Sun Tzu admonished his readers of The Art of War that the lowest realization of warfare was to attack a fortified city - a maxim that the Russian army should have heeded before it launched its operation to seize the Chechnyan city of Grozny. Throughout history, cities have been at the center of warfare, from sieges to street-fighting, from peace-keeping to coups de mains. Indeed, although strategists have advised against it across the millennia, armies and generals have been forced nonetheless to attack and defend cities, and victory has required that they do it well. In Concrete Hell Louis DiMarco has provided a masterful study of the brutal realities of urban warfare, of what it means to seize and hold a city literally block by block. Such a study could not be more timely.
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Colonel in the American Army, challenges this theory and offers some surprising conclusions. Instead of being an aberration urban warfare is constant throughout history. Instead of being pointless and costly it is often decisive and no more bloody than other forms of warfare. Instead of being a refuge for guerrilla fighters and terrorists soldiers are more likely than not to triumph.
Yet perhaps the biggest myth he quashes is that tanks, rather than being a liability in urban warfare, are actually a vital asset. Considerations such as collateral damage and political blow back, while not completely absent especially at Hue , were generally secondary to the military objective of taking the city. Here the military contest was not as vital and political considerations came to the fore. As government forces were fighting not just to take cities but to pacify rebel groups and establish legitimacy to rule, the successful seizure of urban areas, if done so at the cost of significant civilian losses and violating the rule of law, often led to a pyrrhic victory.
Likewise, while the British never lost Northern Ireland, the often heavy handed conduct of the British army against the Catholics, as well as the lack of political considerations to address their grievances until later in the conflict, meant that the war in Northern Ireland went on for more than 30 years until a relatively satisfactory peace settlement was reached. The opponents in these instances were guerrilla forces fighting against foreign intruders and had considerable benefits in local intelligence, motivation and unit cohesion.
In such situations the conventional forces are still likely to win but they are once again constrained by numerous political factors. In Grozny the Russians eventually won and captured the city, though not before they suffered horrific casualties, bombed the city to the ground, and lost most of the legitimacy of their cause.
This operation was neither a conventional approach, a counter-insurgency effort, nor designed to permanently neutralize the enemy, but simply to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups attacking Israel. As it was a limited operation, both in time and scope, it never addressed the route causes of terrorism against Israel. However, as its objective was limited only to reducing terrorist capabilities, and as it did so effectively, it can be classified as a success.
For starters cities are centers of government, economics, culture and industry. As such seizing them can disrupt governance, trade, industrial production, and other vital assets in order to wage war. They are also where the masses reside and nothing is more ruinous for morale than being occupied. Additionally, urban warfare also occurs when there are important enemy forces stationed in cites, such as the F. Then some cities are captured to facilitate further operations.
These are usually important communications centers such as a city that lies along major converging rail lines such as Moscow, which dominates all communications in European Russia, or a vital port, such as Cherbourg or Antwerp which the Allies both wanted to ease their logistical constraints after landing in Normandy. Finally there is the point that urban warfare offers significant defensive advantages for weaker conventional forces, insurgents and terrorists that none of them would enjoy fighting a strong conventional force in open terrain.
Usually the defender uses urban landscape, with its countless places to both conceal themselves and ambush enemy forces, as well as the presence of civilians, to compensate for inferior numbers, lack of equipment, or simply to being less competent than their enemies.
The presence of civilians has mostly been a boon with the rise of media, and when fighting democracies, as most collateral damage is usually blamed on the attacking force. For some reason people in the Western world always seem to blame conventional armies, who generally try to avoid civilians casualties as much as they can, versus terrorist and insurgent groups who purposely put civilians in harms way.
Even though it is a well documented practice for terrorists and insurgents to put civilians at risk so that any deaths will result in subsequently higher recruitment and political capital for their cause the majority of people in liberal democracies somehow end up sympathizing for these irregular groups, few of whom ever support freedom, tolerance of all religions, or gender and racial equality. While the author always remains detached and objective there is little doubt that such sentiments of frustration towards the home front would find considerable sympathy among soldiers who have engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.
Either way the value of urban areas to the enemy is relative. For just as there are no lack of examples of the fall of major cities ending wars there are plenty of other examples to suggest that it is not inherently decisive either.
