Future Urban Combat Capabilities

by LtCol Robert W. Lamont, USMC(Ret)

The purpose of this article is to review the investments in warfighting capabilities required for urban combat in the 2030 timeframe. The approach for such an assessment demands a review of the physical characteristics of the battlefield, their impact on the theoretical application of combat power, and how the unique conditions within the urban setting influence the cross domain application of combined arms capabilities. This methodology allows the reader to identify gaps in capabilities demanded within this unique battlespace and possible modernization investment strategies for sustaining MAGTF dominance on the emerging urban littorals.

The military aspects of terrain within the urban setting present a number of challenges for conducting combat operations not normally associated with the more open environments, such as desert or undulating plains. Often these characteristics are operationally contradictory in that action taken to optimize employment within one aspect of the scenario will prove detrimental to other operational considerations. Weapons systems live fire testing and unit training tend to be conducted in more open settings, leaving the operator with limited appreciation as to the true capability of their organization to influence and operate in complex urban terrain.

While the density, composition, and structure may vary, buildings limit observation and fields of fire. The dramatic reduction in engagement range of direct fire weapons in the urban setting increases their potential lethality. Conversely, weapons systems that exploit standoff ranges find fewer optimal employment opportunities within the urban canyon. This dramatically impacts antitank missile systems that exploit long range and have minimum arming ranges not compatible with the narrow confines of the urban center. For VHF communications systems, line of sight employment considerations and power requirements combine to complicate secure information transfer. This directly impacts the available of supporting arms and the control of remotely operated vehicles.

LTC John Gordon IV, USA, found in a review of IRAQI FREEDOM operations that direct fire systems were able to immediately return fire when engaged by the enemy. They were able to consistently demonstrate a level of responsiveness not achieved by other supporting arms. The latency of air support was 5 to 20 minutes, and it took artillery 2 to 4 minutes to obtain rounds on target.1 Given the short range and high lethality of urban engagements, any such lag in response can prove decisive at the tactical level. Additionally, shot angle of fall and fuzing delay issues further complicate the use of indirect fire within the urban canyon.

For dismounted infantry, cover and concealment within the urban setting are found in abundance. Cover, consistent with the robustness of surrounding building construction, can dramatically improve the ability of dismounted units to resist the effects of small arms fire. Conversely, the ability of large caliber weapons to generate ballistic debris can compromise safety of these positions. Concealment, while not providing protection to the dismounted force, does complicate the targeting abilities of the engaging force. The resources required to locate and engage enemy forces operating on the urban battlefield exceed those found in other environments. This increases the likelihood of violent, short-range engagements against an enemy in prepared and protected positions.

The combined influence of defensive preparations and rubble generated from kinetic engagements produce multiple obstacles within the urban setting. These have the potential to channel movement through the urban battlefield and increase the vulnerability of a force exploiting maneuver as a defeat mechanism. Variable building height and power lines create obstacles to low-level helicopter approach avenues complicating the use of nap-of-earth flying profiles, thereby increasing their vulnerability to small arms and shoulder launched missiles as they have to gain operating altitude.

Key terrain can take many forms in cities. Operational, cultural, and logistical considerations can all compel the commander to conduct their operations along selected lines. From an operational perspective, high ground and mobility corridors can dominate combat force employment. High ground within the urban battlefield can compensate for limited lines of sight and improve the promulgation of electro-magnetic energy. This facilitates the ability of those holding this terrain to find and engage the enemy.

For the dismounted force, avenues of approach take on an undefined form. The infantry is able to exploit passage through buildings, beneath the streets, and above the landscape through vertical envelopment. However, their lack of protection from direct fire makes them susceptible to suppression and loss by the full array of weapons found within the urban battlefield. This contrasts sharply with the mounted force that must contend with limited avenues of approach along streets and alleyways often complicated with rubble or mines. Their armor protection allows them to retain mobility when opposed by all but the upper end of anti-vehicle systems. The demands for vehicle-infantry coordination in this environment are peaked, resulting in slower rates of movement when contrasted with more open terrain.

These factors combine to make the urban battlefield doctrinally a crowded place. Looking at German doctrine from World War II as a starting point, we see infantry company-level attacks conducted on non-urban terrain consistently with a frontage varying from 500 to 800 meters.2 Current North Korean doctrine aligns very closely with this frontage.3 Current Marine Corps warfighting publications, however, are not as prescriptive in defining unit frontages, but training exercises routinely see reinforced infantry companies operating across more than a grid square. FM9010-1, Infantryman’s Guide to Combat in Built-Up Areas, (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, May 1993), is the doctrinal publication for fighting in cities. It details techniques for a reinforced company team to attack a city block. While doctrinal frontage is not given in the techniques, a review of city block design finds they average in width and depth from 100 to 200 meters.4 This results in a compression in unit frontage of about four to one. The manpower requirements associated with the traditional doctrinal approach to urban combat finds these battlefields can rapidly absorb combat strength, making the commitment to this fight a key decision during course of action development.

