Saturday, January 12, 2019

Don't Be Mesmerized By the Bright Lights of the Big City

The Army and Marines are practicing how to fight in cities (and especially in "megacities," the flavor of the day). Which is good. But even better would be an exploration of why we should fight in cities and what objectives will be enough to achieve victory in a city.

This technical approach to urban warfare is certainly needed:

A recent Army and Marine war game that included engineers, academics and other defense representatives evaluated how troops could use experimental technologies to fight in dense urban areas and underground.

The U.S. Army Subterranean and Dense Urban Environment Materiel Developer Community of Practice is a working group that has conducted three prior workshops that set the challenges of fighting in those environments.

“Fighting in dense urban environments and the unique challenges it presents is still not totally understood, and this study was the front-end look at identifying and defining those materiel challenges to drive where investments need to be for this operational environment,” said Bob Hesse, technical lead coordinator for the Community of Practice.

The most recent “tabletop” exercise looked at the gear troops might need to get through those intense battle scenarios, according to an Army release.

But I think the technical and tactical question pales in comparison to the operational question:

Unless we are trying to liberate one of our own cities, why do we need to capture an entire enemy-held city? Unless it is the capital of a highly centralized state whose capture can reasonably be said to represent the final objective of winning the war, why do it?

If our purpose is to defeat the enemy army, I'd rather bypass an enemy force holed up in a city and let them wither on the vine. Treat the cities the way we treated Japanese-held fortresses in the Pacific during our island-hopping campaign in World War II.

If we do that, we just need to conduct limited military operations in the city to allow our forces to bypass the city. ...

We need to get back to the idea of "securing" a city as meaning making it secured enough to continue offensive military operations in pursuit of the objective--not that the city is full controlled, pacified, and functioning. We don't need officers who understand how a city works enough to just crush the latest version of SimCity. We need officers who understand how much of a city we need to control to continue the campaign.

We need to identify the key terrain in any particular city and match our operations to our objectives for the campaign. I'm especially speaking of a conventional war where the enemy army in the field is the real objective and a deadly and time-consuming city fight is a fatal distraction.

Also, as I have long believed (as I mentioned in this Joint Force Quarterly article) that the Marines are the natural home for urban fighting skills since it complements their traditional forcible entry from the sea mission (even if carrying that out is problematic given the vulnerability of the ships taking the Marines to the shore):

The Marine Corps is already light and has more flexibility to adapt to new strategic realities. It must abandon amphibious warfare as a core capability and embrace an expeditionary role based on urban warfare and air mobility to complement the role of the Army to fight heavy forces.

What is an urban fight but an amphibious operation against a defended shore but without getting wet?

In the Army, combat engineers should be the home of urban warfare expertise in case the Marines need help.