Introduction to urban warfare

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

US Marines occupy a position on a rooftop during the Second Battle for Fallujah (November 2004)
US Marines occupy 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'm not going to start the article with that the world is increasingly urban and that cities are getting bigger. We already know that. Urban combat is a reality, it never went away. We suffer more and more, the scale of the problem increases and its solutions become increasingly complex. For Spain, the problem is maybe just potential: the siege of Tenochtitlan (and especially the assault on the district of Tlatelolco) (1521), the operational campaign of siege and capture of the cities of Flanders during the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) of the house of Austria or The slow and agonizing battle for Madrid (1936-39) attest that Spain has some experience on the subject, even if it is historical. Urban combat to a greater or lesser degree has also accompanied us throughout our history, we simply 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 sufficient depth. Understanding what the problem consists of and why it is important to understand its dimension is crucial to being prepared. Luckily for us, there are people who throughout history have already encountered these situations and these problems have already been described and discussed widely 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 unfamiliar with the subject can be clear about some basic concepts, although some, unfortunately, do not have a limited definition on which we can all agree.

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 at the passenger terminal inside Donetsk Airport during the second battle that took place for the position in 2014. Source:

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, when the term “Street Fighting” began to be used. This is how it appears, in many pamphlets and guides that were published throughout XNUMX, especially for the Home Guard. If 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 G.A. Wade are clear examples of them. These experiences drew mainly from 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 began to take place inside cities on a regular and intensive basis. It thus became a tool to compensate for the weakness of the disadvantaged side, although the cities themselves had inherent political value. It goes without saying the intense fighting for Shanghai (1937), Sebastopol (1941-42), Ortona (1943), Budapest (1944-45) or Breslau (1945) to mention some less known ones. However, after multiple battles, it was perfectly understood that “Street fighting” did not occur precisely in the streets, but inside buildings or in their ruins. This becomes clear if we look at 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 over. Combat takes place… in rooms, in attics, in basements 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' is inappropriate, since the street was the place where we could not go. The streets were completely covered with pillboxes and rapid fire from 40mm weapons, with each corner covered by at least four defensive positions. Our procedure was to go from house to house blowing holes through 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 inside cities during World War II, the Cold War began. In general, very little thought was given to combat inside cities 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 maintained with much optimism 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 between the 60s and 70s (especially on the Soviet side) was the tactical use of nuclear weapons also in cities and how this married with urban combat during a Soviet general attack. Once the offensive had begun, there would be large concentrations of troops, population and resources mainly around the emerging and increasingly extensive cities of the Federal Republic of Germany (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, a period of decolonization also took place in which the armed forces of many Western countries had to confront national liberation movements through counterinsurgency campaigns within the country. 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 and 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 would begin to appear such as MOBA ('Military operations in built-up areas') or MOUT ('Military operations in urban terrain'). The important thing about these terms is to identify that the majority of them (MOUT would continue to be used to this day) really only identified the city as another terrain on which to wage war, in its purest doctrinal sense (and this is how it appears in the doctrinal documents). ), regardless of other factors or peculiarities such as the presence of civilian population or urban infrastructure, to which a rather brief final section was dedicated. Actually, it would not be until the late 90s after the experiences of Mogadishu (1993) and Grozny (1994-95), when NATO would allocate 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 occurred, at the same time that hopes were placed too high in this type of action, more of a police than military nature. However, many of these tactics would be incorporated by current armies to this day in the assault of buildings (both in Afghanistan and Iraq) and would bring us one step closer to professionalism in this aspect, moving beyond “spraying and praying.” ('shoot [empty the magazine] and pray') to the “five-step entry” (5).

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 of these concepts is that there really is no general consensus on what many of them mean specifically, but rather as global definitions whose boundaries span a lot of gray, which generates many debates. Some of these definitions have been defined with greater or lesser success through doctrinal documents, mainly North American ones (1).

Russian troops in Grozny, Chechnya. Author: Juriy Tutov (1995). Source:

Urban Warfare Basics

"The Three Block War. This is the landscape in which the battle of the 21st century will be fought. It will be an asymmetrical battlefield. Like the Germanic tribes, our enemies will not allow us to fight the son of Desert Storm, but instead will try to drag us into the stepson of Chechnya. At the same time, our forces will have to feed and clothe displaced refugees – providing them with humanitarian assistance. Following this, they will have to keep two warring factions apart – by conducting peacekeeping operations – and, finally, they will have to fight in a highly lethal medium-intensity combat – all on the same day… and all three blocks away. .”

General Charles C. Krulak Commandant, US Marine Corps 1999 (7) (Note 4)

Broadly speaking, cities have always been the centers of political, economic and demographic power. And in general, in the last century, they have also functioned as centers of communications and influence through the mass media. It is easy to understand why they have often been considered the main centers of gravity in different conflicts throughout history. If there is one definition that most scholars agree on today, it is that an urban environment consists of 3 elements: buildings, population and physical infrastructure. From here things get a little complicated (8).

As we have already explained, there are concepts that, although easy to understand, do not create a general consensus on what they specifically mean or when they are applied. For example, Russell Glenn has tried to narrow down some of these definitions, and defines:

1) “Urban area” (generally used to refer to “urban operations”) as “that geographic entity that, when viewed at night, would light up when we took an aerial photograph”;

2) “Dense urban terrain”, such as those areas that are particularly crowded with urban population and man-made physical infrastructure, above and below ground, and;

3) “Mega city” (“megacities”) as cities with more than 10 million inhabitants with a high number of population and physical infrastructures, great interconnectivity and that has great influence on the urban areas that surround it.

This last definition is quite vague and has had to be refined by the author by adding in this category the cities or areas of a city that have a population density of more than 2000 inhabitants/km.2 (1)

Although most analyses agree that mega cities are a reality, there is a debate as to whether urban combat in a city is a matter of scale, density, or quality. In other words, from what size is a city considered a differential fact such that the rules that would generally be applicable to common land would no longer apply to a city? Some authors such as Daniel Hendrex or John Spencer argue that not only does scale and density make fighting in a built-up area with a somewhat different population, but that the capabilities and training needed to deal with this problem increase by an order of magnitude (XNUMX). Others such as Michael Evans, in his "The Case against Megacities", although they do defend that the approach to the urban environment has certain peculiarities in itself (as an environment), they do not believe that the scale influences the nature of the problem, they do not consider that the mega cities constitute a differential fact such as to apply different recipes to those of the rest of the cities (XNUMX). To delve into this debate, perhaps it would be convenient to visit some of the articles on the subject, such as the “Ten Million is Not Enough: Coming to Grips with Megacities' Challenges and Opportunities” (“Ten Million Is Not Enough: Meeting the Challenges and Opportunities of Mega Cities“) by the aforementioned Russell Glenn (XNUMX).

