Sept. 18, 2018 —
Ask any group of infantry soldiers what they train to prepare for urban operations and the answer will usually be: Battle Drill 6, “Enter and Clear a Room.” Battle Drill 6 is one of the fourteen drills, defined by doctrine, that infantry platoons and squads are intended to master. But it is also ingrained in soldiers—alongside shooting and breaching—as the foundation for preparing for urban combat. These skills are necessary for success in urban environments, but not sufficient. A review of historical urban operations shows that there are several other tasks that units need to add to their training programs.
I practiced and trained others to enter and clear a room for most of my twenty-five years as an infantryman. It is simple. The initial training takes almost zero resources. You put white engineer tape on the ground in the shape of rooms to construct “glass houses,” and start practicing the methodical movements that make up the battle drill. Four soldiers line up, one behind another, and follow a very prescribed choreography to enter and move through rooms. Once the drill is trained to standard, the squad or platoon moves to a shoot house to conduct dry, blank, and live-fire repetitions on a single room, and then progress to clearing multiple rooms in a single house.
Depending on the unit training schedule, soldiers may expand to urban assaults, where they attack a series of buildings that simulate a city block or small village. Unfortunately, the majority of the home-station urban training ranges are limited to between five and twenty buildings. I have argued that the Army needs bigger and better training sites and schools. Until that happens, units can train in large urban training areas located at the combat training centers, the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex (MUTC), and civilian-run training sites like Guardian Centers in Perry, Georgia. But even prior to major training events at sites like these, which usually are only annual or semi-annual, units can still use their home-station urban training sites and local urban areas to train a wide variety of tasks besides just Battle Drill 6 and small-scale urban assaults.
Major historical fights in dense urban terrain—Stalingrad, Aachen, or Manila in World War II—and more recent fights in Panama City, Mogadishu, Grozny, Fallujah, Sadr City, and Mosul combine to show that there are reoccurring challenges that small units need to train to overcome, in addition to mastering the fundamentals of entering and clearing rooms and buildings.
Units should practice moving outside of buildings as much as they do fighting inside them. During most training events, soldiers face few obstacles or resistance impeding their ability to get to their target building. But history shows that soldiers often have to fight for every block—even for every step—in urban combat.
The simple task of crossing open areas and moving parallel to buildings can be a major challenge in city fighting. Doctrine recommends avoiding open areas, deploying smoke to conceal troop movements, and establishing a support-by-fire position to provide suppressive fires. Each of these options require practice and experimentation.
Army units also often take for granted that they will have uninterrupted access from the periphery of an urban area directly to their objective. Again, history shows that this is not always the case. Navigating to the objective and fighting to get to the building are often challenging. Formations at every level, including brigade combat teams, should practice mounted and dismounted movement in urban areas. Mock cities surrounded by the open or wooded areas that make up most of the home-station urban sites make it a challenge to train the task, but units can and should still drill the fundamentals. Units should practice off-loading vehicles under fire and establishing the vehicle support-by-fire positions called for in doctrine.
If feasible, units can take advantage of their local cities to hold training events without troops, conduct terrain walks, and discuss urban movement. Such events are already being conducted in places like New York City and Atlanta, two cities that will foster unique perspectives on route planning and urban movement plans. A wrong turn in a dense urban environment can have catastrophic effects for a military formation. History is full of wrong turns, unexpected blocked streets, and disoriented formations that met with disaster: the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriya, Iraq, the nearly citywide attack against the Ranger ground convoy trying to exfil from Mogadishu, Somalia, and the coordinated trapping of 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry inside Sadr City, Iraq, just to name a few.
In conjunction with practicing urban movements, soldiers should train to conduct hasty obstacle reduction and breaching. While typically a core function of engineers, the ability to rapidly reduce obstacles in urban terrain is a skill every soldier should practice. Urban terrain is uniquely suited to adversaries’ emplacement of street-blocking obstacles—burning tires or wood piles, concrete walls, or parked vehicles, for example—intended to block routes or channelize soldiers into ambushes. But the structural density of cities also means that both friendly and enemy artillery and air strikes produce unplanned obstacles in the form of rubble. More so than in any other environment, then, being able to reduce these obstacles is of paramount importance in cities.
This task should be practiced as a deliberate as well as a hasty mission. It should be practiced with and without engineer support, dismounted as well as mounted, and using doctrinal breaching equipment and tactics as well as field-expedient tools and measures. What can soldiers use to assist in rapidly clearing a blocked street? If vehicles are being used to block a street, should soldiers be trained to “hot wire” them? Can infantry breaching tools, like grappling hooks used to pull wire obstacles out of the way, be enlarged for vehicle deployment? Should some vehicles be outfitted with plows to ram obstacles out of the way?
