Ready for What? … Will Street Fighting be in Our Future?

March 23, 1999

Comment: #248

Discussion Thread:  #s 244 & 194 (Ref. 3)


[1] George C. Wilson, "MILITARY at the MILLENNIUM: Services Mobilize New Ideas for New Century —Marines Practice Fighting in Cities Where Death Is Around the Corner," LEGI-SLATE News Service, March 19, 1999.

Sometime around 400B.C., in the first book ever written on the theory and conduct of war, Sun Tzu, laid out four strategic priorities for fighting. According to the great master, the best military policy is to attack the enemy's plans, next best is to disrupt his alliances, after that attack his army, and finally, attack cities only when there is no alternative.

Sun Tzu's strategic aim was to subdue the enemy without fighting, like Napoleon did at Ulm and Hitler did at Munich or, if fighting was necessary, to avoid protracted war, like Molke did in France in 1870, Israel did in 1967, and Mohammad Aideed did in Somalia, but America failed to do in Vietnam and Israel failed to do in Lebanon.

Zhang You, one of Sun Tzu's commentators, elaborated on the great master's reasoning by saying, "The siege of cities and the butchering of towns not only ages the army and wastes resources, it also has a lot of casualties, so it is the lowest form of attack. When you besiege a city, then your power will be used up in that, so you do it only if it is absolutely necessary, as a last resort [Sun Tzu (translated by Thomas Cleary), The Art of War, Shambhala Press, 1988, pg. 71]."

One reason why urban fighting is so costly in lives is that a city is like a complex fortress. In fact, the more you destroy a city, the powerful a defensive position it becomes, because irregular rubble replaces more regular buildings, and as attackers learned at Montecasino, the disorderly rubble makes it much more difficult for the attacker to orient himself to the defender's potential and actual positions. A second reason is that the attacker is fighting on the defender's home turf and, consequently, as the battles in Stalingrad, Beirut, Mogadishu, and Grozny showed, the defender has a general advantage in orientation that is difficult, if not impossible, for the attacker to overcome.

Nevertheless some people believe urban warfare (fighting in cities) will become more frequent in the 21st Century for the simple reason that 70 percent of the world's people will be living in cities or urban slums in 2010. Moreover, recent successes of irregular indigenous forces in chaotic close-quarters urban combat may teaching potential adversaries how to use the urban environment to entrap a techno-centric America military that is increasingly addicted to the false god of a Technological Revolution in Military Affairs that will eliminate the fog, confusion, and blood of battle.

The Marines, to their credit, are trying to understand the nature of the urban beast that seems to be beckoning. In the attached article, George Wilson provides an interesting description of a recent experimental exercise in urban warfare conducted by the Marines in Oakland California. Two points are immediately obvious: First, the attacking force suffered 70% casualties. Second, the healthy intellectual process of working a tough problem with a low-cost limited objective experiment, where a mold-breaking experimenter builds knowledge by probing reality the old fashioned way — by trial and error, success and failure.

Excerpts from the reference:

Will the American people ever support any kind of urban warfare operations where American casualties approach 70 percent? LEGI-SLATE News Service asked that question of Marine Col. Gary Anderson, Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which designed the Urban Warrior exercises recently run at the California cities of Monterey, Alameda and Oakland for a total cost of $7 million...

Anderson reflected for a few seconds and then declared: "We may never recover psychologically from Desert Storm until we end up in a real war some day. The expectation of bloodless warfare [generated by the light casualties of Desert Storm] is going to be a burden to carry with us for a long time.

The fighting will be in "the cities and slums, places that the Marine Corps, the Army and the Air Force" have avoided. "Our present doctrine is not to go into the cities. Why? Because it's so deadly. All you have to do is look at Leningrad, Hue City, Groznyy.

"What we're trying to do is say, 'OK. Seventy percent of the world's population in the year 2010 will either live in either cities or urban slums within 300 miles of the coastline. Obviously, then, the Marine Corps doctrine of avoiding the cities is not going to work. The enemy is not going to allow it. Their center of gravity is going to be in the cities." (Quoting then-Commandant of the USMC Gen Charles C. Krulak)

End Excerpts

Chuck Spinney

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