However, behind these more or less aseptic definitions of what a city is, there are a number of authors who have tried to characterize and identify them through various attributes that would be more relevant than others. For example, for Richard Norton, the cities that could potentially become future battlegrounds would be 'feral cities', where governments would be incapable of providing infrastructure (electricity, drinking water, sanitation or gas). and basic services (citizen security, social protection or waste collection) and that would become uncontrolled areas inside large cities (11), very much in line with what Mike Davis would also defend in his “Planet of Misery Cities” , although from a more sociological point of view (12). Likewise, David Kilcullen would reinterpret the city as a living organism (not a new concept) in which the city of the present would be characterized by limited control of the urban space (very much in line with Norton), a great interconnectivity that would go beyond of the physical limits of the city itself thanks to the Internet and a dense, complex and coastal environment (13).

But it is not only about the definition of the city itself, there is also a very interesting debate about what it means to fight within it. Some authors, such as Michael Evans in his "City without joy" (XNUMX) already stated that there was no such thing as an approach at the operational-strategic level when actions were carried out in the doctrine of the time (in this case Australian) which he would baptize as MOUP ('Military Operations as Urban Planning' or 'Military Operations as Urban Planning'). And although he advocated this approach away from the tactical (XNUMX), he would also reject the idea that size matters, and therefore, according to him, a mega city and a city could be faced based on the same analysis and with the same tools ( fifteen). Although by that time, the Anglo-Saxon doctrines (American, British and Australian) had already opted to treat combat in urban terrain as something unique (XNUMX), this debate did not stop there and in XNUMX David Betz and Hugo Stanford-Tuck would publish “The City is Neutral: On Urban Warfare in the XNUMXst Century” (Texas National Security Review), in which they completely disassociated themselves from the idea that the city should be understood as something special and that urban combat would only require special tactics, returning to the idea that the city is a kind of more terrain to fight on (XNUMX).

Clearly, the Betz and Stanford-Tuck article would not go unanswered, and a year later, John Spencer (director of the Urban Warfare Project at the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point) would reply with “The city not neutral: why urban warfare is so hard” (XNUMX), in which he would identify the flaws and counter-argue in a quite correct way most of the affirmations of the Texas National Security Review article. Some of the conclusions would be reflected a year later in another article, also by John Spencer, entitled "The eight rules or urban warfare and why we must work to change them” in which he would point out some of the challenges of urban combat yet to change, such as: that the defender has an advantage especially in urban environments, the reduction of advantage of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) means in cities, the defender's advantage when hiding and attacking, the fortified nature of cities, the use of explosives to penetrate buildings as an offensive means, the restrictions on combat of manoeuvre, the use of the subsoil as a means of refuge by the defender and the difficulty of concentrating forces in urban environments (XNUMX). Many of these challenges have been the subject of debate, which we will see in the next section.

A view of the western part of Mosul, which was badly damaged after the fighting, on May 29, 2017, near the end of its capture. Author: Alkis Konstantinidis (Reuters). Source:


Some of these debates are relatively old and are generally repeated over and over again every few years trying to study the issues in the light of different experiences. One of the problems is that many of these debates are based on moral and cultural differences, which make it really difficult to reach a conclusion with which everyone can feel satisfied.

Urban combat gained weight from the XNUMXs in the doctrines of many armies informally through articles in military magazines, exercises, training or tactics, and following the best practices. The reality is that resources began to be allocated to its analysis only as a result of the traumatic North American experience in Hue (XNUMX), in which South Vietnamese and North American soldiers encountered an enemy that did not fight with their own language, with some Self-imposed rules of engagement (ROE) that did not favour them at all, without a military doctrine, without specific training and with a decrease in their capabilities. The use of the MXNUMX Ontos with its multiple XNUMXmm recoilless cannons to mitigate the poor penetration of masonry walls in the old part of the city of North American weapons is famous, but the extensive use of tear gas, used at tactical level to dislodge buildings and aid your assault, combined with smoke screens to hide troop movement. Both solutions were a solution and following the best practices to a specific problem for which they did not have the right tool.

The doctrine on urban warfare

Probably the best catch-all is doctrine. Most of the experiences on which the studies of the 70s on the Western side were based were the more immediate decolonization conflicts in which they had been involved (Jerusalem 1948, Vietnam 1946-54, Algeria 1954-1962, Vietnam 1955 -75 or Santo Domingo 1965). The still fresh experience of the Second World War was also used prolifically (Stalingrad 1942, Ortona 1943, Brest 1944 or Manila 1945, to give some examples). There is abundant literature on these conflicts and it is not very interesting to dwell on them in this brief introduction to the topic. What is interesting is to understand something that has already been explained previously, and that is the reluctance, almost unconsciously, of the different armies, both Western and Soviet, until the early 70s to accept that urban combat had become a reality. and that it was probable that their armies could be involved in it.

Without a doubt, the one that was best placed due to its enormous experience on the Eastern Front was the Red Army, both from a defensive point of view between the years 1941-42 (20), and from an offensive point of view between 1943-45 (21) . The Soviets had developed a doctrine in which they would confront the cities they found along the way with 4 relatively simple basic recipes:

1) Go around them (bypass) and leave them behind;

2) surround and besiege them until they fall due to lack of resources;

3) carry out a lightning assault to deprive the enemy of the possibility of becoming strong inside and destroy all possible resistance and/or;

4) carry out a systematic destruction of cities with the help of artillery and air power and then assault them.

From the Soviet side, particular emphasis was placed on the third option, the lightning assault. Examples such as Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Kabul (1979) or (within the distance) Baku (1990) help to explain what subsequently occurred in Grozny (1994-95). This doctrine of assault would gain many followers without there being any major detractors of it. On the Russian side, all these ideas were not reflected in any official doctrinal document, but were mostly made known through articles in military magazines.

From the western point of view, the evolution of the urban combat doctrine was reflected in different official documents, mostly from the US Army. Although there were some other armies with urban doctrine and following the best practices, such as the British Army, we will not dwell on them so as not to lengthen the article. One of the first documents to contain references to urban combat was Field Manual FM XNUMX-XNUMX 'Field Service Regularions: Operations' (originally published in May XNUMX and updated in XNUMX), which was based on Civil War experiences. Spanish and the first campaigns of the Second World War. This was the first manual used in urban combat by the US Army. Given the perspective of the attack on the Atlantic Wall and the invasion of Italy, FM XNUMX-XNUMX 'Attack on a Fortified Position and Combat in Towns' (January XNUMX) would also be published, in which the fight in the city was considered, something similar to combat by fortified positions (not without reason) and with a line clearly focused on tactical combat. In the following decades, different updates to existing manuals would be published, updating their content (including that of other US Army field manuals). It was not until XNUMX that FM XNUMX-XNUMX 'Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT)' would be published, and later in May XNUMX FM XNUMX-XNUMX-XNUMX, 'An Infantryman's Guide to Combat in Built-Up Areas' ( although it would be updated in XNUMX) (XNUMX) which would also cover mainly the tactical sections of urban combat and which would be replaced by FM XNUMX-XNUMX 'Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain' (update of FM XNUMX-XNUMX-XNUMX) from XNUMX and FM XNUMX-XNUMX 'Urban Operations' in XNUMX. Later, other manuals would be published that would go somewhat further, such as Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (ATTP) XNUMX-XNUMX 'Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain' (XNUMX, version after FM XNUMX-XNUMX of XNUMX) aimed at a brigade level. It would not be until the US Army's emphasis on the operational level with the 'Large Scale Combat Operations' (LSCO) in the last two decades when Joint Publication (JP) XNUMX-XNUMX 'Joint Urban Operations' (XNUMX) would be published, in which would seal some of the operational-level holes in US urban warfare doctrine. Also, with this document, the study of megacities as probable places of urban combat would begin in the not too distant future and the Army Techniques Publication (ATP) XNUMX-XNUMX (MCTP XNUMX-XNUMXB for the Marine Corps) would be made public, and 'Urban Operations' (XNUMX) which is also oriented from a tactical point of view (XNUMX). As we can see, there was a slow rise in level from the tactical level, to the strategic level, passing through the operational level (the latest) and this huge number of publications would be a good fertilizer for a huge number of articles and debates to flourish in the doctrinal aspect of urban combat in the US Army and the US Marine Corps.

