Leadership: City Fight

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November 4, 2021: While the new Russian Threat to NATO is quite different from the Cold War version, there is still the possibility of ground combat. The Russians no longer have 30 first rate combat divisions stationed in eastern Germany and the Russian Army is, for the first time, smaller than the American Army in peacetime. To make matters worse, the Americans also have better equipment, better training and more combat experience.

One thing has not changed. While the Russian ground forces are unlikely to reach western Europe, they are a very real threat to eastern European NATO members. The most vulnerable are the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Poland. One thing these NATO members have in common with the original NATO members to the west is the nature of their urban areas. The Baltics and Poland feature lots of new construction since the 1990s, and most of their population now lives in urban areas. This annoys the Russians, who have done less well economically since 1991. Attacking the Baltics or Poland will mean a lot of urban warfare.

NATO is very familiar with urban warfare and appreciates what the Russians would be up against. NATO has long considered MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) a major issue even after the end of Cold War and after the post-2001 fighting, especially in Iraq. In the future, there will be more fighting in urban areas, which means lots of sturdy buildings and narrow streets. The importance of MOUT was noted back during the 1980s when it was realized that a war with the Soviet Union in Europe would involve a lot more fighting in built-up (urban) areas than in the open. That was discovered when a staff study revealed that West Germany was rapidly urbanizing and the construction was largely cement and steel, creating structures that made better bunkers for defenders. Fortunately NATO was preparing to play defense against an expected Russian invasion. About the same time, Russian planners noted the same urbanization trends in West Europe and realized that there was nothing similar in Russian occupied East Europe, which made the Russians more vulnerable to a NATO counter-offensive. What was discovered after 2010 was that these two trends merged in Eastern Europe with a lot of the most difficult combat taking place in newly built urban areas. Moreover a lot, if not most, of the growth in urbanization took place in areas that were most likely to be future combat zones.

A few years before the Cold War ended, the U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned (CALL) was established so U.S. commanders could use it to determine what works in combat and what doesn't based on past (decades or last week) experience. This is more important than ever in the 21st century, where urban combat and counter-insurgency conflicts dominate, and new technologies appear at a rapid rate. In urban warfare and counter-insurgency, the potential for mistakes to be made is exponentially larger than in conventional, large-scale warfare.

Another major problem with urban warfare has been having a decent place to train for it. The West solved this problem but the Russians could not because of budget problems. The U.S. Army and Marines began building training areas for MOUT at great expense. What drives the cost up is the need to install equipment so you can video most of the action, the better to critique the troops after they win, lose or are "killed." And special building materials are used to allow the use of low power training bullets and practice hand grenades. While having these facilities is great for the units that can be brought in, there is still the hassle of shipping infantry units to them.

One solution to the cost and availability problem is portable urban combat trainers called "Mobile MOUT." Shipping containers were converted to modules that can be endlessly reconfigured for training. The containers are 2.44 meter (8-feet) wide by 2.75 meter (9-feet) high by 6.1 meter (20-feet long) and have movable walls that allow quick reconfiguration for whatever MOUT training is desired. The containers can also be joined side-by-side, or stacked to create multi-story buildings. There are also reconfigurable stairways (open or enclosed), allowing the troops to learn to deal with the tricky business of fighting up and down stairwells.

The containers can be covered with brick, stucco, cinderblock or other facades to enhance realism. Plywood interior lining is realistic and enables the use of short-range (low power) training ammunition for live-fire scenarios. You can do a lot of training with just one or two containers, or build your own little town with up to 30 or 40 buildings composed of 100 or more containers. All the containers come equipped with cameras, microphones, motion detectors, smoke and smell generators. Everything is recorded in a digital format, both video and audio, for the after-action critique. For this, two containers can be put together, with one providing a control room in the rear and the other a 30-seat theater, featuring large screen displays, in front. The first two of these MOUT training containers were sent to Afghanistan by 2003. There were actually a lot of MOUT operations in Afghanistan, as Special Forces or infantry stage raids on compounds suspected of harboring Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. Each MOUT training container costs about $140,000 (if you buy a 15-container set).

As a result of all this realistic training, both the Army and Marines developed new tactics for MOUT battles, and needed the specialized training areas to teach the troops how it's done, and to work on improving current tactics and maintaining skills. One thing learned in Afghanistan was that you can't have too much practice when it comes to MOUT. It's a tricky business, with ample opportunity for getting ambushed, and for friendly fire losses. You must have well thought out, and combat proven, drills, and the troops must be well practiced in their use.

This led the Marines to spend $15 million on expanding its MOUT facilities at Camp Lejune, North Carolina. The expansion area contains 75 buildings, most of them constructed to allow for repeated urban warfare training. The new facility was ready by late 2009. The Army and Marines spent several hundred million dollars over five years, to construct these urban training areas. Even in Afghanistan, a lot of the fighting gets done in, or around, buildings. To get troops ready for this kind of combat, you need training areas that mimic the urban terrain that will be encountered in the battle zone.

It turns out that with the revived emphasis on fighting modern combat forces and using MOUT, combat experience is invaluable for defending as well as attacking. The American solution is not to fight in the city like the Germans and Russians did in Stalingrad. Even during World War II, the Americans realized they had the firepower (bombers and artillery) to level any city that refused to surrender. This was how ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was driven out of Mosul and Raqqa. Even when forced into a MOUT situation, the Americans developed weapons, like tanks specially equipped for MOUT, and heavy use of smart bombs, guided missiles and GPS guided artillery shells. This last weapon was key to the 2017 defeat of ISIL in Raqqa, their capital in eastern Syria. The Kurds provided the ground forces but the U.S. supplied air support and, more importantly, a battery of 155mm howitzers firing GPS guided shells. There were several batteries (each with six towed howitzers) that were rotated into Syria for this support work. Some of those howitzers fired so many shells that the barrels wore out. The city fighting was most intense towards the end but all those precision weapons kept Kurd casualties down (about a thousand dead) while ISIL lost at least 3,000 dead and were forced out of the city.

The Russians learned the same lesson in Chechnya. In the early 1990s, they attempted to take the capital city (Grozny, or “dread” in English) and failed because the Chechens went full MOUT on them. The Russians came back in 1999 and took Grozny after turning the city into a pile of rubble. That took months and the Chechens could not expect NATO or anyone else to reinforce them. The eastern European NATO members noted this with great interest, as did Chechnya southern neighbor Georgia. While independent after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Georgia got into a border dispute with Russia that resulted in a brief Russian incursion in 2008. The Russians were described as “overrunning the country in a few days”. The Russians did not. They occupied the bits of Georgia they wanted and did not advance on the Georgian capital which the Russians knew would be stubbornly defended by “crazy Georgians.” Josef Stalin was a Georgian and is still a national hero in Georgia, not because he ruled the Soviet Union for three decades but because he got so many Russians killed.

Russian military planners are also well aware that NATO countries have a lot more practical experience in MOUT and can afford to build realistic MOUT training facilities. Estonia, the most likely target for a Russian attack, has access to all this, as well as unofficial assistance from its non-NATO neighbors (especially Finland, but also Sweden). That unofficial aid will be most valuable getting the video evidence of Russian activities out to the world. It’s not just vampires that cannot operate in daylight (although in East Europe there are legends of a type of vampire that can, so there you are).

 


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