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AUSA: Army Magazine

Sun Tzus Bad Advice: Urban Warfare in the Information Age


"The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative."
--Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It is time for a revolution in our thinking about urban warfare. For too long the American
military establishment has been reading the wrong history, preparing for the wrong fight
and reclining in the wisdom of the wrong philosophers. Urban warfare is the fight of the
future--the very near future--and we are not ready. Our thinking about this subject has been
derailed by anachronistic principles that no longer apply.

We do not live in Sun Tzus world, nor even in that of Clausewitz, Fuller or Liddell Hart.
The modern world has urbanized to an unprecedented degree, and it is inconceivable that
future military contingencies will not involve urban operations. Sun Tzu lived and wrote (if
indeed he was a real person) in the agrarian age, when most of the land was either
wilderness or cultivated. Large segments of the population lived outside cities, and warfare
typically occurred in flat, open terrain. Such battlefields--the stomping grounds of warriors
from Sun Tzu to Napoleon--are becoming scarcer each day. Furthermore, the very success
of American joint operations--and joint fires in particular--guarantee that a clever opponent
will move into cities for protection. The modern battlefield is urban.

As is often the case with bureaucratized military establishments, American warfighting
doctrine has not kept pace with developments. Joint Publication 3-0 dedicates a whole page
to urban operations, and its close associate, interagency operations, receives only a polite
nod in our doctrine. Urban warfare continues to be considered anomalous and something to
be avoided or engaged in only reluctantly. Ralph Peters and others have made the strong
case that avoidance is next to impossible, but we continue to fall short of fully embracing
the art of urban warfare. In place of dynamic doctrine on fighting in cities, we have a myth-

based dogma built upon avoidance, flavored with a few ideas about how to clear rooms
with machine guns. This is totally insufficient.

Urban areas should become our preferred medium for fighting. We should optimize our
force structure for it, rather than relegating it to Appendix Q in our fighting doctrine,
treating it as an exception to the norm. In reality, Appendix Q should deal with fighting in
open terrain--an increasingly rare event--while our main doctrine contemplates the city

As we embrace the urban fight, we must stop thinking of it as only an obstacle. In fact,
urban fighting presents many advantages to the American joint and interagency team.
Among these are ready access to the population, to infrastructure, water, fuel, shelter,
communications and power. Cities are a treasure trove of information and intelligence, if
we develop the right tools for extracting this most valuable commodity. If cities indeed
present obstacles and disadvantages to modern warriors, let us remember that the enemy is
equally disadvantaged. In short, urban operations have the potential for fostering sustained
military and interagency success, provided we adapt ourselves to reality instead of clinging
to Sun Tzus bad advice. The city is an opportunity for maneuver.

What is the difference between 1,000 miles and 500 miles? The answer is eight million
people. The National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, Calif., presents modern brigade
commanders with 1,000 square miles of challenges. Probably the greatest training facility
in the world for ground forces, the NTC represents also the fundamental shift in training
strategy that revolutionized our Army in the 1980s. It remains the formative experience for
Army officers today--a challenge that is often much harder than real combat.

However, the thousand square miles of desert and mountain terrain is virtually devoid of
people. When a brigade task force deploys into the maneuver box, the commander must
concern himself with offensive and defensive operations, reconnaissance, fire planning, air
defense, nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) defense and a host of other tactical issues
(not forgetting, of course, the infamous NTC sand turtle). These training challenges are not
trivial, as any NTC veteran knows. In a larger sense, however, they shrink to insignificance
when overlaid on the modern urban battlefield.

Mexico City encompasses only 500 square miles--half the size of the NTC--but military
operations in an urban setting of that size quickly exceed the training and competence of
the brigade commander who can master the central corridor of Fort Irwin. In addition to the
familiar tactical issues described above, the urban warrior must deal with refugees, media,
curfews, crowd control, municipal government, street gangs, schools, armed citizens,
disease, mass casualties, police, cultural sites, billions of dollars of private property,
infrastructure and religion, to name but a few factors. In this context, the brigade combat
team that dominates the central corridor is woefully inadequate; likewise, the doctrine and
force structure behind it.

The Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La., has moved the Army much
closer to the reality of tomorrow. From its inception in 1993, the JRTC progressed from an
initial emphasis upon light units to a more combined arms approach involving heavy forces
as well as special operators and the other members of todays joint force. This is real
progress, and the intensity of a JRTC rotation is hard to beat. Still, the urban box there is
only 56 square kilometers--miniscule compared to what a real contingency would entail,
and while JRTC deploys noncombatants into the training program, even this innovation
only scratches the surface of the complexity of tomorrows city fight.

