainian military is dealing with this issue in the summer of 2014 in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.  The Nigerian military will have tough decisions to make to in its fight against Boko Haram.  Eventually, the Iraqi military will need to retake the towns and cities of central and northern Iraq lost to ISIS and its allies in June 2014.

As a Defense Attaché assigned to Moscow in the 1990s, I observed and reported on Russian combat operations in Grozny during the two Chechen Wars (1995-2000).  I served in the Second Marine Division during Desert Storm in 1991 as part of the operation to liberate Kuwait City.   I was the G2 of First Marine Division for the capture of Baghdad in 2003 and G2 of First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) during the unsuccessful assault on Fallujah in 2004.  I observed firsthand a number of important conditions for success throughout these urban operations that remain relevant for any fighting force. There are many doctrinal publications, lessons-learned handbooks, and first person accounts that are certainly worth reading. My modest list is not meant to replace these resources nor is my list exhaustive. These seven are merely challenges in urban operations I personally encountered over the past 20 years that have constrained the ability to provide intelligence to those organizations and commanders I supported.  

1. Plan Ahead for the Challenges and Opportunities of the Cordon

One of the initial tasks will be to establish a cordon to isolate the urban area of concern.  This is an extremely resource-intensive job that will immediately draw upon the troops and tools you are assembling to use once you move into the city.  One of the most important initial intel tasks will be to determine how the local population moves in and out of the city, to help the commander focus his limited forces on disrupting the flow.  You will never have enough assets to be able to completely stop the traffic. The intelligence officer, based on his assessment of the environment and foe’s capability and intent, has to help the commander decide not only where to focus, but also how much movement to try to block and who in particular you will  use your finite resources to screen and search. You need to keep hostile forces out of the city obviously; but who do you let out? Everyone, so there are fewer noncombatants in the line of fire? Families only? Do you want to leave a way out for your foe so you can then engage them outside the cover and concealment of the city? In April 2003, after fighting 600 kilometers from Kuwait to the Diyala River outside Baghdad,  orders to my Division from higher headquarters  were merely to “put a cordon around  Baghdad,”… a city of 5 million people.  Our request for clarification and guidance regarding rules of engagement, endstate, etc. was met by silence. Fortunately for us, by mid-April there was little movement by the population out of the city and little regime capability remained to reinforce Baghdad, so the cordon didn’t turn out to be quite the problem I had feared.  

Unfortunately my fears were realized a year later when establishing an effective cordon around Fallujah, prior to our assault in April 2004, proved to be a much bigger problem. Large numbers of the population were anxious to leave. Foreign fighters and extremists were trying to get into the city to fight from within the urban confines. We had to uproot Marine battalions from their ongoing security mission throughout Al Anbar Province in an attempt to impose a cordon and isolate the city.  We did not have adequate resources or experience to effectively screen those coming out of the city to identify and segregate the bad guys.  We quickly learned of the need for trained and trusted personnel, including hundreds of linguists, to question the population regarding the situation in the city. This exiting population was mainly families with their possessions, anxious to move out of the danger area. They were not interested in stopping their flight to talk to us. The fleeing population had the best, most up to date information about what was going on in Fallujah, but we didn’t have a system in place or enough resources allocated to tap into this knowledge. The campaign didn’t end well for either side.

2. Knowing Where Things are Located Isn’t Enough

Once the cordon is functioning, it’s time to move into the city.   The information demands of your force will be staggering.  There are certain areas you will always need to understand when entering an urban area – with the purpose of then controlling it and the population.  These are the building layout and composition, transportation, electrical, sewage and water, and natural gas systems and the locations/status of key subcomponents – bridges, gas stations, power stations, high tensions power lines, neighborhood substations/transformers, underground sewage canals, water purification plants, gas lines and their depth under roads(so they aren’t crushed by your tanks).  Other considerations are the locations of all police stations – either to get them on your side or to disarm them as they are the easiest sources of weapons at the beginning of an occupation – other civic buildings necessary for the running of the city – trash department, finance department, banks, city hall, fire departments, key cultural areas, and political party headquarters amongst a few as well as the locations of the tallest buildings not only for fields of fire and observation  but to locate the radio relays necessary for VHF communications systems. The USMC Urban Generic Information Requirements Handbook (UGIRH) was a useful tool to identify and organize the vast range of information our force required.  

