The next article (the sixth of nine in a special report in The Economist weekly newspaper) with which I want to deal is headlined: “House to house ~ Preparing for more urban warfare ~ Much of the fighting in future wars is likely to take place in cities.” There is, the report says, “a growing, albeit reluctant, acceptance among Western armies that future fights are most likely to take place in cities. Megacities with populations of more than 10m are springing up across Africa and Asia. They are often ringed by closely packed slums controlled by neighbourhood gangs. Poor governance, high unemployment and criminality make them fertile territory for violent extremism … [and, therefore] … It is hardly surprising that non-state adversaries of the West and its allies should seek asymmetric advantage by taking the fight into cities. Air power and precision-guided munitions lose some of their effectiveness in urban warfare because their targets can hide easily and have no scruples about using a densely packed civilian population as a shield.“
“Valuable lessons have been learned from the battle for Sadr City, a large suburb of Baghdad, in 2008, Israel going into Gaza in 2014 and the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Mosul last year,” the article says, but “Even with close air support, aerial surveillance and precision weapons supplied by Western allies, Iraqi security forces in Mosul (not to mention a civilian population held hostage by IS) took a terrible battering to defeat just a few thousand well-prepared insurgents. As General Mark Milley, the head of the US Army, puts it, “it took the infantry and the armour and the special operations commandos to go into that city, house by house, block by block, room by room…and it’s taken quite a while to do it, and at high cost.” He thinks that his force should now focus less on fighting in traditional environments such as woodland and desert and more on urban warfare.” This is a lesson that Canadian soldiers learned, and taught the world during the bloody house-to-house and room-by-room fighting in Ortona at Christmas of 1943. Captains and majors had to persuade colonels and generals to change tactics to suit this new, strange battlefield; the Canadians called their tactics “mouseholing.” It was, the Canadian Encyclopedia explains, “invented it out of need,” … [and it involved] … Explosives packed against the connecting wall of two buildings blasted an opening through which the soldiers chucked grenades and then followed through with a charge to clear any Germans on the other side … [and] … As Ortona’s buildings were typically adjoining, the Canadians advanced from one to another while seldom venturing onto a street. It was a deadly game. At times the Germans responded by setting demolitions that triggered when the Canadians burst through their mousehole. Sometimes an entire structure would collapse, burying the soldiers within.” So, urban warfare is nothing new and the need to close with and destroy the enemy while, simultaneously, avoiding doing avoidable harm to civilians is unchanged in 75 years.
“To that end, [General Mark Milley] advocates smaller but well-armoured tanks that can negotiate city streets, and helicopters with a narrower rotor span that can fly between buildings. At the organisational level, that means operating with smaller, more compartmentalised fighting units with far more devolved decision-making powers …[but] … General Milley and other military professionals are well aware that many of the emerging technologies will also be available to their adversaries. Today’s smartphones provide encrypted communications that can befuddle Western forces’ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. Quadcopter drones that can be bought from Amazon can send back live video of enemy positions. Commercially available unmanned ground vehicles can put improvised explosive devices in place.” The Canadians used tanks and even artillery at very close range in Ortona ~ tanks are at a distinct disadvantage in “close” country like woods and cities because their manoeuvrability is impeded, the tank commander and gunner cannot see very much but they are easy targets for soldiers with anti-tank rockets in buildings or on rooftops. Artillery and mortars, no matter how close, are indiscriminate weapons, they need to be used with the greatest care when there are civilian about. The uses of technology in war will be discussed at some length in future articles. But, this article says that “Western military forces should still enjoy a significant technological edge. They will have a huge range of kit, including tiny bird- or insect-like unmanned aerial vehicles that can hover outside buildings or find their way in. Unmanned ground vehicles can reduce the risk of resupplying troops in contested areas and provide medical evacuation for injured soldiers, and some of them will carry weapons. Worn-out or broken parts can be replaced near the front line thanks to 3D printing. A new generation of military vehicles will benefit from advances in solar energy and battery storage.“
We may soon go from this …
… to this.
“A key requirement will be for both direct and indirect fire to be highly discriminating,” the report says, because, “As General Milley says, “we can’t go in there and just slaughter people.” Part of the solution will be surveillance drones, along with more accurate small munitions.
Despite the talk of artillery (indirect fire) and remotely piloted vehicles and so on this, fighting in built up areas, or urban warfare, is a very army-centric and, indeed, infantry-centric business.
Finally, the report concludes, “Commanders will also rely on artificial intelligence to analyse the vast amounts of data at their disposal almost instantly. Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that big-data analytics will be able to provide a picture of the mood, morale and concerns of both combatants and civilians, which he thinks is at least as important as the military side … [but, and this is a HUGE and vitally important but] … For all the advances that new technologies can offer, General Milley says it is a fantasy to think that wars can now be won without blood and sacrifice: “After the shock and awe comes the march and fight…to impose your political will on the enemy requires you…to destroy that enemy up close with ground forces.”” All the wonderful new “toys” are, indeed, wonderful and they will all help but, at bottom, it will be the infantry soldier, armed with all the courage (s)he can muster, who will have to “mousehole” her or his way through the strange, dangerous urban battlefield and make the right decisions, in a split-second about who to kill and who to spare. The high technology aids will do that, aid, but individual skill and courage ~ toughness, training and, above all, discipline ~ not technology will win the day.
We, Canadians, are fortunate to have some of the finest men and women in our combat units that the world has ever seen. The duty of the Canadian people, through their elected government, is to give them the tools and support they need to do a hard, dangerous but necessary job.