Introduction to urban warfare

Everything you always wanted to know about urban warfare but you were afraid to ask

US Marines take up a position on a rooftop during the Second Battle for Fallujah (November 2004)
US Marines take up a position on a rooftop during the Second Battle for Fallujah (November 2004)

This article aims to make a basic introduction to urban combat -or urban warfare-, to the historical perspective of the problem and its evolution. It also aims to outline some of the different solutions that various countries, organisations, professionals or academics have offered to the specific problems that have been encountered and share a series of sources of information with which to delve into the subject and delve into the debates that take place today. An effort has been made to include bibliography so that the reader can delve into the different topics and debates related to urban warfare if they wish. If you wanted, you could also call this article a State of the Art of urban combat.

Introduction to the problem of urban warfare

"Operating in a rural area, if I may, is like having three balls on a pool table and you have the cue ball and you have to hit it. Chances are you'll never touch anything else. Operating in a city, […] with your density, is like having seven sets of billiard balls on the table and you hit the cue ball and you have no idea what the final consequences will be when they all start colliding with each other. ”

Dr. Russell Glenn (Note 1) (1)

I am not going to start the article saying that the world is becoming more urban and that cities are getting bigger. We already know that. Urban combat is a reality, it never went away. We suffer from it more and more, the scale of the problem increases and its solutions become more and more complex. For Spain, the problem is perhaps only potential: the site of Tenochtitlan (and especially the assault on the district of Tlatelolco) (XNUMX), the operational campaign of siege and seizure of the cities of Flanders during the Eighty Years' War (XNUMX-XNUMX) of the house of Austria o the slow and agonizing battle for Madrid (XNUMX-XNUMX) testify that Spain has some experience on the subject, albeit historical. Urban combat to a greater or lesser degree has also accompanied us throughout our history, we just had not paid much attention to it.

The biggest problem we find when talking about urban combat is that it is not talked about in enough depth. Understanding what the problem is and why it is important to understand its dimension is crucial in order to be prepared. Luckily for us, there are people throughout history who have already found themselves in these situations and these problems have already been widely described and discussed by various authors in different languages. In general, there are many books and articles that describe them quite well, although most of the time in a very fragmented way. It is not easy to make a compendium or summary so that the reader who is not familiar with the subject can be clear about some basic concepts, although some, unfortunately, do not have a limited definition that we can all agree on.

This article aims to make a basic introduction to Urban Combat, the historical perspective of the problem and its evolution. It also aims to outline some of the different solutions that various countries, organisations, professionals or academics have offered to the specific problems that have been encountered and share a series of sources of information with which to delve into the subject and delve into the debates that take place today. An effort has been made to include a bibliography so that the reader can delve deeper into the different topics and debates if they wish. If you wanted, you could also call this article a State of the Art of urban combat.

A snapshot of the fight in the passenger terminal inside Donetsk Airport during the second battle that took place for the position in 2014. Source: coffeeoirdie.com

Historical perspective and evolution of urban warfare

Throughout history, the theoretical concept of what urban warfare or urban combat meant has evolved. It is important to be aware of the historical and cultural framework on which certain writings are based. Certain concepts, such as 'siege warfare', are in common use and widely known. However, warfare or fighting generally took place around cities and rarely within them. Siege warfare was important for the way it was fought, and when an enemy was deemed to have penetrated inside the wall, and thus into the city, resistance usually ended. The Renaissance gave way to the art of building fortresses and perfecting perimeter defense, Vauban is an example of this. However, the Modern Age, gunpowder and artillery would give way to mastery in the destruction of said perimeter. Nevertheless, the resistance was projecting more and more towards the interior of the cities. It is not surprising that authors such as Gerhard von Scharnhorst already gave some indications in his «Military Field Pocket Book» (1806) on how to prepare to fight inside cities, once the walls had been surpassed by enemy forces. . However, even then, it was common that once the walls had fallen and the troops had entered the strongholds, the resistance within them quickly deteriorated, turning to looting.

With the industrial revolution and the growth of cities, the urban perimeter was becoming blurred, making the border of the city disappear. With the arrival of the railway, highways and industrial communication lines, cities went from being fortresses full of human and material resources to nodal elements on which to logistically plan their troop and supply deployment strategies. And this remained the case even throughout the First World War. Where although fighting took place around the cities, it was not (or very rarely) within them, but rather relied on them as defensive and logistical elements. With the capture of the cities, access to the nodal element of the enemy logistics network was sought to bring our resources faster and make the enemy take longer. Clear examples of this are Liège (1914), Ypres (1914), the Marne (1914) (for Paris) or Gallipoli (1915-16) (for Constantinople) (two).

It was not until the late 1942s, early XNUMXs that the term "Street Fighting" came into use. This is how it appears, in a multitude of pamphlets and guides that were published throughout XNUMX, especially for the Home Guard. In case the Wehrmacht managed to cross the channel, the resistance would have to move to the English cities. “The defense of villages & small towns”, “Defence of Houses” or “House to House fighting”, all works by Colonel GA Wade are clear examples of them. These experiences drank mainly from the training schools ad hoc, made up mostly of veterans of the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, around Osterley Park (London) and Aldershot in 1940.

