In the coming years, the Pentagon’s area of focus, the Pacific, will count more than two dozen “megacities” or urban areas with more than 10 million inhabitants.
Yet, on the active duty side of the Army, there is not a dedicated school, institution, center of excellence or specifically designated entity or office with reasonable capacity and resources focused on fighting in urban terrain.
This is despite the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s address to the 2022 graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“The battlefield will be highly complex and almost certainly decisive in urban areas against elusive, ambiguous enemies that combine terrorism and warfare alongside conventional capabilities all embedded within large civilian populations,” Milley said.
The chairman, also the former Army chief of staff, pounded the podium years before about the Army’s lack of preparedness for megacity combat.
He made those more recent remarks to cadets after months of urban fighting in and around cities in Ukraine much smaller than 10 million people. In those, Ukrainians fought a Russian Army that, from media reports, showed scant regard for civilian casualties or damage.
In retaking the city of Mosul from Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi military, with U.S. guidance, effectively had to level the city to reclaim it.
While the rest of the Army works on extending artillery and rocket ranges, finding fixes to using armor on the battlefield and better enabling squad-level soldiers with fighter-pilot level technology, two units in the Army National Guard are charging ahead under the banner of urban combat reformation.
One, Task Force 46, out of the Michigan Army National Guard’s 46th Military Police Command, has spent the past few years conducting complex, large-scale disaster response exercises in cities such as Detroit, New York and Philadelphia.
Their assigned mission is to be ready for a chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attack on the homeland.
Small considerations become huge. Can you get a radio signal near a skyscraper? Will your drone work in a subway tunnel? Does the “friendly” civilian population trust you, or are they working against you?
“If you can fight in an urban environment, you can fight in about any area you can think of,” Maj. Gen. Pablo Estrada, the head of Task Force 46, told Army Times.
The California Army National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division independently formed their own urban planner’s course, which they’ve held over the past two years to bring operational planners and others to a forum that educates leaders on the rigors and extensive preparation that large-scale urban combat require.
“Urban is the future; it is congested, contested and it is inevitable,” Brig. Gen. Robert Wooldridge II, deputy commanding general of 40th ID, said. “I’m worried that we’re just not, as an organization, prioritizing (urban) as we should be.”
Training must change
The Army has a smattering of urban training areas. Most notably Razish, the complex built at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, California. It holds hundreds of buildings and has been used until recently to focus on counterinsurgency operations for the post-9/11 wars.
Troops in Europe have the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany. The Guard has a dedicated facility at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, Indiana.
All have multistory buildings and other urban features whose construction far surpasses the days of plywood mockups or stacks of Conex boxes that many soldiers used to prepare for places like Fallujah or Sadr City, Iraq.
But none, experts say, replicate the complexity of a dense city, such as what 10th Mountain Division soldiers, Rangers and Delta Force operators faced on a routine mission in Mogadishu in 1993.
And none feature the capacity to conduct large-scale urban combat or rescue beyond a block or section-level of what commanders would face in Seoul, South Korea; Shanghai, China; or Manila, Philippines.
A town of 50,000 people is at least a brigade-level problem set that soldiers need to learn how to plan for, Wooldridge said.
Until recently at Razish, many of these urban training centers looked nothing like a living city full of people, brimming with trash heaps and other hazards and an entrenched, peer foe.
Many include only a handful of role-playing civilians and a small opposition force of perhaps a platoon or company’s worth of fighters to harass and delay the battalions or brigades approaching their territory.
Wooldridge commended Brig. Gen. Curtis Taylor, NTC commander, for recently adding small touches like debris, rubble and other features to Razish.
Estrada, the Task Force 46 commander, told Army Times that while the training centers have value, nothing compares to conducting an exercise in a working city.
“You can do it in a sterile environment, basically you’re in a laboratory,” Estrada said. “Or you can go out there in the actual, real world, set things up downtown.”
And each city is different. From Detroit to New York to Philadelphia, a new terrain feature, communications problem or other unforeseen factor popped up.
“Every place we go we find something new to worry about,” Estrada said.
While the Army works on ever more exquisite battle simulations to allow for more and better training, simulations only go so far. And they must be designed to replicate the complexity of modern cities, which many do not.
“The Army’s command post exercise simulation is not set up to do this,” said Wooldridge, who previously told Army Times that some simulations have urban environments but expect players to bypass key areas or don’t account for the mass numbers of people that they’ll encounter.
“Does the simulation even get close to representing urban, the urban canyons where I can’t see people, every building is a bunker, the verticality of it, subterranean. Does the simulation do any of that?”
“Why do you think the simulation doesn’t do that?” Wooldridge said. “It’s because the Army hasn’t told the contractors to build that.”
Not all civilians leave
As an organization, the Army prides itself on limiting civilian casualties when possible. In the urban fight of the future, it’s unclear how possible that will be.
“The urban area is the hardest place to get civilians out of,” Wooldridge said. “You can clear them out of the desert, chase them out of the forest. The rule is 10 percent will not leave an urban area. Even Fallujah II, after we had surrounded the place, there were still civilians who refused to leave Fallujah.”
Those who remain can be assets, helping scout enemy movements, as has been seen in Ukraine, or they can be liabilities, needling at your operation, feeding information to your adversary, much like what the United States experienced on multiple fronts in recent counterinsurgency wars.
Estrada learned in an earlier deployment to Monrovia, Liberia, that at home or abroad, the Army must connect with the local population.
Resource drain, complex terrain
Soldiers in Alaska get training on preventing frostbite. Soldiers headed to the jungle learn what critters and plants are poisonous. Soldiers heading to the sandbox learn tricks to use in a blinding sandstorm.
Urban needs require the same focus, experts said.
Col. Chris McKinney, Task Force 46 chief of staff, told Army Times that at each of the unit’s annual exercises, their soldiers have learned new skills not found in standard military training, mostly from their civilian counterparts.
“Blocking and bracing, cutting concrete, the different tools they use to cut through that. We learned a lot of those techniques from (the New York and Philadelphia fire departments),” he said.
Simple skills that might go overlooked could clog a unit’s advance and wreak havoc on an operation.
McKinney said teaching truck drivers how to navigate narrow city streets, tunnels and bridges was key.
“We had kids that were doing some of these things and the units were road testing their drivers, going through the Lincoln Tunnel with some kids who had a pretty significant pucker factor on a (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle),” he said.
Each city is different. But so far, every city that Task Force 46 has worked has had water features, even land-locked areas. That means small boats, watercraft, bridges and other assets not always on the packing list.
Simply planning for how many soldiers a mission will require can add a burden that even those who’ve had recent combat deployments haven’t seen.
Wooldridge deployed as a young officer in the early 1990s to Haiti, where he saw devastation in the country’s coup and an urban mission for which his unit wasn’t prepared.
Even he underestimated the size, and composition, of the force he would need today.
“I started at the same place, the default setting — urban is a light infantry fight. Now, I couldn’t disagree more.”
The scenario is stark.
“If somebody gave me the mission, ‘Okay 40th ID, you’re going into a large urban area that’s going to consume your entire division. You’ve got three Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, go nuts.’ The first words out of my mouth would be ‘Stop! I need one Armored Brigade Combat Team,’ ” Wooldridge said.
Old Army doctrine harkened back to Sun Tzu — avoid cities at all costs. But that’s not possible when those you are fighting or those you are trying to help are deep within those urban canyons.
“You can’t just bypass and isolate,” Wooldridge said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.