Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The worst battlefield in the world - cities

I'm not surprised to read the views on urban warfare of the head of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

Future wars will be more Stalingrad than Star Wars, a US General has said as he warns against a relentless focus on technology.

General Stephen Townsend, the head of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, told British military leaders at the annual Kermit Roosevelt lecture in London, that combat in an increasingly urbanised world will result in a “scale of devastation beyond our comprehension”.

“The future operational environment will be more lethal and on a scale not seen in decades,” he said, as he warned military chiefs that advanced weapons will be of little use in built up areas devastated by fighting.

Modern armies have no idea how to fight in these “hyper populated [and] literally unboundable” areas, Gen Townsend told the audience ... In the battle to liberate Mosul from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), he had had to ask coalition partners if any army still used flamethrowers, as 'bunker buster' bombs had proved useless against fighters dug in amongst destroyed buildings.

. . .

General Townsend ... likened the fight to liberate Mosul to Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle of the Second World War.

A coalition force of 90,000 soldiers took nine months to finally defeat the 5,000 Isil fighters in Mosul. It took seven days to clear the last pockets of resistance, contained in an area about the size of a premier league football pitch.

Gen Townsend said that buildings taller than about four storeys would just collapse under aerial bombs with the basements and ground floors - where Isil fighters were hiding - largely intact. Subsequent bunker busters just made the ruined structure shake a bit and absorb the blast. He needed a way of killing every last Isil insurgent as they were determined to fight to the death and cause as many casualties as possible.

Eventually the Iraqi army deployed a specially designed armoured bulldozer to bury alive the remaining Isil fighters. Soldiers patrolling behind the bulldozer were used to kill any Isil suicide bombers that ran out to stop the vehicle.

It was a low-tech and brutal form of war. Gen Townsend questioned whether Western armies had maintained the skills and the stomach for such a fight. "Battles are won by young soldiers fighting in sand, mud, heat and cold," he said. Hi-tech weapons are largely useless in such battles, Gen Townsend cautioned.

There's more at the link.

My military experience is decades old, and didn't involve such intensive urban combat as Mosul.  Nevertheless, I had some interesting times in towns in African nations, and extensive exposure to urban unrest in South Africa during the 1980's.  Lower-key though those situations were, they were enough to convince me that the worst possible place to have to fight for your life was in an urban environment, where you couldn't see an opponent behind walls or rubble, and where every step exposed you to new angles of fire from potential enemy positions that you could neither see clearly nor control.  I'm sure every serviceman who saw urban combat in Iraqi cities (see, for example, the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, or the 2003 or 2008 Battles of Basra), or any Russian serviceman who found himself in the 1994/95, 1996 or 1999 Battles of Grozny, or anyone trapped in the urban warfare in Syria over the past few years (see the video "lessons" here), will be able to confirm that from their own experiences.

I agree with General Townsend on the drawbacks of high technology in such a combat environment, but with a caveat.  A new generation of tiny unmanned vehicles, both terrestrial and airborne, may lend a new dimension to urban warfare.  When individual soldiers or fire teams can deploy miniaturized drones to peer around corners, over walls and within buildings, to give them advance warning of dangers ahead, that may allow them to develop tactics that will be more effective and give them a better chance of survival.  (Of course, if and when both sides deploy the same technology, the stalemate will return.  The next step will be jammers to stop the enemy using his drones, but allow you to use yours.  The enemy will then counter that, and it's back to the same old, same old . . .)

We may see a return to siege warfare of a sort.  An attacking force may refuse to enter an urban area, because of the difficulties and costs involved in fighting there.  Instead, it may seal off the area, preventing ingress or egress, and try to "starve out" those living there.  If the defenders are terrorists rather than conventional troops, they may, in turn, try to use the inhabitants as "human shields", forcing them to provide cover from incoming fire, get food and water for the combatants, etc.  Armed forces with moral or ethical standards will try to avoid inflicting casualties on the "shields".  Those without, will not.  Either way, the "shields" are unlikely to enjoy the experience.



Glen said...

He describes an ideal situation for the use of toxic gas. Delivered by artillery, it would be easy to maintain a toxic layer that would settle into the lower areas of the damaged buildings. Maintain for a day or three, and it would overwhelm any ordinary mask or PPE.

I expect that we will see it used more and more often in the coming decade.

It would bring international condemnation. But it is hard to create sanctions that are more damaging that losing a war.

Uncle Lar said...

Nearly as effective would be classes of thermobaric weapons such as fuel air explosives.
I believe that the Israelis were using such for a while on terrorist bunkers until the UN through the US put pressure on them to stop. The reasoning naturally was that such weapons tend to kill everything in the footprint of the bomb.
Current policy of UN members is to ban their use, but I understand that most nations either have or are experimenting with such weapons delivered by air, artillery, or man portable launch systems.

waepnedmann said...

Highly recommend:
House to House by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.
The book is his account of his participation in the 2nd Battle of Fallujah.

Craig Mark said...