Maneuver versus Siege

However, man does not live by doctrine alone, and the reality is that there is also another debate around the question of what type of war the US Army should wage in urban environments. This debate, as we have already explained, is greatly influenced, not only by the size of the cities, but also by the forces present in the conflict. Thus, there is a great debate around siege warfare (or attrition), as opposed to maneuver warfare (or movement) that the North American army had been cultivating for several decades (24) (25) and which concentrates among their productions to the heavyweights of urban combat thought.

There has been a heated debate regarding whether or not this type of warfare that the US military practices so much has a future in urban settings. Some renowned authors such as Russell W. Glenn (one of the pioneers of the study of urban combat in the XNUMXs) as early as XNUMX and analyzing the subject in the light of the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq and incorporating the new concept of Multi-Domain Battle, already warned that the concept of maneuver as it was known in the US Army had to change and adapt to new environments. According to this author, the war of maneouvre would be losing weight in contrast to the war of attrition, much more static than the one that had been practiced until now by the US Army (XNUMX). We have also seen how other authors such as Alec Wahlman would focus on doctrinal failures at the operational level and raise certain unanswered questions to fill in those gaps (XNUMX).

The discussion seems to have entrenched itself in a debate between whites and blacks in which authors such as Anthony King openly speak of a possible death of maneuver warfare, understood as a need for a new conceptual revolution in the way war is waged, and the reinterpretation of the Air-Land Battle Doctrine due to the encounter with the city, since the combined arms doctrine would be too difficult and inappropriate due to the creation of technical and moral dilemmas (28).

These statements would soon be discussed by Paul Barnes (British Army officer and Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point), who questioned some of the arguments to which King was referring and valued the importance of maneuver in the different urban combat experiences of the US Army (from the intervention in Panama [1989-90] to the Invasion of Afghanistan [2001] and the Battle of Sadr City [2008]), to explain that maneuver warfare does not necessarily have to focus on the physical forces of the enemies, but rather their logistical, electromagnetic or psychological weaknesses can also be exploited through said combat style (29).

Perhaps to find an intermediate point between the two arguments, one should refer to a final article by John Spencer (also from the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point, but this time from the Urban Warfare Project), in which, although neither the claims King's, nor those of Barnes, called for an understanding of positional warfare, as one more element (or stage) of maneuver warfare, in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other. Also highlighted was the idea that the core of the issue, almost as in all these debates, is the fact that there is no single, clear and shared definition of maneuver warfare. And that the latter can be understood from different approaches, but always making it clear that there is still a long way to go, both in terms of planning, as well as equipment and capabilities in relation to urban combat (30). Point that we will develop later.

And it is that although the US Army festers in the war of maneouvres, there is clear evidence that the war of attrition and siege is prevailing in conflicts with a marked urban character. such as the Donbas(Ilovaisk [XNUMX], Second Battle of Donetsk Airport [XNUMX] or Debal'tseve [XNUMX]) or more clearly in the campaigns in Iraq and Syria (Aleppo [XNUMX-XNUMX], Raqqa [XNUMX-XNUMX], Kobani [XNUMX-XNUMX], Deir ez-Zor [XNUMX-XNUMX], Mosul [XNUMX-XNUMX] or Ghouta [XNUMX-XNUMX]). (XNUMX)

Protection of the civilian population and Rules of Engagement (ROE)

Precisely, because of its political value, much of the debate regarding urban warfare has focused on the role of the civilian population trapped in cities while a conflict takes place, particularly during the different sieges that we have seen in recent years. Quite a few articles have been written about it, and although some have been presented from a clearly accusatory point of view towards the way Western armies act, the reality is that deliberate starvation against the civilian population as an act of war is prohibited by the Additional Protocol I (API) of the Geneva Convention (1949), practiced by whoever practices it. However, and although in most cases the most obvious objective of these actions is the military forces, it is the usual ones, that is, the civilian population, who are most harmed by their defenseless situation. It is therefore that some authors have raised doubts about the legality of siege warfare in which civilians are in the field of operations. This contrasts sharply with the fact that today, even having used generous tools to remove civilians from a theater of operations, in many cases civilians have decided to stay for multiple and varied reasons, complicating the situation much more. Of course, these authors also propose few or no solutions for conflicts in which civilians are taken hostage by the defending forces to prevent their complete destruction (32).

Some authors such as Pede and Hayden have argued that the US Army has a flaw in its war capabilities that has not yet been recognised. This is the use of the use of force based on ROE that were designed in the last twenty years for Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Counterterrorism (CT) conflicts and that are hardly adapted to combat in highly dense environments or to large-scale combat. scale (Large Scale Combat Operations or LSCO), having perverted the chain of command and the use made of the laws during a conflict. These authors claim a greater room for maneuver in the legal field, since they consider that certain ROE based on moral and political approaches far removed from the military exercise (in general, by NGOs, according to these authors, based on idealizing academic approaches to war and uninformed ) would have “perverted” the ROE for urban combats, accustomed to abnormal war situations (secure communications, transport and supplies with relative safety, etc.) and against irregular adversaries or those far from “combat between equals” ('peer-to-peer '). According to them, there would have been an inertia of disinformation within the military establishment itself by losing sight of the real laws of the conflict, not clarifying how they are applied and putting the mission and the military on the ground at serious risk by creating a mental situation in the military themselves in which they believe they cannot fight under the real rules of war. Therefore, what is proposed is a basic reinterpretation of the laws of war based on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to reach a new agreement as a society on what is acceptable or not in the event of a conflict in cities or large-scale operations (33).