During the Second World War, fighting inside the cities began on a regular and intensive basis. It thus became a tool to compensate for the weakness of the disadvantaged side, even though the cities alone had inherent political value. Needless to explain the intense fighting for Shanghai (1937), Sevastopol (1941-42), Ortona (1943), Budapest (1944-45) or Breslau (1945) to mention some lesser known. However, after multiple battles, it was perfectly understood that "Street fighting" did not take place precisely in the streets, but inside buildings or in their ruins. This is clear if we stick to historical testimonies, such as that of Vasili Chuikov during the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43):

"It would be a mistake to imagine that fighting in the city is the same as fighting in the streets. When the enemy is solidly established in the city, it is the houses, buildings and blocks that are fought for. The combat takes place… in rooms, in attics, in cellars and in ruins – and least of all in the streets and squares. "

Vasili I. Chuikov “The Battle for Stalingrad” (3) (Original in Note 2)

Or that of Walter M. Robertson, during the battle of Brest (1944):

"The term 'street fighting' ('street fighting', in the original) is a misnomer, since the street was the place where we could not go. The streets were completely covered with pillboxes and rapid fire from 40mm guns, with every corner covered by at least four defensive positions. Our procedure was to go from house to house blowing holes through the walls with explosive charges".

Major General Walter M. Robertson, commander of the Second Infantry Division. (4) (Original in Note 3)

After the important lessons learned in the interior of the cities during the Second World War, the Cold War began. In general, very little thought was given to inner-city combat during this period. It was accepted that cities would be surrounded, isolated and subdued thanks to maneuver combat. All of these ideas would continue to be optimistically held well into the 70s on the Western side (Hue 1968) and well into the 90s on the Soviet side (Grozny 1994-95).

One of the most heated debates that took place in the 60s and 70s (especially on the Soviet side) was that of the tactical use of nuclear weapons also in cities and how this fit in with urban combat during a Soviet general attack. Once the offensive had started, large concentrations of troops, population and resources would occur mainly around the emerging and increasingly large cities of the German Federal Republic (5).

The use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union to destroy such cities was seriously contemplated, but carried too high a risk of retaliation. These nuclear bombardments would not only change the character of the assault as it was planned in the Soviet way, but would create such destruction within the cities that their way of waging war on the cities, rapidly penetrating their interior much sooner. If a strong defence could be organised, it would be largely nullified by the amount of debris, fires and pollution that would be generated as a result. Furthermore, once the conquest had taken place, there would be little or nothing to dominate, since most urban centers would be inaccessible areas. Another of the arguments was that Western European society would not raise a battle within the cities, since they would not risk their destruction for the mere fact of gaining time. Really, these hypotheses were not very badly misguided, since the almost invisible NATO urban combat doctrine (especially the British and American) did not propose a defense in depth inside the cities (except testimonially in Berlin, which was already surrounded), but was based on an uncompromising defence around the urban centers through counterattacks as a way of destroying the spearheads of the Soviet attack around them in the purest style of manoeuvre warfare (5).

However, at the same time as this debate was taking place, there was also a period of decolonization in which the armed forces of many Western countries had to confront national liberation movements through counter-insurgency campaigns within the cities. The objective was not the built land itself, but the population that lived inside it. Examples of this urban counterinsurgency are Aden (1963-67) or Algiers (1956-57).

It was in the mid-70s when the British and Americans gave the problem a somewhat more accurate name. Different terms began to be coined that would begin to emerge especially from the second half of the 70s until the end of the 90s. Although, on the British side, FIBUA ('fighting in built-up areas') began to be used ) or OBUA ('operations in built-up areas'). From the American side, others like MOBA ('Military operations in built-up areas') or MOUT ('Military operations in urban terrain') would begin to appear. The important thing about these terms is to identify that most of them (MOUT would continue to be used to this day) really only identified the city as one more terrain where to wage war, in its purest doctrinal sense (and that is how it appears in the doctrinal documents ), regardless of the other factors or peculiarities such as the presence of the civilian population or the urban infrastructure, to which a fairly brief final section was devoted. Actually, it would not be until the late 90s, after the experiences of Mogadishu (1993) and Grozny (1994-95), when NATO would assign sufficient resources to the analysis of this type of struggle to make a difference.

This temporarily coincided with the popularization of 'Close Quarters Combat' (CBC, or 'Close Quarters Combat'), which developed in the 1970s and was an eminent Special Forces phenomenon. After the crisis of the Munich Olympics (1972) and the growth of international terrorism, Western governments would begin to develop a common methodology for assaulting buildings, planes and boats with which to counteract the tactics and procedures that these terrorist groups shared. It was after the success of the Assault on the Iranian Embassy in London (1980) when its popularization took place, at the same time that too high hopes were placed on this type of action, more of a police nature than a military one. However, many of these tactics would be incorporated by the current armies to this day in the assault on buildings (both in Afghanistan and in Iraq) and that would bring us one step closer to professionalism in this aspect, moving from "spraying and praying" ('shoot [empty the magazine] and pray') to the “five-step entry” ('entrance of 5 steps') (6).

From the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the term UO ('Urban Operations' or 'Operaciones Urbanas' in Spanish) would displace that of the MOUT, passing from an analysis of urban combat from a merely territorial point of view, towards a perception of the problem much more holistic that would include above all the population and the infrastructure. Nowadays, the preferred and most used term is 'Urban warfare' ('Combat/Urban Warfare) and that would encompass all the aspects identified above and would go from the tactical to the strategic level, the latter being much more recent. .

One of the problems with all these concepts is that there is not really a general consensus on what many of them mean specifically, but as global definitions whose limits cover many grays, which generates many debates. Some of these definitions have been delimited with more or less success through doctrinal documents, mainly North American ones (1).

Russian troops in Grozny, Chechnya. Author: Juriy Tutov (1995). Source: https://foto-history.livejournal.com/2578523.html

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