As of around 1998, the majority of politically significant urban areas—upwards of 75 percent—outside allied and ex-Warsaw Pact states are within 150 miles of a coastline; 60 percent are within 12 miles. Given the Marine Corps’ role as an expeditionary, and amphibious, force in readiness, it is clear that many future urban battlefields will be within its domain, whether it be for peacekeeping, humanitarian support, or outright combat. While the Corps does have an urban warfighing doctrinal guide (the aging MCWP 3-35.3: Military Operations in Urban Terrain [MOUT]), a few urban warfare training centers, and ongoing research (Project Metropolis II), the current focus of Corps’ leaders is a shift back toward the service’s amphibious roots. This shift likely is largely to counter China’s growing aggression in the Pacific region, in which there is highly urbanized terrain. Thus, it is necessary for the Marine Corps to simultaneously prepare for future urban operations while also returning to its amphibious role.
Marine Corps Urban Warfare
In 1999, following observation of the chaotic Russian operations in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Marine Corps General Charles Krulak created the concepts of the “three-block war” and the “strategic corporal.” The three-block war has three elements: humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and mid-intensity conflict (high-intensity conflict would make humanitarian aid impossible and peacekeeping irrelevant). In essence, General Krulak imagined an urban environment in which a Marine may, in one block, have to deal with displaced persons; in another block, carry out crowd control; and in a third block, return fire on a hostile combatant. The second concept—the strategic corporal—simply states that a junior noncommissioned officer must be aware of what his actions mean on a strategic level, as it may have strategic-level impacts (negative or positive), especially in the contemporary information age. More concrete Marine Corps tactical and operational concepts are outlined in MOUT, which provides an outline of how to conduct operations in dense urban areas. However, the publication is more than two decades old and, as such, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) is researching necessary options to prepare Marines for the rigors of modern-day urban and subterranean operations.
Project Metropolis II is an ongoing research project of the MCWL, succeeding a similar project carried out in the 1990s meant to modernize the Marine Corps’ urban warfighting doctrine. As involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has continued to wind down, and near-peer threats have risen in a resurgent Russia and an empowered China, Project Metropolis once again is in the spotlight. Project Metropolis II offers an opportunity to innovate urban operations that should continue to be fostered. More specifically, the MCWL is attempting to better understand contemporary and future MOUT/dense urban operation possibilities. This has taken the form of both original research and field exercises, the latter of which have been carried out since around mid-2019, during which the MCWL tested new MOUT technologies and doctrine with a company-sized element of infantry Marines at the U.S. Army’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. Similar exercises were planned for every August until 2021, and even though COVID has impacted training cycles nationwide, the Marine Corps ought to make the most out of this project’s opportunities.
As the global stage continues to change and evolve, the need for this project and similar initiatives becomes clear. Globally, roughly 50 percent of the world’s population is urbanized, and that percentage is expected to grow. Such trends are expected to contribute to both the growth of dense urban environments as well as megacities, defined as a city of 10-plus million people; at least 33 presently exist, with 19 in Asia and others found on every continent sans Antarctica and Australia. Ten more cities are expected to reach megacity status by 2030 and, by 2050, upwards of 68 percent of the world’s population may be generally urban. With the growth of cities and megacities also comes the growth of outlying shantytowns, which may constitute “nightmare battlespaces” because “they offer the worst combination of mission sets (in terms of lethality and complexity) in the worst possible environment, where the full spectrum of conflict against myriad opponents and/or threats is entirely possible.”
While not exactly the “nightmare battlespaces” envisioned, several recent urban battles have occurred in comparable developing regions—most notably the Battle of Mosul—and led to comparably nightmarish results in terms of complexity and high civilian and military casualty rates. This complicated by the emerging dual threat of insurgencies/chaos and peer conflict, wherein “adversaries that credibly challenge the rules and agreements that define the international order” will be seen, and this “persistent disorder will involve certain adversaries exploiting the inability of societies to provide functioning, stable, and legitimate governance.” Such situations will be particularly influenced by regional competitors, such as Russia and Iran, alongside growing U.S. near-peer competitor China. Equally, other regions may simply find themselves less stable because of passing time and contested interests.