As the intelligence officer, you will need to know not only about the physical characteristics of the town and the capabilities and intentions of your foe, you must know the current composition and power of whatever group or groups is running the city.  Knowing how the city was run or organized under the former regime is probably irrelevant. You need to know the tools and levers of power and personalities of the current group or groups now calling the shots. Where are they successful in the city? What can’t they do and why not? Whatever groups may be running the city’s neighborhoods day by day may not necessarily be the foe you are going into the city to defeat. Can those running various sections of the city be our ally or are they aligned and supportive of the armed foe inside the city? If they support them, is it out of ethnic loyalty or fear?  Is the looming destruction of their city sufficient motivation for local powerbrokers to force foreign fighters out?  

Tools and assets that allow you to tap into the timely, detailed knowledge of the population are essential; but they can rapidly become overwhelmed by the size and scale of the task. The ability to exploit the language and cultural expertise of trusted local individuals, organizations and units will be crucial to your success.  During the Russian assault on Grozny in 2000, the Russians exploited the experience, knowledge and connections of warlord Bislan Gantamirov’s militia to guide operations in the city and obtain timely intelligence from the local population. Conversely, we lacked Iraqi units that could play such a role when we attacked Fallujah in April 2004. All but one of Iraqi military units that were to assist the Marines deserted, except for a single Kurdish battalion. They were well-led and brave, competent fighters, but they were Kurds in a Sunni city and thus little help in engaging local power brokers and learning from the population.   If you don’t have local allies that you and the population trust to assist your efforts you will fail; if not in the initial assault then certainly in your longer- term efforts to secure the city. 

3. Impose a Single, Common Tool to Visualize the Urban Area

There is a requirement for a single, common visualization tool or product that depicts the city or town that EVERYONE involved in the operation has access to. “Everyone” includes the infantry, resupply, medevac, supporting arms, air support, UAV operators, interrogators, debriefers, engineers, local police, the UN and NGOs. This has to be unclassified, easy to reproduce and available as paper copies that can be handed out like candy to everyone at every coordination meeting as well as disseminate electronically on smart electronic devices. You need a product with various scales that a user can turn/toggle the page from the detailed zoomed view of individual buildings on a particular block up to the overview of the city showing routes, power supplies and important buildings.   This document will be a common planning and coordination tool and provide a single, common naming convention and symbols. This can help eliminate the maddening tendency for every unit or organization to give the same feature a different name, and for newly arrived units to rename a feature to reflect their unit’s history and heritage. Is it Leatherneck Highway, Route Tampa, Highway 7 or what the population calls the road?   Keep in mind you need to identify a simple way to update it as you receive corrections and changes and you need to decide who will be empowered to add these updates; everyone or a centralized authority?   

4. Building a Useful Collection Capability Takes Time, Imagination and Flexibility

The nature of the urban environment will negate or degrade much of your intelligence and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. It is nearly impossible for reconnaissance or HUMINT teams to infiltrate covertly and remain undetected. Because of the risk associated with their employment, these assets were of little value in this role in either Baghdad or Fallujah. The urban structure and nature of the communications environment limit the ability to collect signals intelligence.  Low power, commercial devices designed for short distances will largely be outside your capability to collect.   If local features and your resources do allow collection, you will be overwhelmed by the vast amount of signals traffic from the large, urban population to translate, analyze, pass for action, and store for later use.  Having only recently decided to address the urban area, you won’t necessarily have the baseline template of the communications environment that is so important to signals intelligence.  It takes time to develop this template. Time was a luxury the commanders I supported never had.  Find a way to get your SIGINT guys in place working the signals environment as soon as possible.

Scalable UAVs have proven extremely useful in many urban efforts, but the limitations of imagery, whether UAV or a satellite, to see between densely packed buildings or within structures are obvious. Furthermore, the overhead imagery perspective will not match the ground eye orientation of the force on the ground. The individual on the ground, being shot at, awash in a sea of gray concrete or dust will orient and navigate by items of color, i.e. the building with the red roof or the house with the blue door, while the imagery analysts or UAV operator is usually looking from a perspective above at a black and white video screen or black and white infrared or radar imagery.  The common visualization tool previously discussed can aid in this regard by providing a common block and building reference capability.

