Mean Streets: The Clash of Technology and Terrain in Urban Warfare

From the Archives, 2016

Seoul

 In urban environments, the playing field is levelled between the conventional armies and insurgents

 

BE IT ALEPPO or Damascus, Mosul or Ramadi, or even Eastern Ukraine, combatants in today’s conflicts are frequently fighting in and over urban areas.

The decision to wage war in cities is driven in part by modern military technology. Frequently, lightly equipped insurgent forces simply cannot survive on open terrain against even a moderately well-equipped conventional force. Their forte is the close combat that is best found in cityscapes.

Urban areas provide an abundance of cover, like walls, basements, sewers and piles of rubble, that frequently negate the advanced sensors and smart technology of 21stCentury militaries. Such obstacles transform urban engagements into short-ranged wars of attrition, which offset the advantages conventional armies normally enjoy in more open environments. Civilian populations only add additional challenges for armies given prevailing modern international norms on non-combatant casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. This makes cities even more desirable battlegrounds for non-state actors as fighting in such settings raises the costs for the states that are trying to dislodge them.

The Birth of Urban Warfare

Historians can trace this collision of urban terrain and modern military technology back to the mid-19th century.

In the 1800s, as industrializing cities expanded, traditional defensive walls were rendered impractical. Advances in the range and destructiveness of artillery made such fortifications obsolete. Urban warfare began the shift from the protracted siege of the Middle Ages to the street-to street fighting of the modern era. Of course sieges still occurred (e.g., Paris 1870, Leningrad 1941 to 1944) but more often, battles were being fought within the cities themselves (e.g., Stalingrad 1942, Manila 1945, Seoul 1950, Hue 1968).

Cities: The Level Playing Field

Unfortunately for conventional armies, breakthroughs in weaponry made for modern mass armies that were better suited for war on open ground. Smooth-bore muskets, rarely effective beyond 100 meters, gave way to bolt-action rifles and machine guns that could cut down masses of men out to 1,000 meters with unprecedented rates of fire. Tanks and ground attack aircraft (both fixed and rotary wing) were also made for wide open environments.

But in urban environments, the playing field is levelled between conventional armies and insurgents. This is not to say guerrilla forces can prevail against advanced militaries, but they can inflict significant (if not intolerable) losses on their conventional opponents, even while taking grievous casualties in the process. In rare cases, insurgents might even give as well as they get (e.g., Chechen rebels in Grozny in 1995). Yet sometimes even just killing a few enemy soldiers can be enough to deliver a movement a strategic victory (e.g., Mogadishu 1993).

So the next time you see a news report of insurgents fighting in urban terrain, consider both why they chose to fight there and look for how the conventional opponents are seeking to overcome the challenges of that difficult terrain.

Dr. Alec Wahlman is an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia. His recently released book, Storming the City, assesses U.S. military performance in four major urban battles from WWII to Vietnam.

Read the Remainder at Military History Now

Examining Terrorist Tactics: The Lethal Geography of Downtown Dallas

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Exploiting Urban Geography

The shooting of 14 people during a protest march, 12 of them police officers, is without question a terrorist-style assault on the police force of one of America’s largest cities.

Five Dallas cops, including a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer, died from a gunman who declared he acted alone and wanted to kill police officers, white people and white police officers, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said. The ambush follows shootings of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

Police said one male gunman, Micah X. Johnson, died inside a downtown community college building after cops sent in a robot, which blew up an attached explosive device. A female suspect who allegedly fired at officers was arrested overnight.

Dallas Police said at least two gunmen had fired at them from a “triangulated … elevated position.”

There is mixed information about key details. For one, it’s not clear if there were one or two shooters — or more — or if any shooter was actually on elevated ground. Two men arrested while driving away from downtown were uninvolved in the shootings, as was a man photographed while carrying a rifle during the march.

However, if the gunman or gunmen acted as snipers, they would have exploited a particular vulnerability of downtown Dallas’ urban geography.

More than 50 years ago, ex-Marine and Marxist gunman Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Pres. John F. Kennedy from a sniper’s perch — now Dallas’ most famous tourist attraction — at Dealey Plaza blocks from where Thursday’s gunmen unleashed his rampage.

This isn’t to force a comparison, but to stress that a sniper — if he was perched— would have been at an extreme advantage over anyone in the street. Dallas, like many so-called “Sunbelt cities,” has an urban area that is both built up and yet is relatively less dense than many other downtowns.

It’s also to note an aspect of America’s modern security culture that has resolutely failed. We can build subtle barriers against car bombs and stop terrorists from boarding airplanes, but we’ve done little to prevent people with high-powered rifles from striking down their fellow citizens.