As these threats are recognized within the United States and remedied with proper preparation, they too are recognized by rivals. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for instance, undoubtedly is preparing for urban warfare. With the PLA’s year-by-year growth, alongside China’s status as one of the most urbanized countries, this sort of preparation would be expected regardless of global trends toward urbanization. With Chinese Communist Party thinking shifting toward an apparent long-term effort at regional (if not global) hegemony, it is clear that they too are envisioning the possibility of operating in urban terrain abroad.
Retaking Taiwan: A Scenario
Taiwan—while typically recognized as part the People’s Republic of China legally—has been in China’s proverbial crosshairs for quite some time, and the heavily urbanized terrain in its capital city Taipei and elsewhere poses a challenge for both the PLA as well as foreign states that may opt to support Taiwanese independence from the mainland. With a growing PLA-Navy (PLAN) and changing PLAN-Marine Corps (PLANMC), a regional event—such as, perhaps, a formal move toward Taiwanese independence by the governing Democratic Progressive Party—could set off a PLA attack on or outright invasion of the island as soon as the late 2020s. Assuming U.S. and allied forces intervene, what could this Taiwanese conflict potentially look like?
Possessing overwhelming superiority in numbers and decades-long preparation, the PLAN would quickly overrun the Taiwanese Navy and likely most allied naval vessels in the area. While a myriad of actions would be taking place to assure China would not immediately lose possession of Taiwan (following occupation), elsewhere in the Pacific, on the Taiwanese mainland, the PLANMC could quickly be deployed to a number of landing points on the island’s coast. Overwhelming whatever defenses may exist and establishing safe landing points, PLANMC marines could make way for larger forces of PLA soldiers to overtake the Taiwan’s interior. Intense fighting would take place in the cities between PLA/PLANMC troops and the Taiwanese Army; in Taipei in particular, with coinciding PLA/PLANMC troops pushing south from the beachheads, smaller teams of commandos could potentially cross the Tamsui River to reach the heart of the city and flank or otherwise sabotage the city’s defenses. Characteristics of amphibiously invading a city, as seen historically in Operation Peace for Galilee’s battle for Tyre, also may be seen here. Inevitably, by sheer force of numbers, the Taiwanese Army (or whatever remains of it) would have to retreat into the mountains and wage a campaign of extended guerrilla warfare.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine Corps, presumably having already carried out a complex series of island-hopping campaigns in approaching Taiwan and other strategic targets, will have to carry out high-stakes amphibious landings comparable to the Battle of Iwo Jima, but on a larger scale against entrenched PLA forces. Even assuming the conflict has remained conventional, at this point in the battle, it is likely that much of the Marine Corps vital satellite and communications infrastructure will have been compromised or obliterated by the near-peer or peer technological capabilities of the PLA or the PLA-Strategic Support Force. For the most part, Marines taking part in this battle for Taipei would have to rely on their training, basic equipment, and wits to outmaneuver and outgun the occupying PLA forces in the city. More can be hypothesized but, in summary, such a battle would be high-stakes, high-tempo, incredibly complex, and yet essentially primitive. Such a case makes it clear why good-quality and frequent training for dense urban operations must be carried out by the Marine Corps, given that the abilities and confidence of individual Marines would likely be the deciding factor in victory or failure.
The Pacific region poses several threats beyond direct confrontation with China. For instance, the Korean Peninsula may become a hot spot for intense urban conflict should the North Korean regime make moves to retake the South, or itself collapse. While Pyongyang undoubtedly would come under fire in either scenario, the far larger Seoul—which sits only about 30 miles from the Korean demilitarized zone—could present a challenge in both humanitarian and combat operations unseen in history should it come under assault. Beyond the Pacific may just as well come under contest, perhaps outside the scope of conventional warfighting and more comparable to the apparent current norm of a conventional force and an insurgent force fighting for dominance over a city. As is clear, then, operations in contemporary urban terrain may be highly variable in form and situation. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps, as both the “tip of the spear” and the United States’ amphibious force, must be prepared to carry out operations in such a scenario, should—or when—the time arrives.