With training and experimentation, soldiers can prevent the loss of the initiative, maintain momentum, and avoid the ambushes enabled by street obstacles in the battles of Mogadishu, Grozny, Sadr City, and many other city fights.
It has been argued that the US Army emphasizes preparing for offensive operations over the defense in its training programs. That can clearly be seen when observing the amount of urban training events solely focused on offensive scenarios. This is an easy fix. Units can use a single building to train for urban defense. They can simulate occupying a building to establish an urban patrol base or defending it against an opposing force trying to seize it.
With the right training and equipment, a single building can be turned into a fortress that becomes immensely costly to attack. In the Battle of Stalingrad, a group of Soviet soldiers—initially just four, and even when reinforced numbering no more than thirty—led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, successfully defended a small apartment building for almost two full months against repeated German tank, artillery, and infantry assaults.
Training for urban defense will also improve small units’ offensive capabilities as they develop a better appreciation of how an enemy force can use a building to create a bunker-like structure, develop engagement areas, and create a multi-story/surface dilemma for attacking forces. Unit training should be divided with one group defending and the other attacking. Then they should reverse roles.
Ironically, current survival doctrine does not mention the urban environment. Specialty doctrine like the Ranger Handbook has removed most survival skill tasks and contains little information on the urban environment in general. Other manuals—like ATTP 3-06.11, Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain—do contain useful urban survival considerations, but they are buried and not included in the training circular as tasks to practice or emphasize.
It almost seems as if we assume that since soldiers have lived in, or at least visited a city, they will understand how to live, adapt, and survive in them during combat. Even worse, units may assume that all classes of supply will flow without interruptions from fixed sites. This is despite Chief of the Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley’s recommendation that units prepare for future warfare conditions that will be “intense and very, very spartan,” requiring us to “untether ourselves from this umbilical cord of logistics and supply that American forces have enjoyed for a long time.” Soldiers and units need to know how to use the urban environment to their advantage.
To survive in any environment, soldiers have to understand the advantages and disadvantages unique to the terrain, whether natural or manmade. An entire military course should be developed just to teach urban survival skills. Analogous to the jungle survival school, soldiers should be taught to understand the hidden secrets of the city. Instead of learning how to identify poisonous plants, they should be taught how to tell the difference power and telephone lines, or between water and gas lines (something they might not want to shoot at). They should also learn how to make field-expedient weapons, tools, and equipment, how to utilize the terrain to enhance communications, and how to find water, food, and energy supplies. As a young soldier, I learned how to make a field-expedient antenna out of MRE spoons and parachute cord to string up into the jungle canopy to enhance radio communication. What is the equivalent in dense urban terrain, where navigation and communication is impacted by the density and height of buildings or subsurface terrain?
Until an urban survival school is opened, leaders should still train this task. Even using existing small urban sites, soldiers should learn about building materials: how to identify a load-bearing wall or beam, the differences between cinder block and reinforced concrete walls, or what types of walls make good cover versus only offering concealment. There’s a scene in the movie Black Hawk Down where the Delta Operator tells the Ranger soldier to stay away from the walls. Why? Because ricochet rounds often travel parallel to walls. That’s why Army doctrine recommends staying twelve to eighteen inches away from them while moving. These are the types of knowledge that should be ingrained in soldiers training for urban environments.
Large numbers of civilians, while not a training task, are a characteristic of urban operations. They will almost always be present and should be a part of every training scenario. Some trainers will argue that the presence of civilians on the battlefield is a condition that should only be added after achieving proficiency in urban warfighting basics.
I argue that civilians should be a consideration at the lowest level of urban training and not reserved for scenarios of increased complexity. Despite attempts to empty cities of their residents, as in the battles for Aachen and Fallujah, there are always people that stay. The urban battlefield will be full of civilians and soldiers should confront the challenge they pose to combat operations early in their training. This can be accomplished with little resources. It does not require costly role-playing contractors. We use soldiers to act as the opposing force, and they can just as easily play noncombatants.
All trends point to the continued and increased deployment of US soldiers to conduct missions in densely populated urban areas. Gen. Milley has repeatedly stated that we must train, man, and equip our forces for this environment.
Battle Drill 6 is not enough to prepare soldiers for the increasingly urban future of warfare. Some of the tasks listed above are detailed in doctrine, while others are not. Units need to add the tasks listed above and more to their current training approaches. When they do, they will not only be able to advance their proficiency in urban skills, but also be able to push the boundaries of doctrinal recommendations, since doctrine is only a starting point. With a solid foundation in doctrine, units will be able to train these challenges using hard-earned lessons, experience, and hopefully new ideas to try different techniques and tools that will push them beyond door kicking.