Obviously, this type of article would not go unanswered, and soon an article was published in 'War on the Rocks' entitled “Counter-Terrorism hangover or legal obligation? The requirement to protect civilians in war” by Muhammedally. In the aforementioned article, it would be highlighted that the objective of the affirmations on the character of the war of some NGOs such as the Committee of the International Red Cross (ICRC) or the Center for Civilian Population in Conflicts (CIVIC, Center for Civilians in Conflict) , which Pede and Hayden were highly critical of, would not be to reinterpret how the universal laws of war are understood, but to ensure that when certain decisions are made about what ammunition or tools are used and under what circumstances (specifically inside of cities, where the majority of casualties are civilians), are based on good practices that help both sides adhere to the same rules of war and minimize harm and danger to all sides as much as possible. Using the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality of the use of force in relation to the threat to limit the suffering of civilians (XNUMX). It should be noted that these recommendations made by CIVIC, ICRC or even NATO (XNUMX), are generally paved in case studies in which the use of force was carried out outside the legal limits, and therefore can be improved to a certain extent.

We cannot forget that the protection of the life and property of civilians is a fundamental obligation of the military during a conflict and not a luxury, always understood within these previously mentioned principles (precaution, distinction and proportionality). Ultimately, what is sought is an understanding of the consequences by the military who have enough power to make decisions that will affect the lives of civilians and their conditions in the future, through the destruction of urban infrastructure. and the city itself, without forgetting that the military also risks their lives.

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting books that can be found on the reflection and study of urban combat, the protection of civilians and the evolution of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) from the point of view of Western armies, are in “Future War in cities. Rethinking a Liberal Dilemma” (2004) by Alice Hills. Among other topics, this book explores the intrinsic problems that exist in trying to 'reconcile the irreconcilable', that is, carrying out military campaigns inside cities, trying to eliminate different threats, avoiding harm to civilians and causing collateral damage. minimal from the perspective of our liberal democracies. To this end, topics as varied as: the different strategies throughout history, the use of different weapons (from flamethrowers, thermobaric weapons, cluster bombs, chemical weapons or anti-personnel mines, treating to propose alternatives to them (36). As well as the documentation generated by ICRC, CIVIC or NATO, particularly in relation to practices and policies to protect civilians during combats in urban areas, precisely from a practical perspective, without losing given the different points of view present in a conflict within cities (37).

Minimizing accidental damage and analyzing, from a point of view of proportionality, the acceptable damage that can be caused to the civilian population that is in a theater of operations is always a very complex issue that escalates quickly to the political level and that impacts the military operations in both directions (from below or tactical level, up or strategic level and vice versa). It is a very complex issue when civilians are informed and know that a combat is about to begin and are really aware of the damage and danger they face. This relates to information management aimed at civilians in the area of ​​operations and around military planning before carrying out an operation (38). How all of this impacts the decisions that the civilian population makes, in these situations, requires a slow and in-depth study that is far beyond this article.

Information operations

Information management is another key aspect of urban combat in which there is a very interesting debate. This is an aspect that became popular with Donbas, but was already evident in an uncontrolled manner in battles such as Mogadishu (1993) or the First Battle of Fallujah (April-May 2004), where the entire offensive had to be paralyzed due to the excessive number of civilian casualties that were shown by the press daily. And the control of information, especially in Western societies, where press freedom is much greater than in other places, is difficult, although it is already beginning to be channeled in one way or another. In such a way that we have already witnessed some successes in the control of said information, such as the Second Battle of Fallujah (November-December 2004) and although it has passed unnoticed and is relatively little known, information control played a crucial role in the early of the Battle for Marawi (2017) and not only managed to mitigate the spread of the riots in the first days, but said control of information by the government and the Philippine army also made it possible for civilians (mostly Muslims) to leave the city and reduce the impact. of the “rapture of the city” by the forces of Hapilon/DAESH (39) (40) and thus constituting a very useful tool to minimize the suffering of civilians who are in or around urban battlefields and guarantee the success of operations or campaigns.

Relationship of forces

One of the debates on which there seems to be a relative consensus is that of force superiority as a multiplier when trying to be successful when it comes to combat inside cities. If, for example, already in World War II, the Soviets had established this ratio around 5:1 for the attacker in cities, this was proven insufficient in the failed and poorly planned assault on Grozny (1994-95) (41) . More current examples would establish a superiority (not only in human resources, but also in means) of between 7:1 and 10:1 (up to 20:1 in some sectors), such as in the battle for Mosul (2016-17) . To this we must add the fact that some authors such as Arnold and Friore consider that current cities (not to mention mega cities) are practically impossible to surround (42). We are not surprised, then, that there are authors such as Margarita Konaev, who refer to combat in cities as "(Mega) cities that swallow armies", referring not only to this evolution in the required attacker/defender ratio, but also to the scale of the problem compared to the human (43) and material resources available from different governments (44).

43 Commando Royal Marines exercises inside the Rock of Gibraltar combining underground, amphibious and vertical assault combat in a mountainous and urban environment in the context of the Future Commando Force (November 2020). Source:

Underground warfare and tunnel warfare

When the Carlton Citadel Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, was blown up on May 8, 2014, the specter of tunnel warfare in urban environments was present. The attack carried out by the Islamic Front (Syria) on the besieged government troops around the citadel of Aleppo and in which between 14 and 50 people died. It was done through the construction of an underground tunnel through the crowded front lines and under the buildings in the purest style of the First World War. More than 20 tons (mostly of fertilizer material) were accumulated in the tunnel (between 100 and 400 meters in length), and after more than 30 days of work they exploded in unison, creating an impressive pile of rubble (45) .

With the expansion and densification of cities and the exponential growth of infrastructure, it was inevitable that many of them would be built underground and their use would become a resource for both contending sides. However, this aspect is nothing new, from the Siege of Jerusalem (70AD) by Roman troops, through the tunnels of Gibraltar (XNUMXth century), to the multiple tunnel complexes outside the settlements (World War I, Vietnam, Iraq or Syria) or in mountainous terrain (Afghanistan or Turkish Kurdistan), the war in the tunnels has been a constant in the war.

Although in recent years there has been an increase in interest in warfare in tunnels under cities. This type of combat requires not only special equipment (from special ammunition, the use of animals, to auxiliary breathing equipment for environments with reduced oxygen, since fires or thermobaric explosions could quickly eliminate the existing one in small complexes of tunnels), but also special training and psychological preparation. It is enough to listen to some of the interviews with some of the specialists who have been working inside these tunnels to realize the challenges they pose in relation to the lack of orientation, communication, oxygen or sound (46) (47). Without going into assessing the problems and difficulties of detection and neutralization (destruction, but not only) of existing tunnels in urban environments where the density of underground infrastructure is enormous, the effect that these devices could have on the upper constructions and on the urban supply networks is relevant (48). What is more, the proliferation of tunnels by some of the state actors (Iran, North Korea or China) and non-state actors (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Hamas, Daesh, the Mexican Cartels or even some environmental movements [49]), it does not seem that they are going to reverse this trend, quite the opposite.