The 500 square miles of urban warfare are so radically different from the 1,000 square
miles of open terrain warfare that to deal with the former, we must begin to redefine the
levels of war. It has become common for us to think of war as unfolding in three levels--
tactical, operational and strategic. I have previously tried to demonstrate ("Factors of
Conflict in the Early 21st Century," ARMY, January) that the operational level of war is
becoming an anachronism because the idea of a theater military campaign is no longer
relevant. Theater operations have become so intertwined with global considerations, and
military factors have become so integrated with diplomatic, economic and cultural factors,
that theater warfare is becoming indistinguishable from global grand strategy. In a similar
manner, the challenge of urban operations will serve to redefine the tactical level of war.

At what level of war do the elements of national power integrate? If we answer that
question in the context of 20th-century Cold War dynamics, the answer may be at the
strategic or possibly operational levels of war. In 21st-century urban warfare, however, that
integration must occur at the tactical level. In the modern city fight, dealing with the State
Department will no longer be the combatant commanders concern, but the battalion

The interagency task force, rather than the joint force, must become the basis for future
operations. With the elements of national power coalescing at the tactical level of war, a
loose confederation of governmental agencies at the combatant commander level is simply
insufficient. An honest look at our recent operations in Afghanistan would reveal a superb
performance by our military and a half-hearted, poorly integrated participation by the rest
of the U.S. government agencies. As a result, American foreign policy appears to be 90
percent military with a few economic and diplomatic add-ons. This is a recipe for disaster
in future urban warfare. We need to graduate to the formation of the interagency task force.

The interagency task force would be built around a Marine expeditionary unit or an Army
brigade, reinforced with joint fires. In addition, it would have active participation from the
Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Justice, the CIA, the FBI and (as needed)
Agriculture, Health and Human Services, the Office of Economic Advisors and Labor. It
would also have congressional liaison teams. At present, most of these agencies of the U.S.
government lack a mission to assist in foreign policy, but this must change. The elements of
national power--the integration of which is crucial to effective grand strategy--reside in
these agencies. They must become players in war and peace.

What does the interagency task force do? It conducts full spectrum military operations as a
start. It also performs other functions, such as training and administering police forces,
dispersing money for arms and intelligence, executing urban administration, assisting in
economic development, contacting and co-opting urban gangs and the urban middle class,
facilitating cultural exchange, creating and administering schools, conducting media
campaigns and psychological operations and planning and conducting interagency handoffs
from military to civilian operations. In short, the interagency task force projects the power
of grand strategy into the tactical level of war in cities.

The challenge of realizing such a vision is overwhelming, but we have a model for success:
the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. To pass this highly controversial piece of legislation,
the Senate Armed Services Committee pushed the bill through--over the heads of most of
the senior military officers, who roundly condemned it. In retrospect this landmark
legislation proved a monumental success--one that manifested itself in the successes of
Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm. Through legislation, the government changed the
way America fights.

The struggle for a true integration of interagency operations must follow the same course.
To date, cooperation among governmental agencies during military crises has relied upon
executive mandate--a convenient but ultimately short-sighted approach. Just as Goldwater-
Nichols resulted in joint doctrine, joint exercises and joint education, a new "Goldwater-
Nichols Act" must bring into being interagency doctrine, exercises, experiments and
education. Just as the first Reorganization Act strengthened the organizational integrity of
the unified commands, so the second act must organize interagency task forces. Such an
advance would be important regardless of the terrain on which future contingencies will
unfold; it is doubly important in urban operations.

At the tactical level of war, our approach to urban warfare remains anachronistic, subsisting
off of the wrong historical examples. Stalingrad is not the model for modern operations; nor
is Grozny a good example of modern urban operations (except, perhaps, as a negative one).
Mogadishu is a better study--not for our successes or failures there, but because the
missions were more typical of future contingencies. The combination of combat and peace-
support tasks and the rapid transition between them were typical of the challenges the
future will bring.