The ramifications of the military aspects of terrain are evident when reviewing combat modeling of their attrition process. When Lanchester used coupled differential equations to describe the combat interactions associated with combat under modern conditions, he had few assumptions underlying his square law model. However, the one key parameter within their formulation was each combatant could see, and hence engage, any opposing combatant. This assumption breaks down within the urban battlefield resulting in more of a linear attrition mechanism.3 Fundamentally then, we would expect to see little increased utility in the massing of additional physical force within the urban battlefield, and partitioning your opponent would no longer serve as a defeat mechanism by which a smaller force could counter superior numbers.6 Given all these contradictions in urban force employment, how have units conducted combat operations in the past?

As the Marine Corps prepared for intense urban combat in Vietnam’s Hue city, FM 31-50, Combat in Fortified and Built-Up Areas, published in March 1964, was the doctrine of the day. It reflected an update from the previous version published in 1954. Both documents reflect Army experience in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. The fact that the discussion of fortified areas is first-and given equal space-reflects the Army’s experience in breaching the Siegfried Line in the winter of 1944. The doctrine defines the ultimate mission of a unit attacking a built-up area is to seize and clear the entire area. This effort was to be accomplished in three phases: isolate, seize a foothold, and clear.7 It recommends that, in block-type construction, a rifle company attack frontage is one city block.8

The latest update to the urban doctrinal series, FM90-10, retains the same aspects of earlier doctrine in terms of breaking the operation into three phases and company frontage. Three aspects of the current doctrine reflect operational experience in urban operations centered in Baghdad, Iraq. First, the isolation phase places increased emphasis on electronic means to deny the electronic spectrum to the enemy. Second, the document reflects the concept that force size will be insufficient to secure the entire urban landscape. It accepts that key areas will be retained and movement between these areas may require heavily equipped forces. The final aspect addresses in much greater detail the realities of fighting in close proximity to civilians and non-combatants. It emphasizes the importance of separating the local population from the enemy as a source of support or human shields. The use of firepower is placed in the context of umvanted collateral damage and how these limitations will impact supporting arms employment. However, the totality of the approach still has the force conducting a systematic, attrition-based engagement model built on a series of cross street assaults on defended structures.

In April, 1999, a Marine Corps Gazette article, titled “Urban Warrior-A View From North Vietnam,” discussed a contrasting approach to city fighting advanced by Gen Van Tien Dung. His approach avoided striking at the hardened defenses of the urban perimeter and sent striking columns directly against the city center to seek out command and control centers. Only after the command structure was disrupted would the forces turn back outward and destroy the now leaderless units on the edge of town. This approach, known as the “Blooming Lotus,” was used successfully at Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku during the opening rounds of the North Vietnamese Army’s Spring Offensive in 19757

Both these doctrines take unique approaches to defeating an opponent on urban terrain. The Western approach uses attrition to systematically clear key areas within the urban battlefield to control sufficient space for mission accomplishment and the restoration of civic services. The Eastern style seeks to physically remove the command structure and exploit the leaderless defenders that are now more susceptible to collapse. This approach assumes a degree of dependency on command architecture that may not be warranted. Given the fanatic nature of resistance encountered during the Battle of Fallujah, it may be required to kill individual fighters who do not fear death and revel in the concept of martyrdom.10 This level of resistance is not new to Marines, but it has not been seen since desperate struggles on Pacific islands against the Japanese. Historically, what defeat mechanisms are available to exploit the unique characteristics found within the urban battlefield?

In his book, Understanding Defeat, COL T.N. Dupuy, USA, reviews the causes of defeat in eight battles during World War II and the Korean War. He surveyed veterans from these engagements and asked them to assess the extent to which various factors contributed to their decision to quit the field. Thirty factors were identified and grouped in categories including force strength, tactical situation, environmental effects, material shortfalls, and human characteristics. Of all the factors considered, three occurred in three or more of the eight battles under consideration. The single dominate factor in surrendering the fight w>as the tactical consideration of being out maneuvered, flanked, or enveloped. Two other factors, poor communications and low ammunition, were observed as solid defeat contributors.11 All these factors share a common root cause of the warrior being unable to influence his tactical situation.