From an academic point of view, without a doubt, the most complete book that has been written to date is “Underground Warfare” (2017) by Daphné Richemond-Barak. In this book, not only is there a historical review of the use of tunnels (in urban and non-urban environments), but it also addresses their use in recent decades by especially non-state actors, focusing particularly on the Middle East. A very intense legislative analysis (policies, sovereignty, legislation, strategies and methods) is also carried out focused on current law. The last chapter of the book deserves special mention, focusing on underground warfare in urban areas and the protection of the civilian population (50). From a tactical point of view, quite a bit of information can be found in some of the recommended reading lists on the subject (51).

In recent years, more and more emphasis has been placed on training in such environments. For example, not only the Royal Gibraltar Regiment (British Army), carried out the Macaque Malice exercises inside the Gibraltar tunnels (2020) in October 52. But also later the 43 Commando Royal Marines would follow them in November (2020) with additional training combining underground, amphibious and vertical assault combat in a mixed mountainous and urban environment as part of the Future Commando Force programme.

From an Army point of view, the Legion's 'King Alfonso So much so, that although there were already some facilities prepared for combat inside tunnels, in November 2014 it was announced that in the new urban training camp project in Renedo Cabezón (next to the El Empecinado military base), would include a network of underground tunnels in urban environments of up to 53 meters (2020).

Precisely, different specialised munitions have been developed for the destruction of underground complexes and bunkers, also known as penetrating bombs. Furthermore, these have also been used against civilian buildings, given that the multiple layers of reinforced concrete that usually constitute the different plants of buildings are often used as protection by the forces that are entrenched in them. This topic would imply talking more in depth about the use of explosive ammunition inside cities, which we will do in the next section.

43 Commando Royal Marines inside the Rock of Gibraltar (November 2020). Fountain:

Explosives, bombs and artillery

Another debate that generates the most controversy is the use of artillery in cities. Artillery has been used since ancient times against them, but this does not mean, in any way, that its use is always justified. It is in this justification where the core of the issue lies, which is the proportional use of force in relation to the elimination of a given threat. Where are the limits, what evidence has to be collected (in the form of a 'Battle Damage Assessment') and to what extent can we hold the military responsible for such use of force, are the questions to be asked. reply. Finding a general consensus on what is acceptable is too complicated in a society where everyone wants to give their opinion, generally based on opinions with clear political orientations already established.

In the past, there has been intensive use of explosive devices inside cities both from the air and from the ground, and there are different case studies from which some lessons can be drawn (Hawijah 2015, Mosul 2016-17 or Raqqa 2017) (55). However, experts on the subject, both academics and active military personnel, have pointed to tense-fire artillery as one of the most useful tools in urban combat to eliminate threats. For example, some studies indicate that the use of indirect fire artillery would cause a ratio of military versus civilian casualties of 90% for the former, and therefore the recommendation of direct fire artillery seems almost obvious as the least bad option (56 ). During the last decades, the use of precision munitions (generally laser guided) has gained popularity with the aim of reducing damage among the civilian population.

Nonetheless, there are some arguments against the use of such ammunition. In the first place, precision ammunition is expensive (although we would open the debate on what is the price to pay for the death of innocent civilians in relation to the cost of the campaign). And second, precision ammunition is only as good as the intelligence they rely on when using it. Not to mention that the benefits of most of this type of ammunition are not the same as conventional artillery, since their explosive load tends not to be powerful enough against stone or reinforced concrete buildings. Neither, obviously, are its effects on the surrounding areas, which is a plus. However, there is an interesting discussion surrounding a phenomenon that has been called by Amos Fox the “Precision Paradox”. According to this author, during the Battle of Mosul (2016-17), the problem of the use of precision ammunition presented a fallacy, since although the collateral damage of said attacks is reduced and they hit with a very high precision, it also reduces the level of neutralization of the threats that it is intended to destroy. In such a way that when we move away and observe the accumulated effect of these weapons in the course of the battle we can see that the level of destruction that occurs in the city is very high. This has to do with the fact that it was observed that, in many cases, the enemies (in this case, the ISIS fighters), survived and were able to flee through the buildings or move to the next building and continue the fight from their position. inside. Due to the nature of modern buildings, many built with reinforced concrete, the effect of these munitions only achieved very partial damage, in such a way that the combatants, who were the real objective, were often not neutralized and continued with the fight. elsewhere, creating a loop of destruction and thus creating new risks for the civilians present, also increasing the bill at the reconstruction level. According to the author, this paradox created a methodical routine as Iraqi forces simply pursued their enemies with accurate but relatively ineffective munitions throughout the city, also jeopardizing the logistical supply of said munitions (57) ( 58).

The proliferation of new materials and construction techniques such as reinforced concrete have led to artillery calibers of around 152mm and 155mm with high explosive ammunition being proposed as the most optimal and balanced solutions between the level of collateral destruction and neutralization. of the threat, also offering a high level of penetration for reinforced concrete walls, also in the case of its use to open breaches in buildings for the introduction of infantry (59). Although these calibers can be closely followed by the 120mm and 125mm guns of modern tanks, which are regularly used as highly protected direct firing platforms. The news 'loitering ammunition' ('loitering munition', 'suicide drone' or 'kamizake drone'), armed with different systems and types of explosives (although with a much more specialized use given their low explosive load) will undoubtedly give a new dimension to this debate (60).

In no case is the use of artillery in urban combat questioned, the only thing that remains to be resolved is its degree of use. Many professionals ask the same question: Why should the military destroy a city to save it? The problem in answering this question is that, really, as in any conflict, context is everything. As far as I know, there is no doctrinal document today (not even the United States, where the bibliography is very extensive as we have seen before), nor any specific guide, which explains how to recover a city occupied by the enemy without destroy it. It explains how to surround it, how to attack it, how to suppress targets or how to maneuver inside it, but unfortunately, to date, we have not been able to find a non-politically agreed solution for its conquest. This fact reveals the political dimension of the war. Unfortunately, and based on known historical examples, it seems that restrictions on the use of force inside cities have only led to more destruction in the city, as we have already explained (XNUMX). This is why in order to find potential solutions to the problem, new approaches, new tools and studies are needed from totally different points of view, sometimes even illogical, so as not to have to resort to the destruction of the city as the only possible solution to save it.

Israeli attack with precision munitions on a building in Gaza.

Urban warfare: Pollution and the environment

Finally, and although it may seem like a platitude to us, conflicts, particularly within large cities, also produce an enormous amount of environmental pollution, not only within them, but also in and through the areas surrounding them. Examples of this are the great catastrophes of oil spills or the great deforestation near urban centers that Wim Zwijnenburg regularly reports in places like Iraq or Syria during and after the conflict. To this must be added the remains of contamination from munitions that were never recovered (depleted uranium) in places such as Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia or Kosovo (62) or those produced by polluting products used in the past in construction (such as example asbestos or lead) that are disseminated through urban centers due to explosions, chemical contamination due to the dumping and burning of products stored in cities or used during their construction and that later generally end up in surface and underground aquifers. Without speaking, of course, of the same undetonated explosive projectiles (63).