As we contemplate scenarios for tomorrows urban operations, we must avoid the
paradigms that we are comfortable with. I have witnessed hundreds of wargames and
exercises that pretend to deal with future contingencies, but almost invariably they begin
with an Operational Overlord approach. Blue and red forces begin conveniently separated,
and the blue planners direct their considerable expertise and planning skills into the physics
of force projection. We like to think of force entry operations as among the toughest, but in
actuality we are being easy on ourselves if we think tomorrow is about force projection.
While such scenarios may indeed arise, it is much more likely that future contingencies will
unfold with blue forces already intermixed with red forces and distracted by peace
operations, as occurred in Mogadishu. Rather than American football, where both teams
line up on opposite sides of the scrimmage line, politely waiting for the hike, future warfare
will be a soccer game--continuous motion with forces intermixed.

For this reason, we must look to the delicate art of escalation management rather than re-
enacting D-Day. Todays joint force conducting entry operations will be replaced with
tomorrows interagency task force suddenly making the transition from a peace operation
into high-intensity conflict--and then back again.

The military tactics of urban operations are also in serious need of revision. Reviewing the
ample history of fighting in cities, one fact becomes clear, and this fact is the overriding
issue in urban fighting: the side that assaults takes the casualties. Moving through the
deadly zone in urban operations is the chief cause of wounding and death. Because a
stationary enemy has innumerable opportunities to ambush whatever moves into the kill
zone, urban assault is probably the deadliest task to undertake.

Logically, then, we have two choices: develop ways to lessen the cost of assaults, or search
for a form of urban tactics that avoids assaulting as a rule. This second approach, however,
is complicated, because our missions in future contingencies will most often require
offensive operations. So how can an armed force conduct offensive operations without
recourse to assault? The answer comes from history: the siege. Rather than conduct a
medieval siege of an entire walled city, however, the modern joint force will conduct
information age siege operations.

The sine qua non of an information age siege is intelligence. The single most important
efficiency of the interagency task force is intelligence operations. Networked, multi-
disciplinary and comprehensive intelligence is the life-blood of future urban tactics. The
difficulty is that much of our intelligence infrastructure--especially in the military world--is
optimized for open terrain warfare. Image, electronic and signal intelligence is perfect when
you are after the army artillery group in a Soviet-style front, but it is next to useless when
you are trying to figure out in what city block the bad guys are hiding. Rather than abandon
our current approaches to intelligence, we need to build on our technological prowess and
redouble our ability to exploit human intelligence.

Sherlock Holmes can be of some assistance to us. Arthur Conan Doyles fictional detective
operated in the sprawling urban area of Victorian London. To find the criminal or clue he
was after, Holmes often employed the infamous Baker Street Irregulars--an amorphous
gang of street urchins who could blanket the streets with eyes and ears, all for the hope of
earning a shilling from the great detective. Similarly, we must learn to view the city as an
engine of information. It may cost us more than a shilling, but tapping into the vast
resources of human intelligence is the first step toward a successful information age siege.

Intelligence operations in urban warfare will produce, among other things, a read on where
the enemy is and--equally important--where he is not. In reality, an enemy force can occupy
only a very small part of any great city. Our intelligence must find the enemy and safe
routes to encircle him. Once an enemy is pinpointed, the interagency task force surrounds
him with a combination of forces, robotic surveillance, fires and, as appropriate, media. At
this point, we must call into being technologies that do not yet exist. Specifically, we must
develop the capability to dynamically map buildings once we know they are occupied.
Trying to get at the mapping problem through databases will not work. It is too expensive,
and the databases will almost certainly be out of date. Instead, we have to be able to map
the important features of various buildings on the spot. These features include apertures,
wiring, heat, light, water and so on. The purpose of dynamic mapping is to facilitate the
next step of the information age siege: making the enemys position untenable.

Because we intend to avoid assaulting through the deadly zone, we must instead induce the
enemy to move. We do this by surging lethal and non-lethal fires into his position in such a
way as to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties and property damage. The means we use
here depend upon the situation. Conventional fires might be the answer. Alternately, the use
of high power microwave technology, acoustic weapons or nonlethal chemicals might be
called for. To this end, we must reform anachronistic rules against the use of riot control
agents. The old laws that allow us to tear a human body apart with machine guns but
disallow the use of nonlethal choking agents are nothing short of immoral and ridiculous.
Combat support (CS) gas is a superb weapon for urban fighting, and every soldier in
tomorrows city fight should have it or its equivalent.

However we get at it, we must become adept at forcing the enemy out of his position. As
the enemy sorties, we engage him. This engagement might take the form of arrest, dispersal
or destruction, depending on the situation, but the key is to build a tactical system of attack
that avoids assault. Obviously there will be exceptions to this technique--scenarios in which
assaults are unavoidable--but the overall approach must avoid assaults to keep friendly
casualties low.

