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Urban operations training: From admiring the problem to solving it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Departments of the Army and Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The most likely future operating environment for the U.S. and our allies will be in the urban littorals-those cities located close to the coast. The trends are clear-more and more of the world's population is contained within cities near oceans and seas. The concentration will draw our military there in response to a range of events, from natural or manmade disaster to major combat operations. Sun Tzu's admonishment notwithstanding, militaries will increasingly conduct military operations in cities. Any commander's desire to bypass cities will no longer be tenable. But while there has been considerable consensus about the dynamics driving the military into urban environments, there has been sparse action to prepare and train our forces for it.

The U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Group (SSG) can be largely credited with re-igniting interest in urban operations with its 2014 study of megacities. While it was neither the original use of the term nor ground-breaking in exposing demographic trends, the study galvanized large portions of the Defense community to shift attention from counterin-surgency and stability operations back to the myriad challenges that urban terrain presents for military operations. It was a shift back, because before the U.S. military was employed in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was very much focused on dealing with the trends of urbanization.

Despite the cliche of the military's tendency to fight the last war, there are elements within each of the Services scanning the horizon for likely future challenges. Entire groups exist--the previously mentioned SSG and the Naval Research Laboratory are examples. The Marine Corps' version, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, launched the Service's campaign of experiments focused on urban terrain in the mid-nineties. Designed to increase the lethality, survivability, and effectiveness of small units up to battalion task force size in complex urban terrain, the campaign was named URBAN WARRIOR. (1)

From URBAN WARRIOR came a number of fielded systems, new doctrine, and training programs. Some of the fielded systems were the rifleman's combat optic, the personal role radio, biometric enrollment devices, and small unmanned aerial systems for battalions and below. These systems proved useful in the complex operations that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in and out of cities. (2) The updated doctrine, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-35.3 Military Operations on Urban Terrain, was published in 1998 covering tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) from the individual Marine to the battalion-level operations. The training program, the Basic Urban Skills Training (BUST) that resulted from URBAN WARRIOR provided relevant knowledge and skills to Marines fighting in the years that followed. Prior to Operation AL FAJR in October 2004, Marine Corps forces conducted training based on BUST in preparation for combat operations in Fallujah.

After an interruption of attention brought by the exigencies of immediate crises, the military and academia are drawn to cities once again. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have poured thought and resources into understanding the urban environment. Both Services have revised their urban doctrine, collaborating on a top tier multi-service publication, as well as each Service developing TTP for small units on their own. The multi-service publication rightly focuses on the importance of the population and the information environment, two areas not previously addressed to sufficient degree. The Marine Corp TTP publication, MCWP 3-35.3, is a fair start; however, it is lacking in several key areas: inventive uses of precision fires, procedures for dealing with improvised explosive devices, and innovative command and control techniques to address episodic communications in the urban canyons. Those gaps need to be addressed; however, they are not the most significant problem facing the preparations for operations on urban terrain.

Pending U.S. Army and Marine Corps doctrine lists five reasons for urban operations: defensive advantage, to destroy a threat, strategic value, symbolic value, and advantageous location. These are distracters. From disaster relief or humanitarian assistance to full-scale combat operations, cities will draw military operations for one simple reason-it's where the people are. The density of people, their needs in crisis, and their contributions to conflict, will draw U.S. intervention. Political support and material resources available in a city rise in direct relationship to the number of people. As more and more people move from the rural to the urban, support for threat networks will likewise become concentrated within cities.

Of the three elements of the urban environment--man-made construction overlaying the physical terrain, a dynamic infrastructure, and dense populations, it is the last that presents the biggest challenge to military operations. The physical environment is dangerous, complex, and interferes with many elements of U.S. technological advantage; however, many of those same disadvantages afflict our adversaries. Additionally, the infrastructure of a city cannot be ignored. The system-of-systems of sewage, water, electricity, academics, transportation, medical and security infrastructure can restrain or limit operations, yet the system is discernible and understandable, and it can be used to friendly advantage and withheld to the detriment of our enemy. The city and its infrastructure, like Spencer Chapman's jungle, are neutral--they offer advantages and disadvantages to both attacker and defender as terrain. (3)