The ruins of a mosque in the city of Marawi after the battle between Philippine government forces and Maute Group/ISIS troops for the city center on October 25, 2017. Photo: Fernando G. Sepe Junior. Source:

Urban warfare: tools and capabilities

Often the debate also focuses on the capabilities and tools that different armies have to face urban combat. In most cases, it is generally accepted that the only two countries that have real urban combat capabilities are Israel and Russia, usually due to a hodgepodge of materiel, experience, training, and their version of the rules of engagement. I would dare to add the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom to this list of countries, which, although they do not have the same level as the first group, would be capable of reaching fully acceptable levels.

Although, from a military point of view, a varied number of tools have been requested to address the different problems that combat in cities requires, such as the podcast published on December 25, 2020 “Everything I want for “Christmas is a set of urban combat capabilities” (“All I want for Christmas is an Urban warfare capability set"), a clear nod to Mariah Carey's legendary song "All I want for Christmas is you" (64)(65), the reality is that we are very far from reaching them. In this section we will mention some of them and the reason for the interest they arouse among professionals.

Some of the tools that are essential for combat in cities have already been discussed earlier in this article. For example, 152/155mm self-propelled artillery (such as the 2S1 Gvozdika, widely used in the conflicts in Chechnya) (66), the importance of a specific and simple doctrine that provides Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) necessary for combatants when facing certain enemies (67) or weapons with explosive capabilities sufficient to penetrate reinforced concrete walls.

It would also be redundant to explain why urban combat is a combined arms fight, why tanks are fundamental in it (68) and the suitability of its different ammunition, from the M908 MPAT-OR, the M830A1 MPAT 120 to the HEAT-MP-T (69). The preference for non-lethal weaponry (M84 Stun, flash/flashbang, or sound grenades) during assaults, the immense value of snipers (70), or combat engineers (71). All of them are essential tools to combat almost any adversary in a confrontation of some magnitude in urban terrain.

It is also counterintuitive to understand why some tools are so useful in urban environments. In general, these are tools that are the only ones that provide a specific solution to a specific problem if they are used correctly and that are not necessarily prohibited, but have been removed from the inventory of many countries for “humanitarian reasons.” An example of this is the flamethrower, which is active in many non-Western armies and whose use is essential for attacking underground complexes, fortresses and highly fortified points for which conventional explosives are rarely useful. This type of weapon is still present in the Russian armies (as the RPO-A Shmel/Bumblebee, which replaced the RPO-74 Rys/Lynx flamethrower and previously the LPO-50) and Chinese (Type 74, a version of the LPO-50 , the PF-97, a licensed version of the RPO Shmel, or the FHJ-84). And there are recent experiences of its use that support this theory, such as those of the Chinese PLA during the attack on the Aksu coal mines, Xinjiang (2015) against enemies entrenched inside the mining complexes (72)(73).

In the following video you can see the degree of precision and distance with which this type of weapons can be used against enemies in fortified points with very reduced collateral damage. Source: CCTV Military

Another tool that has created a lot of debate is the use of smoke inside cities, because although there are some ways to create smoke screens using grenades or smoke such as the AN-M8 Smoke HC (white) or the AN-M18 (colors), these grenades can take between 2 and 3 minutes to create this curtain. In situations where the immediacy of a smoke screen or the need to blind an enemy without causing destruction is immediate, it is when smoke grenades are necessary that are capable of creating said effect instantly. In this case, we are talking about white phosphorus. This is where we enter a swampy area, because although the aforementioned grenades (AN-M8 and AN-M18) contain white phosphorus in small amounts and the risk of causing fires is relatively low, smoke grenades or ammunition with a high content of white phosphorous, fired in general by artillery with direct and indirect fire (and for which there is no equivalent at infant level). Not only do they have a high risk of causing fires, but their exposure, inhalation or oral ingestion can cause serious damage and become fatal. That is why they have tried to be outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) without success. However, to this day, there are no alternatives on the table, and white phosphorous continues to be used, for example in the battle for Mosul (2017), where the improved white phosphorous ammunition type M825A1 was used with great results and helped protect and rescue civilians in the combat zone, in which they were trapped and acted as human shields for Daesh troops (74).

A similar debate occurs when we talk about tear gas, which is not allowed because it is toxic due to its chemical composition. The reason why tear gas raises blisters in the debate is because some professionals understand it as a contradiction that its military use is restricted, while its police use (precisely against civilians) is allowed inside cities as an anti-military weapon. Even more so, bearing in mind that although dangerous and toxic, it is a weapon that is not necessarily lethal and that has been used on numerous occasions in a highly satisfactory manner, such as in Manila (1945) or Hue (1968) (75 ).

Video of the effect of a white phosphorus smoke grenade in April 1945, Utrechtseweg, Arnhem, during the assault on the city.

The importance of camouflage

Although it may seem surprising to us, there is a whole panoply of techniques specifically designed for camouflage in urban environments, with greater or lesser success (76). They usually go unnoticed, but we have seen some good examples recently:

First Fusiliers of the British Army training urban camouflage.

Camouflage in urban environments is well received and highly desirable, debate arises when civil symbols such as the image of civilian vehicles are used as camouflage. Since in this way the door is being opened to the unconditional attack on civilians, under the pretext that every civilian truck could actually be a legal military target of attack. This has given rise to some uncomfortable questions about this type of camouflage, such as in the case of Taiwan or Russia.

Photos of Taiwanese military vehicles camouflaged as civilian urban service trucks.

Photos of Russian military vehicles camouflaged as trucks transporting goods (wood).

Photos of Russian military vehicles camouflaged as civilian grain trucks.

Video of Russian military vehicles camouflaged as civilian grain trucks.

'Breaching walls' and 'Ramming'

Probably the least secure place to enter a building in the middle of urban combat is the door. Access the interior of buildings and break down their inner and outer walls to move through the city has been used for more than a century throughout different conflicts (Monterrey [XNUMX], Easter Rising [XNUMX], Jaffa [XNUMX] or Jenin [XNUMX]). To this end, different ways of creating said holes through which to enter have been developed. In general, this has been done with explosives, rocket launchers or grenade launchers, through direct fire artillery or tanks. However, the generalization of more resistant construction materials constitutes one more challenge for the infantrymen, who must not only carry their equipment, but also specialised tools to carry out this type of tasks. In general, they would be carried out by combat engineers or sappers, but now they are forced to do.

Photos of the Military Mountain School and Special Operations of the Army practicing 'breaching' in Jaca, in this case on doors (November and December 2020).

In relation to creating holes in buildings, some armies have fitted some of their vehicles with metal battering rams on the front of the vehicle (in the case of the Israeli Centurion tanks), railway rails (to the Bradleys, in Baghdad for the US Army) or bulldozers (Challenger 2 Street Fighter) in order to create holes for infantry to penetrate through. In the past, this technique was also used to directly knock down buildings or parts of them. This technique is called 'Ramming', that is, the use of vehicles as battering rams to create holes in the walls of buildings or demolish parts of the city through which you can pass, making it easier to maneouvre inside the urban terrain, both inside and through buildings. While this capability has not been lost voluntarily, it has been a consequence of combat vehicles having high-tech equipment on their exteriors, which are relatively incapable of withstanding the impact of a wall collapsing on top of them without sustaining damage or misalignment. There is no escaping the fact that this tactic is dangerous to carry out and requires prior reconnaissance so as not to fall into basements or pits created by suspended wooden floors, but in areas of the city where constructions are relatively light (for example, shanty towns) or low height (one or two floors) is very useful.

