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Urban Warfare: Basic Concepts

What will follow is a look at lessons learned from recent urban wars, particularly the Iraq war, the siege of Marawi, Georgia (2008), and Ukraine (2022). Before we do that, we need to talk about a bit of reality. Your biggest threat in urban warfare is not an occupying force or opportunistic criminals, it is fire. Once you set that priority and begin hoarding fire extinguishers, your next step is to remember that urban warfare does not look like your $600 two day CQB course (though we aren't saying that's a bad investment), It looks like this:

So, in order to use your flashy CQB skills, let's focus on living long enough to employ them.

Urban Defense

When it comes to defending an urban position, you must be aware that the more creative you are, the longer you will last.

Start by familiarizing yourself with your enemies tactics and equipment, urban conflicts usually result in uniquely planned assaults, in both Fallujah and Marawi soldiers would be airlifted onto buildings and fight their way down (referred to as: ‘top down bottom up’ by US Marines). Just like any other defensive planning, you must predict the enemies most likely and most dangerous attack on your position and build your defense to ensure that both possibilities go as poorly as possible.

We typically refer to obstacles within the building as ‘counter CQB obstacles’, this can include rearranging furniture, demolishing stairs, obstructing doorways, and the barbed wire cobwebs in the image above. When setting up these obstacles, always consider both a primary and contingency egress plan.

Next, protect your entrances, ensure that your doors and windows are blocked and reinforced. Even second story windows should be covered with wire mesh, to stop attackers and grenades from having easy access. At this stage you should have chosen where your sectors of fire should be to best suppress an attacker's approach. Don't rely on your windows, you are better off developing the perfect firing position by building a ‘murder hole’ through your wall than to fight from a poorly positioned window.

To utilize these positions effectively ensure that you first reinforce the walls. While 55.6 will struggle to make it through brick walls, it will pass straight through residential drywall. Sandbag or brick reinforcement should be placed on any walls you intend to fire from. Take the time to build a well supported firing position as deep into the room as possible, using the shadows of the room may make it impossible for the attacker to know where you are firing from.

Urban Movement

In a city that is actively in conflict or that has lost the rule of law, roads and intersections are the most dangerous places to be. In the recent conflicts in Ukraine we have seen urban snipers from both sides use the canaling nature of roads as their killzone. In Fallujah, Marawi and other extremist conflicts, the roads were littered with improvised traps and explosives; and these risks compound on the fact that other groups, friendly or not, will be occupying the same roads (particularly in cities that are designed around a handful of ‘arterial roads’). Whenever possible, you must move through the city as if you are a rat, choosing and navigating through difficult and unpredictable routes. If moving on the roads is your only option, stick to the walls and rubble on either side.

Obstacle crossing in an urban environment will become very demanding, while a mountain patrol may only cross a handful of roads, creeks, open fields, and fences, an urban patrol will cross hundreds of obstacles in a day. Both deliberate (fences, barricades, etc) and environmental obstacles (roads, debris, etc) must be crossed with perfect form, and the same principles apply as in the mountains:

  • Observe the obstacle and far side from a different location than you intend to cross (if possible).

  • Set up security on the near side.

  • Cross one at a time, low and fast.

  • Set up security on the far side.

If your team is poorly drilled in obstacle crossing then you will be the slowest and most vulnerable target on the battlefield.

You must remember that the urban battlefield has multiple layers. Your survivability will likely hinge on your team's diligence in scanning the windows and structures that your patrol passes. While most people will occupy the ground floor and streets in an urban conflict, ambushes will almost always contact you from elevated firing positions. If you have only trained in the mountains and expect to fight in the city, begin developing the habit of scanning vertically.

Urban Combat

Offensive maneuvers during urban conflicts will never be the right choice unless you can guarantee some level of weapon overmatch against your target. CQB and other ‘objective seizing’ tactics are resource and casualty heavy. Rear echelon medical centers, fire superiority, quick response/withdrawal assets, and great training is almost required; these components are your parachute and urban combat is like skydiving - you can only skydive once without a parachute.

We do also recognise that the world isn't a perfect place, you may face a situation that requires you to fight outside of your capabilities for your own greater good. When that happens, the only factor in your control will be your training.

Urban conflicts have always favored maneuverable fighters. If your team is able to leverage the dense cover and concealment provided by the urban environment into simple maneuver plans that position your fighters in unexpected locations, you may be able to maintain the initiative for the duration of the fight. This concept of maneuverability is most important after the opening shots; conventional military wisdom is to occupy the closest structure as soon as possible and from there, plan what positions provide an optimal view and angle onto the attackers.

Finally, never set patterns, the enemy will adapt. If your response to contact drill is to always pop smoke and reappear from a different location in order to advance on the enemy, eventually they will predict this and know to move to a secondary firing position as soon as they see smoke. Instead, attempt to vary your maneuvers or employ deception plans to mask your behaviors.

We will revisit components of this essay where more detail, examples, and case studies are needed. Above all else, urban combat requires the mastery of the small skills that may be neglected during rural and CQB training.


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