In the case of being hanked, the fear of getting cut off from support contributes to a sense of loss of relevance to the fight. The movement of the enemy behind or around your position generates doubt as to the ability of your current alignment to direct firepower against the enemy. It plays on the natural fears of the blind spot each warrior has for those threats outside his field of vision. Poor communications has a similar effect, coupled with the increased uncertainty of the overall situation and ability to obtain combat support to address the battle at hand. The isolation of not being able to consult with higher headquarters places the burden of responsibility on junior leaders who are not always equipped to operate independently. Finally, the lack of ammunition provides a material reasoning for abandoning the fight. It gives the combatant a sense of freedom from responsibility to continue since they have expended all the resources available to engage the enemy. A lack of ammunition is symptomatic of a supply system which has broken down to the point of being ineffective. Once again, this ties into the isolation of the operating force. So, as we review these root causes of defeat, the common theme that plays into the loss of will to fight is isolation coupled with limited combat effectiveness.

COL Dupuy continued his assessment by developing the causes that underlay the factors identified by the battlefield veterans. He found five causes of defeat that were common to a majority of the battles reviewed, including: superior enemy artillery support, fatigue, surprise, leadership self-delusion or lack of perception, and poor reconnaissance or intelligence.12 These factors have common reinforcing themes that command our attention. Superior artillery subjects the force to the physical effects of blast and fragmentation. However, the physiological influence of isolation and a sense of helplessness from an inability to strike back cannot be discounted. Surprise, lack of accurate perception, and poor intelligence are all linked to an inability to see that battlefield. They are again symptomatic of an isolation resulting from an inward focus not accounting for enemy intentions and actions.

Marine Corps doctrine views the execution of maneuver warfare as a philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions that create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.1- This approach has special considerations when attempted on urban terrain. The nature of the terrain will limit the ability of the force to focus the effects of combat power, and the rules of engagement tend to limit the use of direct and indirect fires in order to control collateral damage. Rapid and unexpected action, coupled with a progressive isolation of the enemy force, provide the best opportunity to defeat the enemy without a grinding, linear attrition battle so often associated with urban terrain. What capabilities provide the MAGTF the means to execute such an approach and exploit the known defeat mechanisms discussed, in the 2030 timeframe?

Isolating the enemy on the urban battlefield will demand the ability to fix his defenses while removing support and resupply. To hold him in position will require the ability to engage his defenses and deny movement options by massing sufficient combat power from dispersed locations and then spreading out again to limit exposure to his weapons systems. Conducting these operations requires the ability to dominate the limited, open space within the urban canyon. Forces that have to maneuver within the direct fire envelop will require the requisite armor protection to absorb damage and return fire in sufficient volume to gain firepower dominance without external support. This is driven by the short engagement ranges of the urban battlefield and the latency of indirect fire systems. In the near-term, tanks, operating as part of a combined arms team, can meet this requirement. The future progression of micro-computing and mechanical miniaturization will open a new range of warfighting options.

The emergence of robotic technology, coupled with artificial intelligence, may well allow for the productive separation of sensor and shooter. Remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that are able to hover and fly vertically within the urban canyon have the potential to act as vigilant observation posts passing targeting data back to local forward engagement terminals. The selection of smart weapons at these forward terminals could include a wide array of possibilities. Precision-guided indirect ordnance would enable precision strike enhancing lethality while at the same time limiting collateral damage. Missiles that home on selected laser frequencies would be able to follow targeting instructions from these ROV with the same end game effects. The ability to forward deploy a ROV armed with precision small caliber weapons and accurate sensing arrays would allow a sniper capability that is rapidly mobile across all types of urban terrain. Any use of ROV assets implies a significant investment in tools needed to dominate the electrometric spectrum.

Any separation of sensor and shooter can only be accomplished with control of the electrometric spectrum. The ability to transfer information by data and voice provides the means to sustain our communications’ capability and potentially deny it to our enemy, thereby isolating them on the battlefield. The recurring theme across our development of urban warfare is exploiting isolation as defeat mechanism. This will require adjustment to our current technical and staffing approach as we move to the 2030 timeframe.

Information operations demand our closest review to promote our capacity to secure victory on urban terrain. Denying our opponent the unencumbered use of the electromagnetic spectrum will require the integration of electronic warfare, psychological operations, integrated intelligence, and deception. Electronic warfare can block fire control nets and stifle command nets, isolating units defending within the urban battlefield. As we have seen in our review of root causes for quitting the struggle, the cumulative influence of isolation has the best chance to disrupt the continuity of the defense given the other limitations of the urban environment.

Psychological operations, while rarely decisive on their own, can influence those that are remote and not under the direct observation of their leadership or committed peers. Again, we see how isolation can set the stage for successful psychological operations by allow the individual to take action they would not otherwise take if subject to the collective peer pressure of the unit. Campaigns to support survival and creature comforts can be executed through a number of means including voice or pamphlet communications.

