A number of readers have written in with questions about urban combat and the various forms it may take for the U.S.-led force in Iraq. I should state up front that I have no crystal ball; it's not clear how warfare will unfold in Iraq's major cities. However, there are some basic truths about urban combat which we've learned in places like Hue, Saigon, Mogadishu, and from other nations exploits in places like Chechnya. This is an illustrative list of some of the issues we may see if we take the fight into Iraq's cities.
1. Three-dimensional combat.
It's commonly said that urban warfare takes place in three dimensions -- whereas surface warfare or desert warfare takes place in just two. That's because of the vertical dimension to streetfighting, where threats may come from above, below or to either side of you. This adds a great deal of complexity to the fight. This complexity generally aids the defender, since he's fighting on his home turf and has the ability to ensconce himself in buildings, sewers, and other places where he can fight from.
2. Cover and concealment
. The U.S. has a major technological advantage on the open battlefield because it can see the enemy from a long distance away and shoot to kill that enemy -- either with artillery, tank fire, or even rifle fire. In urban combat, this advantage basically disappears. Enemy soldiers can hide in buildings with relative ease, and there still aren't a lot of technical means to find them. (Hard to see through buildings) One sniper can hole up in a large building and wreak havoc by shooting through windows, holes in the wall, and ventiliation shafts. In urban combat, the enemy has a million places to hide -- and it takes tedious, detailed work by infantry to root them out.
3. Civilians and paramilitaries
. Distinguishing between civilians and soldiers in urban areas becomes a lot more complicated, because there are a lot more civilians and a great incentive for soldiers to blend into that population to avoid deliberate U.S. targeting. We've already seen a lot of unconventional warfare
by the Iraqis, and it stands to reason that they would use it even more in an urban setting. American forces also found in Mogadishu that civilians often take up arms and fight as paramilitaries when fighting against an aggressor. If we don't do the Civil Affairs and humanitarian missions right, we may face intense resistance from Iraqi civilians with AK-47s fighting as paramilitaries and guerillas. That's pretty much our nightmare scenario. (See Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down
for more on how this issue played out during the Battle of Bakara Market in October 1993)
. America's military works on mostly FM-based communications systems which generally require line-of-sight transmission paths. The concrete, steel and glass in urban areas interferes with these commo systems and makes it hard for units to talk with one another beyond a few blocks. This is an acute problem at the lowest level -- the infantry squad -- where soldiers fight with battery-powered radios that may or may not be able to punch out of a concrete building.
5. Force structure
. Since Vietnam, America's military has substituted capital more and more for manpower (in macroeconomics terms). The basic idea was to send a bullet (or bomb), not a man, whenever possible. We have poured money into cruise missiles, tanks, helicopters, ships, and aircraft that can hit a target from miles away without involving the muddy-boots work of the infantry. Unfortunately, urban combat requires a wholly different sort of force. As T. R. Fehrenbach wrote
about the Korean War, this kind of war can only be won by nations that are willing to put their young men in the mud. Our military -- even with the reserves -- does not have a substantial amount of infantry. It has a high tail-to-tooth ratio, meaning that there are a lot more support troops than combat troops in the military. And of course, most are not infantrymen -- they include tankers, combat engineers, artillerymen, etc. One immutable truth of urban warfare is that it requires a lot of infantry.Bottom Line:
I can't predict what will happen in Baghdad or Basra. Our military has done a lot of homework in recent years to get better at urban combat, especially the U.S. Marine Corps
and the Army's light infantry community
. My hope is that we wait on the outskirts of the city and use unconventional means to draw out civilians and take down Saddam's regime. But as one famous general quipped, "Hope is not a method."Update:
Sunday's Los Angeles Times carries an engaging piece
on the front page about urban combat and some of the problems I talk about. It takes a more historical perspective, drawing analogies between our current campaign and those fought by the Germans in Stalingrad and the Russians in Grozny. Definitely worth a look.