Robotics seem to offer much potential for future urban warfare. The development of
robotics in the military has been slow, especially in the area of ground robotics. From a
developmental standpoint, the great bane of robotics is that once someone conceives a
simple device, the bureaucratic acquisition system cannot restrain itself from hanging every
device from a weather gauge to a recoilless rifle on it. The ground robotics of tomorrows
interagency task force, rather than being built to accommodate the "perfect solution"
(which will be too heavy and too expensive for anyone to use), need instead to be simple,
modular devices that can get into doors and windows. The commander on the ground can
use such a device for mapping, for reconnaissance, for spraying CS gas or for explosively
collapsing a building as required by hanging the right module on it.

One of the most paradoxical aspects of urban fighting is the topic of rules of engagement
(ROE). Because ROE operate in the realm of human interaction, they do not work
according to linear logic. In physics, if I want to move a mass from point A to point B, I
apply force, and the mass moves as directed. In social sciences, applying force might make
the mass move forward, move backward or simply stay put weeping. Humans do not react
according to linear logic. Hence, our ROE, which are aimed at protecting noncombatants
from the dangers of combat, often have exactly the opposite effect: they put people at risk.
This became clear in Mogadishu as the enemy made use of women and children as human
shields. Knowing that American GIs would avoid hurting noncombatants, the enemy took
refuge behind them. The perverse picture of a prone thug firing his AK-47 through the legs
of his adolescent son is the product of the very rules of engagement that strive to protect the

When we finally come to grips with this paradox, we can progress in the art and science of
urban warfare. The use of nonlethals to clear combatants out of the danger zone is one step
in the right direction, but another involves toning down our ROE. Future forces should
operate from a generally benevolent policy of avoiding noncombatant casualties. We
should, however, make it clear to all that anyone in the red zone is at risk, and that we will
not endanger the friendly force by unduly restricting him with ROE. When it becomes clear
to noncombatants that they are a heartbeat away from death or dismemberment when in the
vicinity of a fight, they will tend to avoid such areas--thus achieving what our vaunted ROE

The path to creating interagency task forces that excel at urban operations calls for an
institutional approach. Within the Armys Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC),
various schools and centers most often gain proponency for various issues. One of the keys
to successful urban operations is to assign proponency to the right school or schools.
Unfortunately, because we view urban fighting through the lens of World War II, we tend
to reduce it to a problem of clearing rooms. The combat arms schools and centers therefore
have too much influence over the development of urban doctrine within TRADOC. To an
infantryman, military operations in urbanized terrain (MOUT) involves some form of
breaking down a door and spraying a room with machine guns. While such tactics might
indeed be a part--a miniscule part--of future urban operations, it is by no means the whole.
Proponency for urban operations within TRADOC should rest with the Intelligence branch.
Future urban operations will be all about intelligence, not assaults.

As for force structure, we must get beyond the great myth of urban operations that city
fighting calls for light infantry. Yet another product of misreading military history, this
myth is pervasive in almost every discussion about MOUT today. Light forces are not the
answer for the urban environment. Heavy forces are just as often the right solution, but the
optimal solution is a medium weight, mechanized force. The information age siege requires
that the enemy, once found, be quickly surrounded. High velocity, protected movement is
key to successful sieges, and light forces are incapable of such movement in most cases.
The protected mobility of mechanized infantry, combined with the firepower and mobility
of tanks, make a good basis for force structure. In order to be truly effective, however, the
base must grow into a fully integrated joint and interagency task force.

It is time to tell Sun Tzu to sit down. Storming the walls of an agrarian age city may indeed
have been both unwise and avoidable, but fighting in the 21st century absolutely requires
urban operations. If we take Sun Tzus bad advice, we will continue to conduct urban
operations reluctantly, using an avoidance-based doctrine of assault tactics. We must
instead embrace the city fight as our optimum scenario and cultivate the art and science of
information age siege tactics. Just as the Army learned to own the night instead of fearing
it, so also must we own the city. Tomorrows objective is not the top of a hill; it lies in the
middle of a city block, surrounded by noncombatants.

LT. COL. ROBERT R. LEONHARD, USA Ret., a writer and consultant, has published
many articles and several books on military strategy and land warfare. He has also taught
military science at West Virginia University.