I would doubt that the US would resurrect the use of flame throwers. The American public doesn't have the will to let them be used. (or at least the lefty-press doesn't) I think we quit using them early in Vietnam. The images of burned children on the 24/7 news cycle will be all we will see.

Beans said...

Siege warfare is already in place. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems in modern siege warfare is the UN and all the NGO aid organizations. You know, the ones that are feeding the fighters, bringing in medical equipment for the fighters, bringing in everything up to (and including weapons) to the fighters, all in the name of 'Aiding the Children.' Who are still starving because all the aid goes to the fighters.

The YPG and the Persh-Merga have both been using a combination of siege and smash tactics during their campaigns against ISIS/ISIL/Whatever. Because they do have the 'huevos' to stop aid from getting in and will openly starve a stronghold until all the cats, dogs, donkeys, and rats have been eaten.

McChuck said...

Siege warfare and flame weapons. RPGs and Karl Gustavs. Mortars are much more useful than fighters dropping 2,000 pound bombs. Thermobaric weapons down to 40mm. Napalm is the gift that keeps on giving, makes its own smoke screen, and allows you to break contact.

In war, everything is simple. The simplest things are very difficult. Politicians deliberately make it more so.

Never forget that CNN is the enemy.

Silent Draco said...

In another life, I put the magic word Vauban on several briefings like that. This got a lot of blank looks, except from a couple officers who had better awareness of military history. The last of his fortifications to get reduced (on its last rebuild and rework) was probably part of Liege in 1940. Re-learn defensive and offensive siege warfare from the last master.

Before discussing weapons, some questions are in order. To conduct a proper siege, what are you attempting to do? What needs to be cut, taken, or denied, in terms of infrastructure and flows? Is communications on this list? Are social media and soi-disant newsrooms on the list?

Simple questions. The answers are fairly straightforward and some are easy. The operations will be awful and ugly, because an army is doing the job right the first ^&%$ing time. Politicians and posers are invited to hump 120mm mortar shells for the besieging force; it'll build character.

Didn't think that button would get pushed yet ...

Nuke Road Warrior said...

My Dad tells stories of his service in Europe during WWII. The standard approach was to infiltrate a village/town during the night, set up machine guns to cover the roads as much as possible. Just before dawn, the infantry pops grenades through windows and doors followed up with submachine guns spraying the ground floor rooms. Then came the bloody work of clearing the basement and upper floors.

The difference today is the concern by the press, and civilian leadership over civilian casualties. In 1944-45, no one cared about civilians. They either got out of the way or took their chances, most left the area.

Quartz said...

I don't think thermobaric bombs would help or even nukes. With thermobaric bombs you have to get sufficient explosive mixture into the space in the short space of time before the bomb detonates, and that's difficult if there's a large degree of shelter and thus horizontal movement required. And nukes are pulse weapons so people with significant shelter - like basements - are going to have a great deal of shielding.

Rain initial destruction, then, as others have said, starve them out.

takirks said...

Gee, I wonder why we're having problems fighting in urban areas, when we don't plan, practice, or prepare to do so seriously?

The Army identified the need for TUSK kits on the Abrams back around, oh... 1990? Look at the AARs from Shugart/Gordon down at Fort Polk; every armor rotation through there highlighted the need to improve this stuff, but... Nobody did a damn thing about it, until the fighting in Iraq forced hands. Just like with MRAPs, and armored route clearance gear--The Army was being told from internal sources like myself "Hey, we need to get ready for this...", and nobody took ownership or did anything serious.

Hell, we told them that it was stupid to build the FMTV vehicles with a cab-forward design, because that put the axle that was most likely to hit and detonate something right under the crew. We told them we would need uparmor kits ready to go for the vehicles. What was the answer we got back? "These are not combat vehicles; they will never need to go into combat...".

If I hadn't lost a bunch of good friends to stupidity like this, I'd laugh my ass off. The Army had plenty of warning, as an organization. What it lacked was any imperative to do a damn thing outside the narrow confines of its envisioned role and mission.

A big part of the problem is that the Army is unable to grasp that how it envisions fighting a war is irrelevant--You can posit all the "big war" BS you like, with all the nice, clearly delineated battle lines between combat zones and logistics zones, but the facts are that no enemy is going to play that game. The Soviets started doing "deep battle" with partisans and irregular warfare in the rear areas back in WWII on the Eastern Front. After the war, they passed on their doctrine and lessons learned to all and sundry, on their side. Thus, you can see clear continuity between Korea, Vietnam, the various Bush Wars in South Africa, and the post-invasion efforts in Iraq. Only people that can't see that continuity, and plan for it? The commissioned geniuses we have running our Army, who all want to fight Rommel in North Africa in some kind of military vacuum without urban areas or civilians. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

There's a lot of crap that needs to be done to prepare for real urban war. One thing is to develop dominance in combat engineering, with doctrine, training, and equipment. Things like up-armored bobcats with articulated hydraulic attachments and booms for getting up off the street, demolition robots like those available from Husqvarna, and a host of other things. The problem is, nobody wants to do these things, mostly because the Engineer School is a backwater, and the funding mostly doesn't go there.