Bottom Line: It's Infantry

By Captain Scott E. Packard, U.S. Marine Corps

What social forces are driving combat into the cities? Wealth and power are gravitating to the metropolitan centers; power seekers must focus more and more on the city to gain legitimacy and infrastructure. Third World cities, however, attract people more quickly than they can absorb them. The disruptive effect of population movements, outpacing the social systems and infrastructure that support growth, creates a mushroom-like spread of unpoliceable slums and shantytowns. As this growth continues unabated, it breeds a disenchanted constituency, ripe for subordination. Disaffected by the government's inability to provide security and basic life-sustaining conditions, masses of people may turn to rioting, crime, and rebellion. Problems will be aggravated by age old ethnic, religious, and cultural tensions. The same conditions of squalor, hunger, and disease that will draw U.S. humanitarian assistance also will draw guerrillas seeking a power base and criminals seeking plunder.

Fidel Castro once implied that the guerrilla must remain rural: "The city is a graveyard of revolutionaries and resources." But many geographies fail to provide the cover of dense jungles or mountainous terrain in rural areas. Contrary to Castro's words, protracted urban guerrilla warfare is possible; the IRA has been fighting off and on since 1970. Acts of terrorism, riots, and strikes and subversion of security forces are easier, with the concentrations of people in cities. Also, guerrillas fight in the cities because they can gain a more even footing against a technologically advanced adversary.

In the urban canyons, an enemy can hope to meet U.S. forces as an equal. The Gulf War showed the world the U.S. effectiveness in surveillance, targeting, and precision weapons. A cluttered urban environment, which permits both protective camouflage and cover (including the civilian population), presents a much tougher environment for U.S. technologies and poses the risk of unacceptable collateral damage. Dominant battlespace knowledge is not credible in the urban environment. Because the urban environment limits mobility, communications, fire support, and position location, traditional U.S. advantages are reduced.

The "Three-Block War" is a current metaphor for the expected form of future conflicts. This concept, with its clearly defined categories, packages a foggy and difficult concept in a way that facilitates clear thinking. The premise—that Marines will provide humanitarian assistance on one block of a city, control rioting noncombatants on the next, and on the third block engage in full scale combat—clarifies the challenges the Marine Corps will face as America's "911" force. Many waypoints on the continuum of violence often will be co-located. Peacekeepers will face gunmen from within crowds of riotous noncombatants seeking sustenance or medical assistance. Doctrine must be established to deal not only with the challenges that the urban environment presents, but also to handle the full range of potential operations.

Operations Other Than War

Scholars increasingly recognize that war no longer is the exclusive domain of the nation-state; dealing with non-state factions is integral in humanitarian assistance and peace operations. In OOTW, success will hinge upon our interaction with the country's inhabitants. Doctrinal war missions focus on an abstracted enemy; in OOTW, the focus is usually on people. It is key to work with the local people to prevent escalation of violence. If a country's inhabitants perceive they have been wronged, they may respond by fighting to amend the perceived injustice. Territorial integrity and political sovereignty serve as the basis for measuring just and unjust actions.

Legitimacy requires U.S. citizens' approval and the approval of the people in the country where U.S. forces are sent. The leaders on the spot must ensure their actions do not reflect a disregard for the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of the people they assist. Perceived insults by foreign military forces may be interpreted as a threat against local sovereignty. If we no longer have popular approval to be under arms in another country, our presence will erode the values and goals upon which the original political intervention was based. Even when the efforts of a violent minority don't reflect the feelings of the majority, legitimacy still can be compromised.

As Machiavelli recommended to his protégé in The Prince , close ties and physical presence are necessary to maintain influence with a given population. The same requirements for close proximity to noncombatants will make a given mission more difficult. It is hard to tell friend from foe from disinterested onlooker in the urban environment. Noncombatants, by their very presence, restrict force use. Noncombatant casualties eat up resources in terms of medical care. Excessive civilian casualties can threaten the perceived legitimacy of the mission.

In OOTW, our opponents will attempt to deny U.S. forces accurate real-time information. The best place to hide will be in plain sight. Combatants will be deployed among the general populace, negating our intelligence gathering by satellite imagery and remote sensors. Human intelligence and regional expertise will surge in importance.