The need for a staff battle captain to coordinate these efforts requires review of methodology within the current operations cell at most staffing levels. The ability to use these tools with the same effectiveness as supporting fires becomes critical in the difficult terrain of the urban battlefield. This staff officer has to understand the desired end state of information operations campaign and how each component works to reach that goal. During TANDEM THRUST 95, a MAGTF from Okinawa conducted a force-on-force exercise against an Army unit in the Saipan-Tinian area. The MAGTF was about to run a A-6E Intruder mission, as scheduled three days prior on the joint force air component air tasking order, to jam the opposing force command net. An S-2 (intelligence) officer approached the current watch officer and told him to abort the mission. The reason was the opposing force commander was sending all his traffic in the clear. The intelligence section was able to stay one step ahead of their opponent since they knew his intent and orders in real time. The two staff sections were able to make the call to cancel the mission since the information operations outcome would be stronger without it.14 Facilitating this sort of staff exchange requires increased command attention and support.

The MAGTF headquarters has the ability to fight deep within the urban battlefield to physically isolate centers of resistance. Vertical envelopment provides the means to block, disrupt, and interdict resupply efforts. The impact of low ammunition levels to forward line troops has a direct correlation to their desire and ability to continue resistance. Deep fires reduce the defender’s supporting arms mechanism depriving them of the means to influence the close fight. The MAGTF command element will determine when and where to accept close combat to shape the urban battlefield consistent with operational objectives and end state. The structural influence of linear attrition processes in these engagements can be minimized through separating the engagement chain and using robotic delivery systems when short-range, high lethality duels are unavoidable. Finally, the senior command element can leverage combat service support, civil affairs units, and civilian relief agencies to restore essential services to populations near the close fight. These efforts help remove the support structure used within the urban setting and help separate the local population from indigenous combat forces.

The conduct of deception operations has taken on new layers since the introduction of social media. In addition to the traditional false radio traffic, positioning of units, and random supporting fires, units must leverage off what the enemy is collecting from social media to both create false situational awareness and flood their ability to read and process information on this medium. When strong limits are placed on what is conducted in social media, any traffic that does occur gains credibility as genuine and authentic. Flooding Facebook and Twitter with false traffic will require our opponent to sort through ever increasing volumes of information to attempt to determine what is real. Inducing false information into the scenario can drive them to taken inappropriate action facilitating our maneuver in the process.

In summary, the urban battlefield presents unique challenges to the conduct of maneuver warfare. The environment and its associated rules of engagement slow operational tempo, limit supporting arms, and tend to result in linear attrition processes that are not desirable. On the plus side, the rather independent nature of city combat and emphasis on small unit employment provide the opportunity to isolate the defenders. Isolation has been shown to be a historical root cause for surrendering the fight and, as such, provides promise as a defeat mechanism in the urban setting. Facilitating this approach will demand the progressive development of selected capabilities.

As we look to the 2030 timeframe, the use of social media for a deception effort remains largely unexplored. Our opponents use this technology to collection information on our operations and personnel. It should become a twoedged sword in the future as we exploit this medium saturating it with false targets and intent complicating their collection efforts. The culminating effect of all these efforts warrant the development of special staff oversight to ensure each effort is mutually reinforcing.

Finally, we should expect robotic technology to surface as a key mechanism to allow the uncoupling of sensor and shooter. Control of these systems will demand domination of the electromagnetic spectrum to facilitate their employment. A ROV that can hover within the urban canyon or exploit armor protection on the ground to survive all but the most robust attacks holds promise to gain engagement superiority within the lethal short-range scenarios envisioned for this battlefield. Investment in both the technology and staff processes to conduct an integrated information operations campaign must become a common focus to exploit the full potential of isolation as a defeat mechanism on the littoral urban battlefields of the future.


1. John Gordon and Bruce R. Pirnie, “Everybody Wanted Tanks: Heavy Force in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Joint Force Quarterly, (Washington, DC: 4th Quarter 2005), 86.

2. Accessed at http://balagan.info/infantryu u t-fr ont ages -duri ng-w w2.

3. Accessed at http://fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/ agency/kpa-guide/partOl/htm.

4. Accessed at https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/ city_block.

5. James G. Taylor, Lanchester Models ofWarfare, (Arlington, VA: Military Operations Research Society, March 1983), 55-56.

6. For a more complete treatment of Lanchester formulations, see R.W. Lamont, “An Operational Analysis of Operational Maneuvers From The Sea,” Phalanx Magazine, (Arlington, VA: Military Operations Research Society, December 1994).

7. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 31-50, Combat in Fortified and Built-Up Areas, (Washington, DC: 10 March 1964), 32.

8. Ibid., 35.

9. R.W. Lamont, “Urban Warrior-A View From North Vietnam,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: April 1999), 32-33.

10. Interview with MSgt Chouinard, USMC, Fallujah veteran, at Camp Pendleton, CA, March 2013.

11. COL T.N. Dupuy, Understanding Defeat, (New York, NY: Paragon House, 1990), 28-29.

12. Ibid., 158.

13. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 20 June 1997), 73.

14. Interview with Col Herdering, MAGTF CO. July 1995.