Video of an armored vehicle practicing 'ramming' around World War II.

Adapted vehicles

Some of the new solutions proposed from different countries have come in the form of combat vehicles, such as the Namer ('Armored Personal Carrier' or APC), the Machbet (a development of the M163 VADS, an M113 with a 6-barrel rotary machine gun of 20mm M168 with incendiary ammunition and 4 Stinger launchers with a fire control kit) or the Israeli Carmel or the Russian BMPT “Terminator”, which we already talked about in this excellent article ( or its Chinese equivalent, the QN-506, the copy of the Russian BMPT Terminator ( In addition, progress is also being made in unmanned platforms, such as the Uran-9, and there are some platforms that, although they were not originally designed for urban combat, could provide very similar performance in such terrain, such as the Stryker A1 ( IM-SHORAD). Very much in line with what the Soviets would do first in Afghanistan and then the Russians in Chechnya with their ZSU-23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft systems.

Video in which the Stryker A1 (IM-SHORAD) vehicles are compared against the BMPT- “Terminator”, in this case, as air defense vehicles. Source: Matsimus (Youtube)

There is no denying that extreme necessity has given free rein to the imagination and has created inventive solutions. For example, during the Battle of Marawi (2017), to alleviate the lack of smokescreen capabilities to protect troops passing through the streets, tactics were widely used in which runners crossed the streets, subsequently erecting huge and thick cloth curtains with which troops could cross with visual cover. In addition, in the absence of properly protected vehicles (since the Philippines did not have tanks in 2017) to protect advances through the streets, 'leapfrogging' tactics were developed in which protected bulldozers improvised they coordinated with Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), usually upgraded M113s, to clear the way and protect each other (77).

Russian combat engineer training building assault tactics. Source: Evgeniy Kel (@vectorkel on Instagram).


Sadr City (XNUMX), Aleppo (XNUMX-XNUMX), the Siege of Deir-ez-Zor (XNUMX-XNUMX), Ilovaisk (XNUMX), Kobani (XNUMX-XNUMX), Debal'tseve (XNUMX), Ramadi (XNUMX-XNUMX), Third Battle of Fallujah (XNUMX), Mosul (XNUMX-XNUMX), Raqqa (XNUMX-XNUMX), Deir ez-Zor campaign (XNUMX-XNUMX), Marawi (XNUMX), Tal Afar (XNUMX), Sana'a (XNUMX), Al Hudaydah/Hodeidah (XNUMX), Ghouta (XNUMX) or Tripoli (XNUMX). They show that the fight for cities is the order of the day and takes many different forms. Unfortunately, many people in the Spanish-speaking community are still anchored in historical examples such as Stalingrad (XNUMX), Manila (XNUMX), Hue (XNUMX) or Grozny (XNUMX-XNUMX). Although these experiences are useful when it comes to identifying patterns and drawing some lessons, not only are they totally unrealizable today, but the lessons to be learned are becoming more and more alien to us.

Although we often forget (and however unlikely this hypothesis may seem), Ceuta and Melilla are eminently urban enclaves, and it would be well worth being prepared for the challenge they present if at some point it is necessary to defend them by highlighting their special character as a city. Perhaps it is time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room and prepare, if not for all possible cases, since the requirements of the US Army are far from those of the Army, then for the potential scenarios that we may face. I know that some steps have already been taken in this direction, but there is still a community to build around the topic at hand in Spanish, where debates take place at the level of those seen previously.

The world does not stop because we decide to ignore some issues and urban environments will not stop growing in the near future. The combat in them will be more and more frequent. Some countries outside the Western orbit, such as Russia and China, have already seriously started working on it and there are already known attempts to integrate different tools and platforms such as the Artificial Intelligence, war drones electronic warfareand information technology to create synergies with which to dispute control of urban environments if necessary. Maybe it is time to start thinking about what our plan is and discussing it, because not having a plan is also a plan, but it is probably one of the worst of all.

Annex: bibliography in Spanish and more information

I have allowed myself afford a compilation a list of articles with which to get started on the subject of urban combat in Spanish. There is a monstrous amount of information in English. For those who think that English is not their thing, I would recommend Google's automatic translation through Google Chrome (Android) or Safari (Apple), which although imperfect, helps to understand most articles.

Articles on urban warfare

“Special Operations Forces and urban combat” General Vicente Bataller lventosa (1996) Defense Magazine nº219-220, July-August 1996

“Cities at War: Current Trends and Challenges in Urban Combat” Katarína Svitková (2015)

“The urban future of irregular warfare.” Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana (2018)

“Africa in the ‘urban era’: towards development or disorder?” Pedro Sánchez Herráez (04/2019)

“Military implications derived from the execution of operations in densely populated areas.” Working Document 06/2019. CESEDEN

“Five urban battles that have marked recent conflicts” Iván Giménez Chueca (28/03/2021)

"The old and the new. Sieges, terror and foreign fighters” Alfredo Vázquez Ramos (GESI – Global Strategy)

“The image of hell on earth: the Coastal Urban Combat” Josep Baqués (07/2020)

Articles on urban warfare in Army Magazine

Some articles in Ejercitos Magazine have touched on the topic tangentially as part of other analyzes or more directly as part of a thematic analysis of a particular battle or experience:

-The tactical news of the Syrian War (

-Israeli military thought (

-Donbass (

-“Marawi 2017: Introduction” (

-“Marawi 2017: Development and outcome” (

-“Chronicle of the 2006 Lebanon War (Part One)” (

-“Chronicle of the 2006 Lebanon War (Second Part)” (

-“BMPT ‘Terminator’. The Beast from the East” (

-“Nájaf 2004 (I)” (

-“Nájaf 2004 (II) (

-“Operation Phantom Fury” (

-“The battle for CIMIC House (I)” (

-“The battle for CIMIC House (II)” (

-“Concrete barriers. Evolution and use in urban environments” (


(Note 1)

"Operating in a rural area, if you will, it is like having three colored balls on a pool table and you got the one cue ball, and you strike the cue ball. The chances are that it may never touch anything else. Operating in a city, again, with your density is like having seven racks of the colored balls on the table and you strike the cue ball and you have no idea of ​​what the ultimate consequences are gonna be when they all start to impact each other's .”


(Note 2)

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

Vasili I. Chuikov “The Battle for Stalingrad” (3)

(Note 3)

"The term 'street fighting' is a misnomer, for the street was the one place we could not go. Streets were completely covered by pillboxes and rapid-fire 40mm guns, with each street corner swept by at least four pillboxes. Our procedure was to go from house to house blasting holes through the walls with satchel charges".

