Urban warfare, war in megacities ~ getting it all wrong?

A few months ago I wrote a series of pieces about the nature of war in the future; one article was about urban warfare. Now I see a very interesting article in Signal, the journal of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) (which is a sort of professional association for military communication and electronics specialists which has chapters in most allied countries, including Canada) headlined “Megacity Warfare a Warfighter’s Nightmare.”

As befits an article about technology and modern warfare it is optimistic, saying that while “Urban combat, even in smaller cities, is the most complicated, chaotic, brutal and bloody form of warfare. But experts increasingly caution that it is only a matter of time before warfighting in megacities—cities with populations of 10 million or more—becomes necessary … [and while] … Some U.S. Army officials and other experts warn that the nation’s military may one day have to do something militaries throughout history have tried to avoid: fight in major cities …  [and while, again] … Urban combat, in many ways, neutralizes any technological advantage … [but ~ and this is the optimistic bit] … some technologies, such as robots and 3D learning maps, could still provide an edge.

The author (a Signal staff writer, a former member of the US Army Signal Corps) reviews some of the technical challenges ~ tall building which block radio signals, underground ‘maxresdefaultbattlefields’ where radio waves do not propagate well, lots of radio interference from civilian services ~ all reminding us of how dependent modern armies seem to be on radio based technologies; and some of the available new technologies ~ cyber-bugs, tiny drones and so on. He also alludes to what I think is the biggest problem: command and control in combat. We have to understand that future warfare, especially when, not if, it happens in megacities is going to be intensely politically complicated and will be fraught with legal complexities, too. The modern brigade (6,500 soldiers), even battle group (1,500 soldiers) command post has two specialist staff officer that I never saw in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s: a legal officer and a public affairs officer … and both matter in modern war. But while I understand the need for combat commanders to have professional legal and public affairs (political) advice I am more worried about two different problems:

  • The back-asswards nature of combat intelligence; and
  • The proliferation of too high ranking staff officers.

Intelligence is vital in modern combat operations … just as it was when Alexander set about conquering the known world. But, as Alexander knew, real intelligence is gathered by the troops in direct contact with the enemy and is augmented by e.g. spies who read the enemies mail (our modern, very effective SigInt services, for example, and drones and so on). There is a now well established ~ and I think wrong headed ~ system which aims to collect ALL intelligence at the highest possible level and then disseminate it down … that’s exactly backwards! Combat intelligence is gathered, in the main, by troops in contact with the enemy, by privates and troopers and corporals and then it is passed up the chain to be collated with reports from other troops in contact and then a refined picture is passed back down … where it is promptly corrected by the troops in contact. Intelligence staffs in HQs almost never know much of anything of real utility but they have convinced commanders that if there can only be more and more highly ranked intelligence officers with more clerks and more drones and more computers and so on, that they will, somehow, get ahead of the enemy. It’s a siren song that has, already, run more than one combat commander up on to the rocks of operational failure. The only people who have a good feel for what the enemy is up to are the people who have them in their sights. Don’t get me wrong: I am a HUGE fan of SigInt and drones and UWB radio devices that can see through walls and so on … I want the micro drones and the cyber bugs to be in the hands of the corporals in the rifle sections who are making their way house-to-house and floor-by-floor.

But the bigger threat, by far, is a brigade command post that looks like this …


… than like this:


It is my firm, professional belief that “too many cooks,” especially if they are too high in rank, do “spoil the broth.”

The urban battle of the future, like those of the past will be fought by rifle sections of eight to 12 soldiers, directed by platoon commanders (young, 20-something, lieutenants) detail-ep06@2xoverseen and supports by company and battalion commanders. The lessons that my Regiment learned at Ortona, during the Christmas season of 1943, (and which were drummed into my head by ‘old sweats‘ 20 years later) will still apply. Generals and brigadiers and colonels may plan and guide the battle but it will be fought by captains and corporals and privates … hand-to-hand, house-by-house, street-by-street … whether it is a small city or a giant metropolis. Yes, that young soldier would love to have a little drone to see around the corner before he throws the grenade and he might even be interested in knowing that SigInt says that enemy is running low on ammo and food, but at the moment he, like all combat soldiers, must trust, mainly, in his own judgment of the situation as he, and only he, can see it.

But while the privates and corporals are fighting the battle and gathering the real intelligence about the enemy, the legal officer will be wanting to know exactly what (s)he (the rifle section commander) sees and (s)he, the legal officer, will want to advise the brigade commander (who commands 6,500 soldiers) to interfere directly with the the command decisions of the most junior leaders (section (10 soldiers) and platoon (35 soldiers) commanders) and with the control decisions being made by company (125 soldiers) and battalion (900 soldiers) commanders. Good brigade commanders will resist that pressure and they will, equally, close their ears to the urgent warnings of the Public Affairs officer who will say something like “if this goes wrong the Minister will be embarrassed and that will cost you your next star.”

Soldiers,” the article says, correctly, “need to know every place within a building or a tunnel that potential enemies could hide or maneuver, or stash munitions and supplies. Furthermore, they have to be able to navigate when major landmarks change, such as when buildings are reduced to rubble.” That’s why most of the low level intelligence gathering tools need to be in the hands of the most junior commanders, not managed, at the higher levels, by some sort of All Source Intelligence Centre. “And,” the article goes on, “they must be attuned to other potential dangers in a city environment, everything from traffic jams to the presence of chemical facilities,” and it is the proper business of higher headquarters to know about and disseminate information (intelligence) about some of those sorts of issues. The point is that there is a need for a dispersed ~ fed from both ends ~ intelligence system and there are proper roles for staff officers at every level of command from company to brigade and higher. The trick is to have (just barely) enough of the right people with the right tools at each and every level. The issue of what are the right tools, versus, say, the flavour of the month, is a serious one and it is being debated, today, in some armies.

The ‘tools’ for fighting a war in a mega-city include the all the neat cyber systems and Canadian_Armored_Assault,_Ortona_1943devices but they also include the whole range of conventional tools, too … at Ortona we, Canadians, learned that, against the conventional wisdom, tanks and artillery had big_1473903175_imagea place in the dense, urban ‘jungle.’ By the time we went to Afghanistan, 60 years later, many very senior generals, including some of the most senior Canadians, were ready to get rid of the tank … until Canadian combat commanders saw a real need and where they, the tanks, performed very well, indeed. It isn’t just that everything old is new again, it is that Canadian admirals and generals are just as prone to follow fads and fancies as are their teenaged daughters.

But, in my opinion, the key to success is the future, whether the war is fought at sea or in a densely populated mega-city will be:

  • Tough, superbly disciplined, well trained and adequately equipped sailors, soldiers and air force members;
  • Good, solid, practical leaders who work within a well organized, efficient and effective structure; and
  • Clarity of purpose and of command and control.

I do not think Canada, at least, has totally lost the vital human elements, despite repeated attempts to apply politically correct social engineering to the  Canadian Armed Forces, but I am afraid that the second and third elements have all but disappeared from the Canadian military ~ replaced by a bloated command and control superstructure that looks, to me, like something akin to welfare for underemployed senior officers.


2 thoughts on “Urban warfare, war in megacities ~ getting it all wrong?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s