The Japanese took Nanking in , and Napoleon took Moscow in , but their enemies still had plenty of space to retreat and considerable resources and people to fight them. The Russians may have taken Grozny in and the Americans Baghdad in but their wars were far from over and did not end how they had wanted. Yet it is still a general consideration that a modern society based on conventional fighting forces is still more vulnerable to the loss of its major cities than a backwards one based on irregular forces.
However, such factors aside there are some generally accepted principles regarding urban warfare. First is that to decisively capture a city the enemy combatants inside need to be cut off from outside support.
In other words the city needs to be surrounded, or at least all the lines of communications going in and out, need to be secured. An extension of this principle is that the fighting to surround a city, or to cut it off, is often more time consuming, and costly, than the fighting inside the city itself. Essentially it comes down to morale and logistics. Warfare is generally a costly exercise, and once you run out of bullets, food, and equipment you can no longer effectively engage in it.
As for morale nothing is worse for the psychology of soldiers than knowing they are surrounded and cut off from supplies. Then there are basic principles for the actual fighting inside of cities.
While there are differences between fighting conventional forces or at least decently equipped guerrilla forces vs. The most important is that given how inherently complex urban battlefields are it is necessary to adopt an all-arms approach. This includes infantry, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, engineers, and often heavier weapons such as artillery and airpower.
The infantry especially have to be well equipped with mortars, snipers, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns, and other weapons to suppress various enemy targets in cities. Tanks, as noted above, are not a wasted asset in urban warfare but usually essential. The difference is that unlike its principle uses in maneuver warfare, a combination of shock action and mass, in urban warfare tanks are divided up into small groups to help infantry suppress enemy forces as well as taking out strong points.
Tanks were even vital in Stalingrad, for both sides, despite the popular myth that the rubble in the streets severely limited their mobility. Where tanks fail in urban warfare is when they are not properly screened by protective infantry, or when they are too exposed in open areas that have not been secured.
The American forces attacking Aachen in developed very effective tactics to protect Tanks in urban warfare including: 1. Limited the exposure of tanks on main streets. Moved tanks down side streets as much as possible. Having them constantly screened and protected by infantry. Used buildings as cover having tanks shoot around corners. Suppressing enemy positions with fire whenever tanks had to move from one firing point to another. This was in stark contrast to the initial Russian moves into Grozny in late when mechanized and armored forces advanced down the streets in long columns, without any reconnaissance, and much of their soldiers sleeping in their trucks.
The result was predictable as one Russian regiment was ambushed by Chechen forces using RPGs Rocket Propelled Grenades machine guns and snipers who initially attacked the leading and trailing vehicles of the convoy first, knocking them out and trapping those in the centre. The RPGs in particular were used to devastating effect, being shot from high up to hit tanks and armored vehicles at the top where they were thinly armored.
The Russian tank crews discovered that their turrets could neither elevate high enough to hit the Chechens on the roofs, or depress low enough to hit those in the basements. One can probably not find a better textbook example on how to ambush a convoy than this.
Returning to the proper use of tanks in city fighting the point about dividing tanks up into smaller groups is a vital consideration.
Whereas all out conventional fighting in maneuver warfare tends to reward speed and concentration urban warfare requires smaller groups attacking more systematically. Given the countless buildings, alleyways and other urban terrain that offers multiple ways to kill soldiers it is generally advisable to proceed more cautiously and to conquer cities street by street.
Thus as stated above tanks should be divided into smaller groups to suppress enemy fire and to take out strong points. However, the author does mention that there are times when it is possible to take a city relatively quickly. Of course the other alternative to fighting a street by street battle would be to subject a city to siege. This requires sufficient forces to surround and cut off an entire city for a considerable length of time.
The object is usually to force the enemy to surrender via starvation, or running out of important supplies. Yet perhaps another factor is that our author, having previously been a colonel in the American army, and one who has written doctrine manuals for troops, has realized that sieges are not a realistic option for the American army in the 21st Century.
