The U.S. military has been fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT) for more than two decades now. This means that for the first time in American history a servicemember can have both enlisted and retired during an active war. Further, at no time in its history has the U.S. sustained urban combat for this length of time.
Seemingly, with America’s presence in the GWOT winding down, the U.S. military needs a number of steps to ensure that its warfighting capabilities don’t get stale. Legimitate questions arise over whether the U.S. military should focus its training on urban warfare, since that has been its bread and butter over the past two decades, or, focus more on air capabilities and ensuring control of the skies.
Jack of All Trades, Master of Some
As with most things in life, likely the best approach would be to train each individual skill to competence, while then training specific units to near-perfection. The U.S. also needs to ensure that military branches, such as the Marine Corps and the Army, are highly trained and ready for future ground combat, regardless of whether that future combat is in the mountainous terrain of Kandahar or the Wild-West-like city of Ramadi.
When this author enlisted into the Marine Corps in February 2000, brief training in MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) was given. This was fairly revolutionary for the time. Seeing the MOUT facility at Camp Pendleton, for the first time was impressive; it looked like a perfect city made for war training smack in the middle of a Marine Corps base.
Yet, more impressive was that the facility existed at a time when urban combat was essentially a fairy tale for modern warfighters. With the exception of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu seven years prior, the thought of going house-to-house or down a heavily trafficked city street for combat wasn’t considered as a likely avenue for war.
21st Century Combat
Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark A. Milley recently said about urban warfare,
“In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. We need to man, organize, train, and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organized like that right now.”
The massive application of airpower and its devastating effects during World War II, made many believe that this would be the future face of warfare. That would not turn out to be the case, however. Rather, over the past two decades, we’ve seen war on all fronts. But, most notably, we’ve been engaging in war in highly populated areas with oppressors who are often indistinguishable from the oppressed.
The Plights of Urban Warfare
The Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point said the following of urban warfare,
“Urban warfare is also the most difficult form of warfare. And while a city attack may not be the most difficult type of urban operation — a counterinsurgency involving separating a few enemy personnel from among millions of people while maintaining a military’s legitimacy could be considered more difficult — it is one of the riskiest missions a nation can attempt. There are disproportionate levels of political, tactical, and accidental risk in attempting to liberate a city from a defending force.”
As underlined by MWI, one of the significant challenges to urban combat is distinguishing between combatants ready to detonate themselves or start shooting, and non-combatants, whom the troops are there to protect. Distinguishing between the two is made more difficult since insurgents often dress the same as the locals, live among them, and in some cases, even are their relatives and friends.
The MWI goes on to say,
“Accidental risks include such things as the potential for the deaths of civilians or destruction of critical urban infrastructure. There are also broader risks in military operations, like the risk of losing the political will (be it domestic, regional, or international) to continue the pursuit of the military objective of liberating a city from enemy forces. Urban environments compound risks unlike any other due to the complexity of the physical terrain, the presence of civilians, and the ecosystems of political, economic, and social networks that define urban areas.”
In a recent interview with DTD Podcast, former Navy SEAL Six operator Eddie Penney spoke about some of the challenges he and his teammates ran into while clearing cities building by building and room by room.
Penney told a gut-wrenching story of a time he refrained from shooting a man through an opening into his home (a home that his team was about to action) because he could not confirm whether he was an enemy combatant or a citizen caught in the crossfire. The man had no visible weapon and his entire family (kids included) were in the room with him as though it were but a typical evening in the war-torn land. So, as almost anyone would have done, and likely as the rules of engagement dictated, the SEALs didn’t take the shot. Seconds later, that same man detonated a bomb that caused an explosion so significant it lifted the roof from its foundation and injured many SEALs; one fatally. This heart-breaking story offers a great insight into the true challenges faced by troops in urban environments.
Had the SEALs taken the shot and the man turned out to have been a cherished Afghan community member instead, then local support for the Americans would have suffered a significant blow. Beyond that, Penney could have been arrested, charged with war crimes, and sent away to rot in a military prison for doing his job. The unfortunate reality is that this is a fear far too many servicemembers have during a war that they were sent to fight.
Support for the Fight and Urban Warfare
In addition to the combat challenges troops face in urban terrain, urban warfare also negatively impacts popular support of a war.
