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Charles Knight on how the West can reduce the destructiveness of urban warfare

daftandbarmy

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What's old is new again....

Charles Knight on how the West can reduce the destructiveness of urban warfare​

The military expert says robotics and smoke offer an edge to Western soldiers​

THE SMOULDERING ruins of Mariupol bear witness to how slow, difficult and bloody urban combat is. Efforts to make progress against a prepared defender invariably default to bombardment and bitter close combat. Holding back firepower only makes the fight slower and bloodier, with more military and civilian casualties. This ethical dilemma and the arithmetical inadequacy of today’s small armies to fight in big cities may explain why Western forces have shunned preparing to do so. This is despite a need for specialist equipment being obvious during battles like those for Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. Ukraine is a wake-up call.
Can Western armies use new technologies to reduce reliance not only on destructive artillery and air strikes, but also our finite stocks of precision munitions? Western armies have for some years used or tested not just drones, but robotic platforms, thermal-vision systems and related specialist equipment. So have China and Russia, with the latter testing Uncrewed Ground Vehicles (UGV) in combat in Syria. The technologies are no more mature than flying machines were in 1914, but in the hands of trained soldiers they promise an edge that our professional armies could plausibly maintain.

Powerful factors are driving warfare into cities: global urbanisation, the political significance of cities, their role as communication hubs and conflict amongst their populations. These all increase the likelihood and complexity of urban war. Compounding this, some combatants seek protection by operating close to civilians. As surveillance systems become increasingly adept at detecting targets in natural environments, urban areas still offer concealment. The widespread adoption of drones only increases their value.

In Ukraine soldiers now instinctively scan the sky before emerging from buildings. Yet little else of urban war is new, not the deadly exposure of streets and pervasive threat from surrounding buildings, nor the proximity of enemies, nor the danger when entering a building. Any corridor, room or staircase may conceal an explosive trap or a lurking enemy. The formula to make progress in such an environment has not changed either.

During the 1848 uprising in Milan, Austrian soldiers were picked off by revolutionaries with rifled muskets from upper windows. Progress required the soldiers to bring up cannon to batter defended buildings while others knocked holes through the walls to advance out of sight. Such urban tactics are forgotten and rediscovered every few decades. When jihadists seized Marawi in the Philippines in 2017, the Filipino armoured vehicles sent to respond were destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades fired from above. Soldiers advancing on foot were halted by sniper fire and then blown up by improvised explosive devices. The Filipinos learned. It took months of burrowing through buildings, constructing walls across fire-swept roads and systematically blasting each part of every building with artillery or aircraft bombs before the city was recaptured.

The early urban fighting in Ukraine appears to have followed a similar form. Defenders ambush attackers from in and around buildings. The latter suffer excessive casualties if they try to advance without massive prior bombardment. They must strike not only their next objective but also target any overlooking buildings from where defenders might shoot. As in the trenches during the first world war, this shelling stops as the attackers try to rush the stunned defenders before they can get out of their underground bunkers. But even if they succeed, the defenders’ artillery joins the fight and prevents the attackers from reinforcing or exploiting their advance. This pattern explains the slow progress.

One solution is to use robots. In the Winter War with Finland in 1939-40, the Soviet Union fielded a battalion of primitive radio-controlled “Teletanks”. These UGVs played a key role in breaking the Finnish defensive line, but development ceased with Stalin’s purges and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In contrast, during the second world war the Germans developed wire- and radio-controlled armoured engineering vehicles for delivering large high-explosive demolition charges. These played an important part in destroying the Soviet defences of Sevastopol.

However, such UGVs had to be controlled at a distance by operators who were usually unable to see obstacles in front of the vehicle. This was overcome in the 1970s by bomb-disposal robots with cameras. In Iraq in the 2000s America’s forces rapidly adapted from these a variety of small scouting UGVs. Today there are vehicles that are agile, armoured and armed with cannon that can hit a door 2km awayall while the operator remains in cover. These will transform tactics by moving ahead of soldiers to seek and shoot.

Another approach is “invisibility”—hiding in smoke while seeing. In Western armies, the use of smoke to cover urban manoeuvres was once extensive but declined in the 1980s because of concerns over the toxic chemicals that were used. Yet thermal vision goggles can see through certain types of smoke cloud and “rebreather” equipment makes it possible to survive in them. Simple rockets with parachutes (to minimise risk to civilians as they fall) can swathe whole streetscapes in smoke. Suitably-equipped soldiers would be at an advantage.

The synergy of smoke-exploiting technologies and UGVs offers tactical opportunities. On the street, smoke hides moving soldiers, reducing the need for suppressive bombardment. UGVs can lead attacks, invisibly enveloping adversaries and clearing safe paths for infantry. If an enemy surrounded in this fashion does not withdraw, or hides below ground, their “defenders’ advantage” in a smoke-filled room-by-room, building-by-building fight degrades. They see little but are bright infra-red images in attackers’ eyepieces.