Our adversaries will use real-time information against us. The media will become a force multiplier for them. Eventually, anyone with a digital camera and an Internet connection will be able to upload real-time broadcasts to the world. The urban guerrilla already enjoys a large local audience of witnesses; the media will provide a worldwide audience. If he can erode U.S. popular support at home, our adversary will gain freedom to operate unopposed by U.S. military forces.

Ardant Du Picq argued that despite advanced technology, man always will be the focus of war because time has not changed the nature of man. Urban battlefields, like other forms of restrictive terrain such as jungles and mountainous country sides, historically have been great equalizers of military forces. In addition, technology has played a very minor role in campaigns against urban guerrillas. Technologists concentrate on building machines that enable us to win while protecting or distancing the human operator from the effects of combat. Despite their efforts, urban combat will remain extremely manpower intensive and produce heavy casualties. It is unlikely that machines will dominate urban combat in our lifetimes; the infantryman will remain the primary weapon. Proponents of technology suggest that the answer to minimizing casualties is to marry new systems with maneuver warfare. While some of this doctrine may work, we must be cautious about blanket implementation.

Learning from History

Marines are taught to rely on combined arms. Unfortunately, the combination of OOTW, urban terrain, and the actions of our enemy will conspire to strip away the synergistic effect of integrating multiple combat arms against the enemy. The Russians decided that the most effective way to break down the Wehrmacht was to keep as close to the Germans as possible; this tactic not only negated the striking power of the Luftwaffe but further served to separate tanks from infantry. The Chinese Army used similar "hugging" tactics during the Korean War, as did the North Vietnamese Army at the battle of Khe Sanh. These examples, with Desert Storm as a backdrop of America's strengths, will not be lost on those who will oppose us in the future.

Tanks are death traps in urban combat. In Stalingrad, the German panzers were unsuited for fighting in the city, as the tanks were destroyed in the fires of close combat.27 The Russians recently were reminded of that lesson during the battle for Grozny. In 1973, in Suez City, the Israelis—not expecting much more than sporadic enemy resistance—chose to advance down the streets mounted, shooting their way through as they went. The reluctance of their infantry to dismount prior to entry into the city resulted in heavy casualties and, subsequently, the Israeli Defense Force's repulse from the city.

Some believe that every effort must be made to "develop an effective, high-angle indirect fire system that can shoot over tall buildings." However, anything other than direct fire weapons may have marginal value, as they only will help against targets in open areas; e.g. streets, parking lots. Only the foolhardy will spend more time than absolutely necessary in these danger areas. In addition, high angle-of-attack weapons will be useless against all but the top floors of buildings. The only indirect-fire weapons that will have widespread application will be those that can make tremendous direction changes—approaching 90°—in flight. Missiles, once fired, will have to dodge buildings, cellular antennae, power lines, and other obstacles and fly into a specific window of a fortified building.

The vulnerability of aircraft and their inability to deliver precision fires where needed will reduce the effectiveness of airpower in urban terrain. General Krulak states, "We can't fight and win in the urban environment without air support, but it's very easy to hide a man-portable, anti-air missile in the city, and that is a formidable threat." The environment itself may prove to be the most inhospitable aspect of urban air operations. Unpredictable air currents and obstacles can preclude flight within cities.

Reduced support from artillery, armor, and air will increase our reliance on infantry units in urban environments. Stripped of the force-multiplying effect of combined arms, the infantryman must adapt with innovative tactics and flexible organization.

Command and Control

To interface effectively with any area's inhabitants, U.S. forces must establish a presence within the community. The Combined Action Program in Vietnam gained and maintained legitimacy and credibility because its members shared the hardships of the people they protected, as they conducted sustained operations over a period of months, learning about the people and the terrain of their area. Entering and leaving the battlefield prevents establishment of greater control. Back to Machiavelli: You must be present to have influence.

Learning about the people builds relationships and intelligence. Like a cop walking a beat in a neighborhood, the initial introduction of a new face is met with suspicion. Over time, as the interloper interacts with the local people fairly and politely, the barriers to communication gradually slip away. Gradual improvements in communication augment the second benefit of continued presence: intelligence.

Relationships with the inhabitants of a city block will provide insight not only into specific events, but into cultural situations. Observing one particular environment leads to the recognition of certain patterns. Deviation from accepted daily patterns might suggest significant events are occurring or will occur.

Human intelligence is vital in this type of operation. Dispersed units interacting with the local population will generate grassroots information which, when analyzed at local and higher levels, may help prevent violence escalation. Preventive measures can be taken.