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

(Note 4)

<The Three Block War. This is the landscape upon which the 21st Century battle will be fought. It will be an asymmetrical battlefield. Much like the Germanic tribes, our enemies will not allow us to fight the Son of Desert Storm, but will try to draw us into the stepchild of Chechnya. In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees—providing humanitarian assistance. In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart—conducting peacekeeping operations—and, finally, they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle—all on the same day…all within three city blocks. It will be what we call the “three block war.” >

General Charles C. Krulak Commandant, US Marine Corps 1999 (7)


(1) Glenn, Dr. Russell and Amble, John (16/08/2017) “The future Urban battlefield, with Dr. Russell Glenn” Modern War Institute West Point. Modern War Institute Podcast Episode 31. (Last visited 15/03/2021).

(2) Marshal, S.L.A. (1973) “Notes on urban warfare” Army Material Systems Analysis Agency.

(3) p.322, Chuikov, Vasili I. (1965) “The Battle for Stalingrad” New York. Ballantine.

(4) p.1, 12th Army Group, Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, US Army (28 September 1944) “Battle Experiences No. 50” US Army.

(5) Scharfen, John C. et al. (December 1975) AD-AO22 998 “Soviet tactical doctrine for urban warfare.” Stanford Research Institute. Menlo Park, California.

(6) King, Dr. Anthony (May 2015) “Close Quarters Battle: urban combat and 'special forcification'”  Exeter University (Last visited 15/03/2021).

(7) Krulak, Charles C (1999)”Urban Operations I. Introduction B4R5359 Student Handout. USMC). Adaptation of “Krulak, Charles C (1999) The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” US Marine Corps (Last visited 15/03/2021).

(8) Spencer, John (28/03/2019) “The destructive age of urban warfare, or, how to kill a city and how to protect it” Modern Warfare Institute at West Point (Last visited 22/03/2021).

(9) Spencer John and Hendrex, Daniel (12/06/2020) “A senior Enlisted perspective on combat in megacities” Modern War Institute at West Point. Urban Warfare Project Podcast.  (Last visited 03/04/2021).

(10) Glenn, Dr. Russell W. (25/01/2017) “Ten Million is Not Enough: Coming to Grips with Megacities’ Challenges and Opportunities” Small Wars Journal (Last visited 03/04/2021).

(11) Norton, Richard, J (2003) “Feral Cities” Naval War College Review, Vol. LVI, No. 4  (Last visited 03/04/2021).

(12) Davis, Mike (2007) “Planet of misery cities” Ediciones Akal SA.

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(15) Evans, Michael (Spring 2015) “The Case against Megacities” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters. Vol.45 No.1 Spring 2015 (Last visited 03/04/2021).

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(29) Barnes, Paul (09/03/2021) “Maneuver warfare: ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’” Modern War Institute at West Point (Last visited 03/04/2021).

(30) Spencer, John (11/03/2021) “Square peg, round hole: Maneuver warfare and the urban battlefield” Modern War Institute at West Point (Last visited 21/03/2021)

(31) Fox, Amos (03/07/2018) “The re-emergence of the Siege: An assessment of trends in modern lands warfare” Association of the United States Army (Last visited 21/03/2021).

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(40) Spencer, John and Knight, Charles (05/03/2021) “The Battle of Marawi” Modern War Institute at West Point. Urban Warfare Project Podcast  (Last visited 21/03/2021).

(41) Oliker, Olg (2001) “Russia's Chechen Wars 1994–2000: Lessons from Urban Combat” RAND Arroyo Center  (Last visited 03/04/2021).

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(44) Glenn, Dr. Russell W. 17/02/2016) Chapter 25 “Megacities: The good, the bad, and the ugly” in Editors: Dilegge, Dave; Bunker, Robert J.; Sullivan, John P.; and Keshavarz, Alma (2019) “Blood and concrete. twenty-onest Century conflict in urban centers and megacities” A Small Wars Journal anthology.

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(58) Fox, Amos (16/04/2018) “Precision fires hindered by urban jungle” Association of the United States Army (Last visited 203/04/2021).

(59) p.105 Dewar, Michael (1992) “War in the streets. The story of urban combat from Calais to Khafji” BCA.

(60) Twitter: @jesusfroman 3:40pm (13/04/2021)  (Last visited 21/03/2021).

(5619) Spencer, John (08/11/2018) “Why militaries must destroy cities to save them” Modern War Institute at West Point  (Last visited 29/03/2021).

(62) Berko Zecevic, Jasmin Terzic, Alan Catovic, Sabina Serdarevic-Kadic (2010) “Dispersion of PGU-14 ammunition during air strikes by combat aircraft A-10 near urban areas” – University of Sarajevo, Mechanical Engineering Faculty, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(63) Cross, Kenneth; Dullum, Ove, Jenzen-Jones, NR; and Garlasco, Marc (2016) “ARES – Explosive weapons in populated areas. Technical considerations relevant to their use and effects” ARES (Armament Research Services).

(64) Spencer, John (21/12/2020) “The twelve days of Urban Warfare Christmas” Modern War Institute at West Point (Last visited 29/03/2021).

(65) Spencer, John and Amble, John (25/12/2020) Modern War Institute at West Point. Urban warfare Project Podcast (Last visited 29/03/2021).

(66) Twitter @ChasAHKnight 6:06pm (19/04/2020) (Last visited 29/03/2021).

(67) Knight, Dr. Charles (2020) Ibid.

(68) Page 107 Dewar, Michael (1992) Ibid.

(69) Glenn, Russell W., Hartman, Steven L. and Gerwehr, Scott (2003) “Urban Combat Service Support Operations. The Shoulders of Atlas” RAND Arroyo Center.

(70) Johnson, David E; Markel, Wade and Shannon, Brian (2013) “The 2008 Battle of Sadr City. Reimagining Urban Combat” RAND Corporation.

(71) Scharfen, John C. (1975) Ibid.

(72) Gan, Nectar and Chen, Andrew (23/11/2015) “Flamethrower used to flush out militants in China’s Xinjiang region, says state media” South China Morning Post (Last visited 21/03/2021).

(73) “2015 Aksu colliery attack” Wikipedia English  (Last visited 21/03/2021).

(74) Gibson, Daniel; Pence, Scott; and Grimes, Stoney (2020) “Smoke employment in the Battle for Mosul” United States Field Artillery Association Bulletin No.3  (Last visited 21/03/2021).

(75) Combat Studies Institute Press, Robertson, William G. (Gen.Editor) and Yates, Lawrence A. (Man.Editor) (2003) “Block by Block: The Challenges of Urban Operations” US Army Command and General Staff College Press. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

(76) Steck, Thomas T (01/10/1980) “Camouflage and deception techniques for urban warfare” Army mobility equipment research and development command, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

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  • Jesus F. Roman Garcia

    Architect by University of Seville and Master in Smart Cities from the UdG. He did his thesis work on security and attack modeling in urban supply networks. He has also published in Divergent Options.

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