Such tactics offer a leap ahead in an urban environment for which armies are, at present, poorly prepared.They reduce reliance on bombardment and the consequent moral and political hazards of inflicting civilian casualties. Furthermore, robotics allow outnumbered Western armies to better confront enemies. Mastering such a fight will be very demanding, requiring initiative and technically competent soldiers with high levels of training. Yet this exactly describes Western professional armies, and would be hard for adversary armies to match. ■

Dr Charles Knight is a senior researcher at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and a lecturer in terrorism, asymmetric conflict and urban operations at Charles Sturt University. He previously served with the British and Australian armed forces.

Charles Knight on how the West can reduce the destructiveness of urban warfare
 

brihard

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Fight with robots and we’ll just blow up the city to kill the other guy’s robots. Fight with smoke and everyone will eventually get thermals and kill each other anyway.

You want to reduce the devastation of urban combat? Don’t fight in the city. Defeat the enemy outside of it, if you can (logistics, willpower)… But if they’re motivated, you probably can’t. See Mariupol.

We fight for things worth fighting for and we fight in places that are worth fighting over. Cities are transportation and logistical hubs, population centers, air and seaports and river crossings. They also provide tons of cover and concealment.

Thinking we won’t wreck cities in a real war is hopeless fantasy.
 

Ostrozac

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A few unmanned vehicles and some smoke grenades wouldn't have kept Mosul in one piece, and it sure won’t save Seoul if things kick off on the DMZ. Wishful thinking, at best.
 

GR66

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Fight with robots and we’ll just blow up the city to kill the other guy’s robots. Fight with smoke and everyone will eventually get thermals and kill each other anyway.

You want to reduce the devastation of urban combat? Don’t fight in the city. Defeat the enemy outside of it, if you can (logistics, willpower)… But if they’re motivated, you probably can’t. See Mariupol.

We fight for things worth fighting for and we fight in places that are worth fighting over. Cities are transportation and logistical hubs, population centers, air and seaports and river crossings. They also provide tons of cover and concealment.

Thinking we won’t wreck cities in a real war is hopeless fantasy.
Robots might be tactically useful but I can't see being able to scale up their use in any meaningful way for major urban combat. Counter terrorism and counter insurgency? Maybe, but I just see robots slowing down operations more than anything.

Smoke and thermal vision on the other hand are definitely things we should have more of in my mind. That and crap tons of HE.
 

KevinB

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Smoke tends to obscure Thermal
imagers - just like glass…

Military Thermal Imagers aren’t the same sort of things as Thermal Detectors - as the resolution on the detector is significantly less.

Current TI’s can give facial resolution for target discrimination, which used to be just the high end Image intensifying sights.
 

SeaKingTacco

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Genghis Khan had a foolproof method of urban combat.

His armies would surround a city and emissaries would be sent in, offering a surrender. If the city surrendered immediately, they had to pay tribute and, but otherwise: welcome to the Mongol Empire!

If they refused to surrender (or harmed the emissaries in any way) the city would be engaged with long range siege weapons and leveled; the inhabitants killed and/or enslaved.

Modern western militaries cannot level cities, but what we can do is encircle/bypass.
 

GR66

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Genghis Khan had a foolproof method of urban combat.

His armies would surround a city and emissaries would be sent in, offering a surrender. If the city surrendered immediately, they had to pay tribute and, but otherwise: welcome to the Mongol Empire!

If they refused to surrender (or harmed the emissaries in any way) the city would be engaged with long range siege weapons and leveled; the inhabitants killed and/or enslaved.

Modern western militaries cannot level cities, but what we can do is encircle/bypass.
Except when the city itself is the objective.
 

GR66

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Is it really?

If you encircle the city, do you have to enter, necessarily?
Ask Vladimir Putin. Sometimes the military objectives are political objectives and have timelines attached.

Did we leave ISIS in control of Mosul? Did the Philippine Government leave Abu Sayyaf in charge of Marawi?

And sometimes the city you need to take is your own. Should the Ukrainians level Kherson [edited to add:] from the perimeter, or starve them out?
 
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Ostrozac

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The whole “encircle and bypass” thing works in some areas, but not very many. Sometimes urban sprawl means one city connects to another which connects to another. Sometimes the bridge, highway or rail yard you need to continue your advance is located in the center of the city. Sometimes natural obstacles like mountains or lakes block your path and prevent you from going around.

So, sometimes, you fight in a city.
 

SeaKingTacco

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Ask Vladimir Putin. Sometimes the military objectives are political objectives and have timelines attached.

Did we leave ISIS in control of Mosul? Did the Philippine Government leave Abu Sayyaf in charge of Marawi?

And sometimes the city you need to take is your own. Should the Ukrainians level Kherson [edited to add:] from the perimeter, or starve them out?
I don’t know.

I am thinking out loud.
 

GK .Dundas

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I get the distinct impression that the author doesn't seem to believe that the "other guy "gets a vote on the decision as where the fight takes place.
 

OldSolduer

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Is it really?

If you encircle the city, do you have to enter, necessarily?
That depends - if its the other guy's city well that depends too.

Ghengis was a man of his times. His solution would not be looked upon kindly today.
 
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