The local population will be the best source of intelligence. Locals that don’t notice subtle changes in their environment don’t survive. The large numbers to be screened and questioned will quickly overwhelm your resources.  If they can be trusted (both by you and by the population), the local police and military are well suited for this task. Don’t forget about identifying a culturally appropriate way to engage the female half of the city’s population. It took years for the US Army and Marine Corps to field female engagement teams to talk with the mothers, wives and sisters of Baghdad, Fallujah and Kandahar.   That’s a lesson we can’t let fade from our corporate mentality. Just like SIGINT, it takes time to set up HUMINT networks in a new city. HUMINT professionals need time to understand the ethnic/tribal makeup and power dynamics of the city, which will have an effect on who reports on whom and how reliable that reporting will be. It will be tough to ascertain the reliability and truthfulness of local population reporting - after all, it is your actions that are bringing death and destruction to their neighborhoods, putting their families at risk and causing them to flee. They don’t know yet if you are going to win or how long you will be around. Talking to you compromises their families.

Media reporting can also be of great value to your intelligence collections operation. Reporters will be able to access places and people you may not be able to reach.  What they have to say and what the people they are interviewing are expressing is of tremendous value to your assessment. Observation of the view over the shoulder of the correspondent can also be a valuable tool in assessing the status of buildings, key infrastructure or enemy equipment.  Air Force analysts assessed that strikes in 2001 on the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue in Kabul were successful based on looking over the shoulder of a journalist reporting in front of the building.  In April 2003 after seizing the northern half of Baghdad, my Division was tasked with short notice to send a Task Force another 200 kilometers north to seize Tikrit, Saddam’s home town. Our objective had only ever been Baghdad, but the Turkish government’s refusal to allow their territory to be used to invade Iraq from the north left Tikrit unsecured.  It took time to reorient collection assets further north. My initial assessment to Task Force Tripoli that the city had been abandoned by the military and was undefended was based on watching a CNN report. The widespread growth in social media, especially in young, urban populations, opens up another lucrative source of real-time, street level reporting, as recently seen in Damascus, Tripoli, and Mosul.

5. Have a Method to Separate the Bad From the Good that Doesn’t Alienate the Population

There is a requirement to separate the bad guys from the innocent. Not every 25 year old male is the enemy. Not only is interning every male of fighting age a huge resource drain, it also alienates the population.  Your understandable “better safe than sorry” approach results in actions that push the population away from you. A local populace that feels the occupying military has its interests in mind, can meet their needs and hasn’t indiscriminately interned their husbands and fathers is more likely to provide reliable and useful information.  An ignored, alienated population is less likely to carry out your directions and directives, or to identify concealed combatants, cached weapons and booby traps. At best, an alienated population is neutral.  Worst case, they provide intelligence to the enemy and join their side.

There must be a fast and easy initial screening process that can be employed, as your forces clear buildings and neighborhoods.  People with gunshot wounds and military related equipment on them will be easy, but how about the rest?  The Russians in Grozny in the 1990s checked shoulders for bruises, sleeves and forearms for powder burns and sniffed for the smell of gunpowder.  Initially, our biometrics won’t be of use, we are unlikely to have had the time or opportunity to have built a database. One solution to identify combatants could be the use of gunpowder residue tests which police and forensics teams’ use in civilian police departments.   Once you do identify the bad guys, you need a plan to figure out where they go and how to interrogate them.  Most likely the town’s jail was set up and run for a small number of criminals, not hundreds or thousands of detainees with uncertain legal status.  Even if there are vacant prisons conveniently now empty and available as a result of your actions, you will need trained and well-led professionals to administer whatever system of interrogation, evidence and justice your mandate and circumstances dictate.  We did this poorly in Iraq in 2003-2004; the resulting Abu Ghraib scandal was a huge setback in our efforts to develop trust and cooperation with the Iraqi population.  