Firstly, the American public and policy makers are generally hesitant to back operations that last months on end, preferring quick solutions which hopefully lead to decisive results, which of course precludes long drawn out sieges. Secondly, sieges, given that they rely on starvation as a strategy, inevitable lead to humanitarian crises and this is also politically unacceptable to the American public.
Indeed the Israelis, who are arguably more accepting of harsher methods towards civilians than Americans, were ultimately forced to let in convoys of food and aid to Hamas occupied Gaza Strip to prevent such a crisis due to being pressured by international opinion.
Therefore unless America was locked in a fight for survival her army would likely not be allowed to subdue a significant urban center via siege. Coming back to the various arms needed in urban warfare engineers are vital for demolition work, as well as disarming IEDs Improvised Explosive Devices. Artillery and airpower is used for very tough opponents, usually against conventional forces, or stubborn insurgents. It is also used by relatively inexperienced, or incompetent forces, such as the Russians in Grozny in late , who lack the skill and training to take urban areas without incurring prohibitive casualties.
However, it is obvious that the use of heavy firepower in cities usually results in significant civilian casualties. The Germans killed nearly 40, Russian civilians in one day of heavy bombing at Stalingrad. Likewise the Russian conquest of Grozny in the mids probably killed 30, civilians and wounded , more. Yet airpower and artillery are often restricted for military commanders, especially in democracies, by political masters at home. This leads us to another key consideration, at least in modern times, regarding urban warfare.
Additionally, in the past decade with the rise of cell phones, cheap cameras, and social media, information has been passed along almost instantaneously giving governments and militaries no significant time to put their spin on events.
This has lead to more micromanagement of military force by politicians, as well as to more cautious behavior by militaries themselves, to limit not only their own casualties, but civilian ones as well.
Unfortunately two were shot down and this led to a significant firefight in the city, a political fiasco for the American government, and ultimately the withdrawal of American forces from the U. These two concerns, limiting military as well as civilian casualties are often contradictory as it is generally true in warfare that keeping military casualties down requires firepower to be used more liberally and for the rules of engagement to be loosened.
Unsurprisingly these practices generally result in more civilian casualties in urban warfare. Likewise restricting firepower and tightening the rules of engagement saves more civilians but exposes soldiers to more risks and results in more military casualties.
However this is not win all, or lose all, situation and more professional forces using specialized equipment and proper tactics can still triumph with relatively few casualties, soldiers or civilians, as will be shown by the case studies of Nablus and Ramadi. Either way political considerations have come to the fore since Vietnam and they are not likely to recede so willingly or not militaries have to adapt. Of course how much political factors will matter depends on the type of war. However, in limited war, especially one which is not waged for vital interests of the state, political factors dominate.
Fighting terrorists and putting down insurgencies, especially in foreign lands, is even more political as taking territory and destroying armies are not as vital, or not as common, and the public finds it hard to gauge progress and gets upset when things such as collateral damage, war crimes, and instances of torture and prisoner abuse surfaces. Yet besides political machinations for the home front there are also political factors regarding the urban battlefield.
While winning hearts and minds obviously is not a key consideration when invading a hostile country it is paramount when the objective is counter-insurgency. Another vital asset for urban fighting, at least regarding counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, is a comprehensive intelligence system that understands and analyses the human component of the environment. Essentially the army needs to know the people, where they live, their neighbors, who they associate with, their occupations, etc.
This allows the army to understand the neighborhoods they live in, control the population, and notice when something has changed. They also got their bearing by painting numbers and letters on buildings the advent of GPS obviously makes this seem antiquated. This made it simple to pick people up for questioning or launch operations quickly as they could easily pinpoint where they were.
The French also got additional Humint human intelligence from high stress interrogations and torture.
Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare From Stalingrad to Iraq
His thesis is that cities are expanding, with a higher proportion of populations living in them, and are the likely centres of conflict for the remainder of the 21st century. Therefore he believes that armies must equip and train with this in mind. His book sets out to demonstrate his view with a series of case studies. Libya and Syria have come too late for full analysis but he says, in the conclusion, that they lend support to his argument. However the definitions are blurred between limited war and internal security operations; into the latter category I would put Algiers , Northern Ireland, which he dates as , and the Israeli response to the Intifada in
Concrete hell : urban warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq