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Posted on Oct 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 020 – Urban Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


HUE 1968


Urban operations did not suddenly appear with the 3rd Infantry Division Thunder Run into Baghdad or with Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah.  For example, let’s throw these out from World War II:  Warsaw, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Palermo, Brest, Arnhem, Ortona, and Berlin.  Or here are some more recent examples: Saigon, Hue, Belfast, Beirut, Panama City, Kuwait City, Mogadishu, Port Au Prince, Sajajevo, and Grozny.  This is certainly an abbreviated list.  So why the focus on urban fighting, when the great Sun Tzu said it is the ‘worst policy’? 

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Well, here are some reasons: 1) Many times an attacker must simply maneuver to where his opponent is defending.  A force that feels inferior will often chose to fight in an urban area in order to negate his disadvantages. Additionally, they believe they can benefit from the presence of civilian non-combatants in the area.  Consequently, a force may have to travel and fight against the ‘home field advantage’.  2) Because of its’ size, an urban area may offer key resources an attacker wants or wants to take away from his opponent.  3) The urban area may have a significant role in the culture of a society.  Consequently, a force may feel that the seizure of the area could mentally defeat the foe.  Of course, this can always have the opposite effect and ignite a population.  4)  Finally, the location of the area may be in the direct path of a force to its’ final objective.  A commander may decide bypassing the area is not an option and is forced to attack.

On the flipside, there are several persuasive reasons why not to attack an urban area.  These include:  1) If the area poses no significant threat to a unit’s ability to maneuver and seize its’ ultimate objective; then a bypass is the right decision.  2)  If you do have the resources to succeed in the urban area, then why would you attempt it?  Unfortunately, that logic has not always prevailed as history has shown.  3)  Perhaps, the area has been designated an open city to prevent civilian casualties or preserve cultural sites.  If this is the case, the defender leaves and the attacker assumes admin control.


If you have to conduct operations in an urban area, you will face many challenges.  These challenges include:

• Very often, subordinate units are dispersed in time and space.  Urban operations often consist of clusters of small unit engagements.  Thus, the higher headquarters is challenged in trying to exercise overall command and control or provide assistance (with his assets) to subordinates units.

• It is more difficult to determine who your opponent is.  Trying to differentiate combatant from non-combatant is difficult to say the least.  Many opponents will capitalize on this confusion.

• The risk of fratricide is higher during urban operations.  Units must take well planned steps to mitigate against that risk.

• The term ‘collateral damage’ is certainly relevant in the urban environment.  What infrastructure are you willing to destroy to defeat your enemy?  What is the effect of that destroyed infrastructure on the population once the fighting is over?  Wasn’t it General Powell who referred to fixing what you break?

• Related to the above is the difficulty of developing, communicating and enforcing a Rules of Engagement (ROE) in the urban environment.  This is fairly straight forward in a desert fight, but is complex when shifting to an urban operation with its added variables.

• It is essential civilian casualties are kept to a minimum. The death of a civilian greatly effects the perception of the people towards your unit.  Additionally, with almost simultaneous media coverage, an event such as this can have global repercussions.

• Urban operations fights are highly time-consuming.  They can last up to twice or three times as long to end than normal fights, the drain on all resources is huge.

• At some point, the fighting in an urban operation is going to finish.  Unless the victor plans to rubble the area (probably not the best choice) there must be prepared plans that address the transition from fighting to stabilization. There is a window of opportunity in most operations to do this.  If the window is allowed to close, this difficult task is made nearly impossible.


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