6. Do Not Underestimate the Power and Importance of the Media

The media will have a huge impact on the perceived success or failure of your mission.  Combat in a city is ready-made for a huge impact on TV and social media.   The media can get close to the action, and capture a real-time stream of powerful images and video of damaged buildings, craters, burning vehicles and destroyed lives.  They will have access to hundreds of poignant frightened and injured civilians and children to photograph or interview that will be appear in homes and capitols around the world. Innocents will get killed in this type of fight.  Your force will be the one bringing the destruction, you will get the blame, not those who chose to occupy buildings and build bunkers in neighborhoods. As the Ukrainian military had retaken Slavyansk in July 2014 , the media was focused on images of the destruction caused by the Ukrainian military, not on the guilt of those who initially chose Slavyansk as the battleground.   My commanders’ prescient warnings prior to the assault on Fallujah in April 2004 to senior US leadership of the likely media impact of sending a Marine infantry division into a city were ignored. These civilians were aghast when those warnings became reality. The Marines had to cease operations and withdraw from the city because of the impact on world opinion of the destructive images being shown on international media.

Chechen mistreatment of journalists coupled with the deliberate Russian effort to keep the international media out of the second battle of Grozny in 2000 meant that the Russian destruction of a city of half a million of their own citizens was not shown on domestic or international media outlets; giving the Russians freedom to use supporting arms to level the city block by block and eliminate the Chechen force in Grozny.  International media coverage of the carnage and destruction of the cities of Syria in 2014 has dwindled after the targeting of journalists has made Syria the most deadly country in the world for journalists to work. This is a trend likely to continue as regimes recognize the power of media driven information operations and take action to shape the message.  While the Russian and Syrian regimes were able to intimidate journalists so that independent reporting of the fighting was impossible, America and NATO operate under public and transparent rules and laws that prohibit this type of action.   Our operations will be seen by the world. We have to anticipate the powerful impact of our operations and be willing and prepared to engage with the media to help them present an accurate and balanced message.  General Mattis, when serving as the First Marine Division Commander, often challenged us by saying; “There will be a story about our actions on the evening news tomorrow, what are we doing to make it the right story?” If you chose to ignore the media, you cede this powerful tool to our foes. 

7. Realize Your limitations and Decentralize Your Effort.

Intelligence for urban operations must be centrally planned and coordinated at the senior headquarters level in order to incorporate the insatiable needs of the multiple actors addressing a difficult mission in a complex environment. But when it comes time to move into the city and begin the clearing operation the fight becomes decentralized down to the small unit level, squads, platoons and companies.  Decentralized operations of this type require decentralized intelligence.  Platoons and companies need intelligence of immediate value and precision.   Knowing that “Al Jawan neighborhood has a high concentration of former regime fighters” iIs useful and adequate at your headquarters level.  The platoon needs intelligence that tells them “The three story building on the north side of the next block in Al Jawan has a newly dug tunnel connecting it with adjacent buildings allowing the defenders unobserved lateral movement and resupply.” It is extremely unlikely that a higher headquarters would be able to collect that information and be able to disseminate it down to the supported small unit in time to be useful.   The headquarters who own intelligence assets need to acknowledge this fact and be willing to strip personnel and capabilities from their level to push down in direct support of the small level units in the fight.  I learned that the time to do this is sufficiently prior to the launch of the assault to give the supported commander the chance to understand how to use the capability he now owns and enough time for the attached intel professionals to have the opportunity to understand the needs of those they now support.  Intelligence attachments can be useful; last minute attachments are a distraction. 

Final Thoughts

Urban operations are difficult, resource-intensive missions for every war fighting function within a unit. This is equally true for intelligence, both during the planning and execution phases of the mission. More collection platforms, more systems and more technology won’t necessarily make you successful.  The common thread needs to be the issue of dealing with the population. They are the reason we go into the city; it isn’t about the structures or statues. The people have the best information to fill your gaps. Dealing with the huge amount of data at your disposal and turning in it usable, relevant, actionable intelligence for the wide range of consumers counting on you for answers is a daunting task and it has to be done.  Because it is tough doesn’t mean it can be ignored, wished away or pushed off to some other distant headquarters.   I cannot honestly say that I did a great job supporting initial urban operations in Baghdad in 2003 and Fallujah in 2004, but my Marines and I did what we could, we learned hard lessons as we went along and these lessons paid dividends for those who followed us in Iraq.  It is those lessons that I offer for future use among my peers and comrades in arms.


About the Author(s)

James Howcroft serves as the Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center. Professor Howcroft retired as a Colonel after 30 years as an Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in a wide range of Marine Corps tactical and operational intelligence billets, from Infantry Battalion up to the Marine Expeditionary Force level. His combat tours include duty with the 2nd Marine Division in Operation Desert Storm and tours of duty as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G2) with both the 1st Marine Division and then the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.