Monday, December 19, 2005

Urban Operations

I've been out of town for a week, and unable to post. Here's a quick view of urban combat ops from an airpower perpective. Urban operations will probaly be my main focus for the foreseable future with a sprinkling of other stuff I am working on.

In the last 20 years (basically since the end of the Cold War) the United States armed forces have been involved in a wave of urban operations in Iraq, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia, to name the most prominent. Current stability operations in Iraq consist mostly of operations in urbanized terrain. To engage an adversary that's intermingled with noncombatants in an urban environment requires a measured combination of force and finesse. The last thing we want is a Stalingrad or a Grozny situation in our hands. Iraq is a highly urbanized country with many major urban areas connected by a modern system of roads and where the insurgents can move from one city to another with relative ease. The hi-tech version of war that characterized the first phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom does not translate well once were involved in stability operations in an urban environment.

From an airpower perspective, our intentions are not to turn cities into ruins (as happened in Stalingrad and Grozny), but to operate in the urban environment without causing major disturbances to the population. From a kinetic standpoint this means killing the “bad guys” without causing collateral damage. No matter how important the contributions the contributions of airpower are to stability operations in urban environments, the mission is still primarily one conducted by infantrymen: soldiers and marines. Airpower is mainly a behind-the-scenes player in this kind of operation. An enemy mixed together with the civilian population sometimes has to be located and identified using the naked human eye of a soldier or marine on the ground. Fierce fights in hyper-urbanized terrain (Baghdad, Mosul, etc.) where our troops are going against insurgents mixed together with civilians are best fought from the ground. Stability operations are primarily low-tech operations.

That’s not to say that airpower can’t act as a force multiplier in this kind of urban operations.

It is likely that the United States will be involved in more urban operations within the next decade. More and more people in the developing world (or the non-integrating Gap to use Dr. Barnett’s term) are moving into urban areas. Our future adversaries in the Gap will probably operate inside an urban environment in an attempt to negate the United States’ technological and operational advantages. The world is increasingly becoming more urbanized. Insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists will probably seek refuge in urbanized areas to exploit the limitations of our sensors, weapons, and communications technology. We saw a glimpse of the possible future last year in the Iraqi town of Fallujah. Insurgents might also move between dispersed urban areas as happens in Iraq so that our forces have to “fish them out” from a number of dispersed “seas”.

To be sure, conflict will still be waged in a variety of environments other than urban, (jungle, desert, mountains, ocean, etc.), but the urban environment, with its physical and societal complications is not one that we can continue ignoring in our planning and training for long. Simply put, our smart adversaries will probably operate from a city to increase their survivability. It would almost be unavoidable to conduct military operations in urban terrain. Last year in Fallujah, we saw the prototype of how events might unfold in the future and an example of how the U.S. can conduct combat operations in a built-up area. The major contribution of the air component in this case was the ability to conduct persistent air surveillance, and precision air strikes. Additionally, before the November ‘04 sweep into the city the air component provided a constant presence in the city – via surveillance and strikes - and set the stage for the ground operation. This was particularly important due to the fact that prior to the large-scale ground assault the city was considered denied territory by coalition forces. Fortunately, we were able to keep the pressure on the insurgents and shape the battlespace prior to the land portion of the campaign.

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