Here is a digitally-altered photo from Google Earth showing the location of the attack:

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Read the Remainder at War is Boring

Military History: Battleground Dublin, Remembering the O’Connell Street Landmarks of 1916

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“To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Irish building supply company Chadwick’s is offering MilitaryHistoryNow.com this infographic exploring some of the O’Connell Street landmarks that were damaged and destroyed during the battle.”

 

FOR MANY, Dublin’s famous O’Connell Street is considered ‘ground-zero’ for the Easter Rising of 1916.

At the start of the five-day insurrection, which ran from April 24 to 29 of that year, rebel forces stormed the General Post Office headquarters on the city’s legendary main thoroughfare, known then as Sackville Street, and transformed the handsome Georgian-era office building into a fortified stronghold.

After rebel leader Patrick Pearse read aloud a declaration proclaiming an independent Irish Republic from the post office steps, more than 1,200 insurgents fanned out across Dublin to occupy strategic points and to seize weapons from local armouries.

Within 48 hours, British reinforcements moved in to retake the capital. Fighting raged in a number of spots across Dublin with much of the violence concentrated on Sackville Street. In fact, British artillery zeroed in on the rebel-controlled postal building specifically – a gunboat on the River Liffey lobbed dozens of shells onto the area. By the time the battle was over, thousands of Dubliners were dead or wounded and the city’s main boulevard looked like a Western Front war zone.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Irish building supply company Chadwick’s is offering MilitaryHistoryNow.com this infographic exploring some of the O’Connell Street landmarks that were damaged and destroyed during the battle.

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Read the Original Article at Military History Now

 

Mean Streets: The Clash of Technology and Terrain and Urban Warfare

Seoul

 In urban environments, the playing field is levelled between the conventional armies and insurgents

 

BE IT ALEPPO or Damascus, Mosul or Ramadi, or even Eastern Ukraine, combatants in today’s conflicts are frequently fighting in and over urban areas.

The decision to wage war in cities is driven in part by modern military technology. Frequently, lightly equipped insurgent forces simply cannot survive on open terrain against even a moderately well-equipped conventional force. Their forte is the close combat that is best found in cityscapes.

Urban areas provide an abundance of cover, like walls, basements, sewers and piles of rubble, that frequently negate the advanced sensors and smart technology of 21stCentury militaries. Such obstacles transform urban engagements into short-ranged wars of attrition, which offset the advantages conventional armies normally enjoy in more open environments. Civilian populations only add additional challenges for armies given prevailing modern international norms on non-combatant casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. This makes cities even more desirable battlegrounds for non-state actors as fighting in such settings raises the costs for the states that are trying to dislodge them.

The Birth of Urban Warfare

Historians can trace this collision of urban terrain and modern military technology back to the mid-19th century.

In the 1800s, as industrializing cities expanded, traditional defensive walls were rendered impractical. Advances in the range and destructiveness of artillery made such fortifications obsolete. Urban warfare began the shift from the protracted siege of the Middle Ages to the street-to street fighting of the modern era. Of course sieges still occurred (e.g., Paris 1870, Leningrad 1941 to 1944) but more often, battles were being fought within the cities themselves (e.g., Stalingrad 1942, Manila 1945, Seoul 1950, Hue 1968).

Cities: The Level Playing Field

Unfortunately for conventional armies, breakthroughs in weaponry made for modern mass armies that were better suited for war on open ground. Smooth-bore muskets, rarely effective beyond 100 meters, gave way to bolt-action rifles and machine guns that could cut down masses of men out to 1,000 meters with unprecedented rates of fire. Tanks and ground attack aircraft (both fixed and rotary wing) were also made for wide open environments.

But in urban environments, the playing field is levelled between conventional armies and insurgents. This is not to say guerrilla forces can prevail against advanced militaries, but they can inflict significant (if not intolerable) losses on their conventional opponents, even while taking grievous casualties in the process. In rare cases, insurgents might even give as well as they get (e.g., Chechen rebels in Grozny in 1995). Yet sometimes even just killing a few enemy soldiers can be enough to deliver a movement a strategic victory (e.g., Mogadishu 1993).

So the next time you see a news report of insurgents fighting in urban terrain, consider both why they chose to fight there and look for how the conventional opponents are seeking to overcome the challenges of that difficult terrain.

Dr. Alec Wahlman is an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia. His recently released book, Storming the City, assesses U.S. military performance in four major urban battles from WWII to Vietnam.

Read the Remainder at Military History Now