Not all efforts to avert violence will be successful. For reasons already mentioned, escalation is likely. By targeting our forces, guerrillas may attempt to force a mentality where Marines see themselves as defenders of isolated forts. If we isolate ourselves from the people, we reduce the legitimacy of our mission and project an image of vulnerability. A schism arises between us and the people we came to help. After isolating us, guerrillas may strive to incite riots or violence in an attempt to invoke repression to alienate ever-greater segments of population.

Dispersed formations have tactical advantage that allows a flexible response to a variety of events. Forces can mass, or swarm, by converging on a hot spot. The Somalis used this technique very effectively during the attempt to snatch Colonel Aideed on 3 October 1993. Swarming to the site of potential violence indeed may prevent it. The sight of heavily armed Marines converging from all sides may give pause to those considering violence. The movement can be directed from above, coordinated laterally, or initiated autonomously. Swarming into an ongoing riot or firefight can bolster the friendly unit that is engaged, as arriving units can isolate and overwhelm the enemy.

Swarming tactics are not danger free. During the war in Chechnya, Chechen rebels blocked side streets, creating channeled killing zones. This tactic can present a threat to swarming. Movement to contact through buildings indeed may allow our forces to bypass obstacles and the inevitable kill zones associated with them. In addition, the familiarity with avenues of approach and likely areas for ambushes—acquired through sustained operations in a given area—will allow dispersed units to respond via the safest route. If our enemy travels on foot through buildings, we must be able to follow. Restricting movement to the streets in an urban environment create a vulnerability.

If escalation continues to the point where our forces face superior forces, the dispersed tactical units can become a web of mutually supporting cells capable of extended autonomous operations. These individual cells must have the resiliency to operate—cut off from comrades and support—in the enemy's rear and flanks. Recognizing the futility of counterattacks by units against strong points fortified by Germans, the Russians in Stalingrad turned instead to violent flank and rear surprise attacks by small units infiltrating between enemy-occupied positions as the most effective means of combating the German onslaught. Similar resolve and tactics will enable our forces to stand against adversaries throughout the full range of warfare.

Command Networks

It is very hard to gain and maintain an accurate picture of the multidimensional battlefield.36 Current military communications are inadequate for urban operations. There are simply too many obstructions and too many complications to fast, reliable communications. Command-and-control systems can be run either by greater reliance on situational awareness displays and communication connectivity or by mission-type orders, commander's intent, and small-unit leader initiative. Given the conditions we are likely to face in the urban environment, the best course is to teach our Marines to act autonomously. When systems do evolve to overcome the challenges of communication and position location, they will augment the procedures already in place.

Operations on the dispersed urban battlefield call for new organizational structures. Lines of communication define organizational structures. Captain John Bodnar, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired), and Second Lieutenant Rebecca Denglar, U.S. Marine Corps, suggest an interesting model for organizations that face dynamic environments and require high levels of cross-department communication. Called a "command network," this model combines the strengths of hierarchies and networks.

Command networks avoid the "informed inaction" of well-connected but leaderless networks, while overcoming the "uninformed action" of the decisive but slow-communicating hierarchy. In a command network, the organizational structure changes with each situation depending on the specific task at hand and the overall mission. The effectiveness of an organization in a dynamic environment depends on collecting all data possible, analyzing the data most appropriately, and using the data at the lowest level possible. The Navy uses this type of organization to integrate the efforts of many ships in the defense of a carrier battle group.

Swarming to the sound of gunfire or action also requires a flexible organizational structure that can task organization on the fly. This organizational flexibility demands decision-making at the lowest level and continuous cross department communication. One of the lessons the Russians learned in Grozny was that their command structure was burdened by too many layers.50 In an urban environment, speed is life. Command layers take time to function.

The bottom line is that infantry forces—operating with flexible organization structures that allow lateral communication and dynamic tactics to make a convincing response to any threat—can maintain a legitimate presence in operations other than war in urban terrain. Through careful implementation and aggressive training, Marines can fill the void of knowledge and experience in an area that is guaranteed to require the continued commitment of U.S. forces.

Captain Packard currently is serving at Camp Pendleton.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Meet the Author & Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-08-09

CDR Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN

Meet the Author & Book Signing

Tue, 2014-08-12

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership