The Nightmare Battlespace

by 2ndLt Robert D. O’Neill

You are the platoon commander tasked with clearing in zone a sector of Dharavi, Mumbai, one of the most densely populated slums in Asia, let alone on earth: an estimated one million people live in one square mile of what used to be a mangrove swamp. There are both civilians and potential threats everywhere. The area is contaminated with human waste; the water is toxic with heavy metals; the alleyways are maybe six feet wide; and the hodgepodge of wood, cardboard, and tin shanties offer no true cover from enemy fire. Your map is a satellite image, and your Marines are down to fire teams and buddy pairs throughout the maze of alleyways to maintain dispersion. You can’t get comms with your squad leaders because the shanties make your reception nonexistent. You start taking contact! What are your geometries of fires and overpenetration concerns, especially to avoid civilian casualties or hitting one of your Marines in adjacent alleyways? Do you use tracers or smoke grenades and risk setting the entire slum on fire? Where and how do you casevac your wounded?

Welcome to the nightmare battlespace.

The Marine Corps’ fights in the near future will be in the sprawling and broken coastal cities of the developing world. Humans are war’s lowest common denominator: where the people are, so too will be the conflict. The shantytowns of the developing world house over 1.3 billion survivaloriented urbanites.1 Slums are the most densely populated areas on the planet, the product of weak state capacity and neglect, and are the physical and spatial manifestations of socioeconomic marginalization and urban exclusion. As the primary means of crisis response in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, the Marine Corps will inevitably find itself woefully unprepared to be the bringers of security and stability to the slums that surround and penetrate megacities like Lagos, Manila, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Dhaka, Caracas, and Mumbai. These urban agglomerations represent potential epicenters of human suffering on a massive scale (whether as a result of conflict, disease epidemic, or other human emergency spurred by a natural or industrial disaster), but more importantly embody the “nightmare battlespace” concept.

Such slums are “nightmare battlespaces” because they offer the worst combination of mission sets (in terms of lethality and complexity) in the worst possible environment, where the full spectrum of conflict against myriad opponents and/or threats is entirely possible. Any expeditionary operation to littoral slums of the developing world, from HA/DR (humanitarian assistance/disaster relief) to large-scale combat operations, would be necessarily a Joint and coalition amphibious operation. Operations would immediately transition into chaotic urban engagements-which are already time-, resource-, and manpower-intensive-in some of the most expansive, densely populated, impoverished, polluted, and complex environments on earth. Many of these slums are dominated by gangs, slumlords, mafias, and other such non-state armed groups, thereby necessitating a combination of counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics mission sets. Urban operations in the nightmare battlespace will be an extremely lethal and brutal “three-block war amongst the people,” only made more complicated by additional contemporary players such as the media, nongovernmental organizations, and the complex adaptive system that is the local sociopolitical structure.2

The ultimate goal of the nightmare battlespace concept is to use it as a framework for action and education; it is a starting point to address some of the complex and ambiguous characteristics associated with the role tactical-level leaders play in such an environment. Individual combat skills and small unit leadership will be strained to the extreme, and existing notions of command and control and combat leadership will be disrupted. Marines and small-unit leaders will face unique tactical, emotional, moral, and ethical challenges in an extremely dangerous and chaotic operational environment on a level unlike any previously faced.

At the broadest level, there is a considerable spatial difference between the urban combat for which we train and slum fighting.3 Not only are slums often a dense hodgepodge of tightly packed structures that will force the disaggregation of Marine units down possibly to fire team or buddy-pair levels, but they also add a vertical component to the crushed yet simultaneously expansive lateral battlespace. While there will not be the subterranean dimensions or multistory hardened structures like in the business or residential districts of a megacity, consider the favelas surrounding and penetrating Rio de Janiero or the Petare slum in Caracas as examples of how elevation on top of a chaotic layout of shanties offers a three-dimensional chessboard like no other battlespace. Oftentimes, there are only mazes of narrow pathways that are barely wide enough for a Marine in full combat gear.

An added element of the nightmare battlespace is the oversaturation of noncombatants. Even those without hostile intent can overwhelm the force, especially in a HA/DR mission set where survivalist and apocalyptic mindsets take over. The sheer masses of humans in such dense proportions and the likelihood that we will face nonstate armed groups and a multitude of other non-uniformed opponents will not only make it impossibly difficult to tell friend from foe from the disinterested, but it will also guarantee civilian casualties at an astronomical rate. Slum dwellers are tied to the location for job and eviction security, or myriad other reasons; they already have nowhere else to go, so evacuation prior to the commencement of combat operations is not a likely solution. Extensive collateral damage will be regrettably commonplace.4

Such a complex and unknown battlespace offers a whole host of unique planning considerations and commandrelated issues for tactical-level leaders. In terms of enemy-centric planning, who and where is the enemy, and how do you get there? What does the area of operations look like? With such a vast and overwhelming amount of structures and people, how effective is ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) ? What are your ingress and egress routes? Are there ground vehicles at your disposal? If so, which vehicles can go where, and how close to your objective can they get you? What about masses of people in the streets and alleyways- how will they inhibit your movement? Can aircraft be used? Aviation is vital to mobility, intelligence, and the delivery of focused fires in urban environments, but rotary wing assets can be especially vulnerable in this environment.