However, the people within and around cities are not neutral. A majority may prefer to simply go about their lives and livelihoods uninterrupted (unless they need something). However, there will be individuals, groups, and networks inclined one way or the other, offering varying degrees of passive or active support to friendly or threat endeavors. So, formal and informal political boundaries will play in operations, and the various actors who hold sway within them must be known and addressed. There is also symbolism tied to a city or parts of a city that are magnified beyond their tactical value, drawing exertions by either side disproportionate to a strict operational calculus. Identifying and understanding these elements present a complex problem for intelligence collection and analysis. As Lieutenant General Flynn and his co-authors noted, the intelligence community must open the aperture of analysis beyond the threat to include the larger populace. (4)

Although the Marine Corps recognizes the importance of urban operations and their ever-increasing likelihood, several concrete steps remain to be taken in doctrine and training. The little training conducted formally at entry-level training venues is good, but is only partially sustained and built upon by follow-on formal training. The Service-level training conducted at Tactical Training Exercise Control Group is now incorporating techniques and procedures for the rifle companies. There are insufficient facilities to train above the battalion level, however. Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group incorporates a rudimentary urban operations scenario in the Tactical Marine Air Ground Task Force Integration Course, the Service's formal training for battalion and regiment operations officers and operations chiefs, but offers no instruction prior to practical application. Similarly, professional military education lacks any meaningful discussion of urban operations and fails to prepare tactical leaders for their most likely operational environment. Recognizing that formal curricula are like vast ocean liners-slow to make course corrections, the appropriate changes have not yet been discussed in earnest at the Service level within the urban community of interest.

The discussion is worthwhile. If the urban environment's challenge is indeed that of operating among dense populations, then the costs of training for that environment are likely to be considerable. One of the major expenses of counterinsurgency training was the large number of role players required to simulate the human aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Over a thousand paid contractors interacted with Marine units preparing to deploy during unit and Service-level training. In the near-term, similar resources are necessary to properly train both small units and intelligence analysts for the urban environment. Some work has been done in simulating the people within a city, but the challenges to accurately doing so are many. At this point, simulation can only augment, not replace, the experience of operating within dense urban populations.

The densely populated environment requires unique environment-focused training across all warfighting functions: mission command, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, protection, and engagement. Each of these functions is trained best among many people and the impact of the choices they make, the ever-shifting attitudes they possess, to the symbolism they assign to areas of the terrain. Most "combat town" training scenarios involve a small adversary moving throughout the operational environment, with role players resurrected as necessary to challenge small-unit fire and maneuver. This does little to challenge commanders and their staffs.

A more realistic training environment will teach commanders to truly execute mission command, and the inherent trust in their subordinates it comprises, in the urban canyons that allow only sporadic radio and data communications. Movement over lines of communication impacted by traffic, crowds, and informal power brokers exercising extralegal control offer opportunities for patience, negotiation, and vulnerability to ambush. Ground forces will learn to operate under constant observation, with observations shared with both a local and global audience, to advantage or disadvantage. A large body of role players gives commanders at all levels multiple opportunities to engage, to message, and counter message, depending on those actions and the simulated reactions of a variegated audience. Open source intelligence, adeptly mined, may in the future provide the on-scene commander with relevant information in near real time regarding threats, atmospherics, impediments to movement, sensitive cultural terrain, or key influencers.

Some of these elements can be trained and tested within existing training facilities, although there are very few combat towns of sufficient size to do so above the rifle company. The SSG has partnered with the New York Fire Department for tactical exercises without troops in New York City-this is a model worth emulating elsewhere. Our Reserve and National Guard units are natural conduits for building relationships with municipal governments, law enforcement, utilities, and community leaders to develop training opportunities within U.S. cities.

If we recognize the future operational environment as an urban one, it's time to start seriously preparing our military forces for the city, before attention shifts once again. Ground forces are especially vulnerable to a lack of training for urban operations. The demands on intelligence, maneuver, fires, and command and control can only be truly tested through immersion in a densely populated city.


(1.) Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory website. At

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) This idea was forwarded by Dr. David Betz of Kings College, London during the Urban Conflict Symposium hosted by Balsillie School of International Affairs, 18-19 April 2016.

(4.) Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor, "Fixing Intel: A blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan," January 2010, 7.

by Scott E. Packard (USMC, Ret.)

Mr. Packard is a retired Marine infantry officer working as a consultant with the U.S. Marine Corps. He is the author of the Marine Corps' pending urban operations doctrine and the lead Marine Corps author for the multi-service publication on urban operations. Currently, he is working with the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center on the incorporation of operational culture in Service-level training.
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Author:Packard, Scott E.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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