Following 9/11, global support for military action against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks was at an all-time high. Even high-profile Democrat leaders such as Hillary Clinton voted to go into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction. Military-aged men were enlisting for the sole purpose of going to war, and former soldiers who had done one tour and been discharged were going back into the military and into the fight. Popular support remained high for a number of years, but by late 2009-2010, it started waning significantly.
Then, on May 2, 2011, President Obama announced that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. People were dancing in the streets late into the night after hearing the news. Washington DC was filled not with protestors, but with Americans eager to cheer for the death of the world’s most hunted terrorist.
Unfortunately, that would be the last time that the country would be unified in its support for the Global War on Terror.
Future Readiness and Political Climate
Regardless of global support for its actions, the military must ensure its tactical evolution to better address the issues we faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. Small special operations groups will always be the boots on the ground regardless of which war we are fighting, but Marines are the ones who are tasked with taking cities back from terrorists.
Twenty years ago, Marines trained briefly for this scenario. Now, they must train for it incessantly. The Modern Warfare Institute provides some ideas on how America can update some of its current fighting methods.
According to the Institute, most of the advanced militaries prioritize maneuver warfare, while they additionally need to begin considering and training for positional warfare as well.
Some ways to improve America’s urban combat readiness include: finding alternative ways to enter (or siege) buildings (tunneling/weaponized drone technologies); updating the current rules of engagement so troops don’t start the fight with a built-in handicap; using robotics and other advanced technologies to help clear buildings or alleyways; and finally, considering additional takedown tactics, which go beyond the typical clearing procedures soldiers use currently, to bring the fight to the enemy.
The Only Constant
One thing that has remained consistent over the past two decades is that the way we fight is constantly evolving. Marines, SEALs, Rangers, and others have brought their experiences back after each mission iterating and revising our warfighting tactics.
This point was raised by former Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill. In an interview with the podcast Talks at Google, O’Neill says that his team learned a valuable lesson during one mission in Iraq. While attempting to hit a target, his boss, who was one of the best SEALs he knew, leaned up against the wall, just as they were about to breach the front door, and his elbow hit the doorbell. In an epic turn of events, the terrorist they were looking for opened the door only to find a bunch of SEALs on the other side.
O’Neill said of this mishap, “What we learned from that failure — because we’d been working in Afghanistan for so long — there are no doorbells on houses in Afghanistan; there are in Iraq. Stay off the wall.”
This humorous story taught an important lesson on urban warfare that would have never been impressed on O’Neill’s team to the extent that it did had they not experienced it. This type of knowledge needs to be brought back to our training facilities in order for our troops to have the information they need to win.
We Have to Lean Into Policy Change
Essentially, to be successful in future wars, the military needs to ensure the following:
Firstly, the military needs to train tactics that are combat-proven. People who sit behind a desk or wear a dress uniform every day should not tell the men in the arena how to train and fight. Unless they’ve been on the ground making life-or-death decisions for their teammates, they need to stay out of the training environment.
Secondly, the elected officials need to stand behind the military. By lobbying for more appropriate rules of engagement that do not unduly hamstring troops, combat effectiveness in urban warfare settings will increase.
Thirdly, we have to train only in ways that prepare us for actual combat. Teaching how techniques were employed historically is irrelevant if they aren’t useful for the next war. On occasion, the military finds itself more worried about tradition than it does progress. To be successful, this must change.
Fourthly, the military must be at the forefront of the technology-adoption curve and not a late adopter. When this author was in the Marine Corps, the Marines were still training in Vietnam-era helmets that had no ballistic capability. This is unacceptable if winning wars is our goal.
Finally, the military has to worry less about form (mask mandates, vaccination passports, political correctness, and humane ways to eliminate the enemy) and more about function. Placing an emphasis on form reduces troop effectiveness and damages morale.
Invest in Your Investment
Beyond providing the necessary training and budget to our military, moral and political support for its cause – both during training and in combat – is required. This should extend to the physical and emotional healthcare support available to the military and veterans.
To truly win a combat engagement, the military has to train appropriately leading up to an engagement; fight to win during the engagement; and then have its wounded properly taken care of when they return home. That would be a victory worth winning. That would be true progress.
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