There are unique logistical concerns as well. What does chow and water resupply look like in an environment where great masses don’t have access to clean water or food? How can Marines get resupplied with ammunition and in what quantities? What about casevac-where and how can air or ground casevac happen? How do you ensure wounds do not get infected in an environment contaminated with industrial and human waste, not to mention the general immune health of Marines who are entirely not used to such an environment? Will Marines be able to evacuate their wounded through the narrow alleyways with the pole-less litters currently issued or will they need to find another way to get them to the AAVs (assault amphibious vehicles) that can barely squeeze along an “MSR”?

During the conduct phase, every fight develops differently than expected; the nightmare battlespace requires ultimate decentralized execution by well-prepared low-level leaders down to fire team leaders.5 The broken spatial qualities of slums fragments units and compartmentalizes encounters and engagements. The platoon commander and his subordinates’ span of control can easily collapse, and it is exceedingly hard to maintain an accurate picture of the multidimensional battlespace.6 Accountability and control of units thus becomes a severe issue. Battle tracking and using tactical and/or restrictive control measures is critical for ensuring good geometries of fire while maneuvering becomes nearly impossible. Simple firefights and tactical-level engagements within the slums will offer an array of unique and extremely difficult challenges: over-penetration of rifle and machinegun fire through multiple shanties to the use of tracers, explosives, and/or supporting arms and their potential for collateral damage, fratricide, civilian casualties, and the ignition of a slum fire. There will likely be severe restrictions on the use of large caliber direct fire weapons and indirect fire assets. Much of that falls under engagement criteria, restrictive control measures, and the rules of engagement; however, it is imperative to know that when the casualties mount, units historically loosen their restrictions on fires.

Command and control in the nightmare battlespace is an illusion, which will further deteriorate by poor communications: if one cannot communicate, one cannot command. Units will be disaggregated and isolated, unable to use basic hand and arm signals, and with no radio communications while potentially only dozens of meters apart; the three pillars of “move, shoot, and communicate” will be almost non-existent. Can leaders effectively communicate up, down, and laterally through the chain of command? Leaders need combat reporting to inform their decisions without overwhelming them with data, because without information, no leader can make sound decisions. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Many questions have been posited intentionally: the nightmare battlespace concept is meant to initiate a discussion on how to better prepare tactical-level leaders throughout the Marine Corps for the worst possible conditions they could face. As the focus for fighting tomorrow’s conflicts shifts downward to squad leaders, fire team leaders, and individual Marines, so too must the systems that educate Marines, enable their decision-making skills, and increase their autonomy to more effectively deal with uncertainty and chaos as embodied by the nightmare battlespace. But what does that actually entail?

By using the nightmare battlespace as a training paradigm, leaders must prepare their Marines for the chaotic, uncertain, and brutal tactical realities they may face in a nightmare battlespace well before they get there. In order to be combat effective in the nightmare battlespace, “conditions must be set,” in a sense, well before arrival. However, since Marines have not been engaged in such a battlespace, expectations and experiences will come up short. Significantly more trust between the leader and the led is required in an environment where leaders cannot exercise direct control over their Marines, and have no choice but rely on subordinate leaders to make “dependent decisions” based off of initial guidance and the constantly developing situation. Unit cohesion and the will to fight and win must be created in advance, and one’s subordinates must be trained beyond the fundamentals and given tools to enhance their decisionmaking capabilities.8

The use of tactical decision games (TDGs) provides an effective mechanism to develop individual ability to make decisions under physical and mental stress as well as offer opportunities for leaders at all levels to hone their decision making skills. This also has the ability to build concrete examples and experiences our Marines can call upon to inform their intuitive decision making while in the nightmare battlespace. TDGs can reinforce doctrinal procedures and a variety of tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as provide an opportunity for subordinates to gain insight into how the leader thinks about tactical problems.9

As Sun Tzu writes: know thy self and in one hundred battles you shall not be in peril. In the nightmare battlespace, combat can happen at bewildering speeds and rapid decision making is essential to capitalize on increasingly fleeting opportunities. In order to be effective, Marines can and should fight those one hundred proverbial battles well before they get to the nightmare battlespace.

However, we must not confuse combat readiness with combat effectiveness. We must also realize that discussion of leadership is inherently idealistic-what it ought to be-while crisis response is wholly pragmatic-“come as you are.” The nightmare battlespace is, above all, disintegrative; the stresses on the individual Marine and small-unit leaders will be incalculable.10 The imperative is that we continue the discussion and prepare Marines for the worst possible conditions as embodied by the nightmare battlespace. As Adolf Von Schell says in Battle Leadership, “dangers that are thus foreseen are already half overcome.” The challenge for leaders is to overcome the inherent friction from the multitude of competing ideas, wills, tasks, and requirements from superiors, peers, subordinates, and the institution.


1. UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlement Program).

2. A combination of General Charles Krulak’s “Three Block War” concept and General Rupert Smith’s “War Amongst the People.”

3. Ralph Peters, “Our Soldiers, Their Cities,” Parameters, (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College: Spring 1996), 43-50

4. Ibid.

5. Captain Adolf Von Schell, Battle Leadership, (Brattleboro, VT: Echo Point Books and Media: 1933).

6. Peters.

7. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 (MCDP-6), “Command and Control,” 50.

8. Christopher Kolenda, Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Foundation Press: 2001), 63.

9. MAJ Frank W. Brewster, “Using Tactical Decision Exercises to Study Tactics.” Military Review, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: NovemberDecember 2002).

10. Peters.