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Developing Basics for Future Urban Operations

The British Army has a long history of conducting urban operations (UO) and adapting to the unique challenges the urban environment poses.  The Army has continued to adapt in spite of a focus on less urbanised counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.  This is evidenced by the release of new editions of urban doctrine in 2009 and 2016 which drew on lessons from conflicts around the world.

This article highlights why getting the basics of close quarter battle training and doctrine right is so important.  It sets out the context of urban operations highlighting the critical importance of low-level skills and shows why they will be decisive in the urban environment.  It then explores how land forces can modernise and standardise close quarter battle training by presenting an initiative to up-skill the force.

Doctrinal context

The British Army currently does not have an effective conduit for translating UO doctrine into effective tactical training.  Nor is the Army completely set on exactly which doctrine to follow.  This problem is particularly noticeable with close quarters battle (CQB) doctrine and there have been multiple publications offering different methods:

  • In 2011, a document called Pamphlet 3 – Operations in Built Up Areas (OBUA) was released featuring more advanced CQB tactics than the Army’s standard of the time
  • In 2016, the Urban Tactical Handbook was published featuring tactics replicated from the Royal Marine CQB Instructors pamphlet
  • Also in 2016, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment began to disseminate tactics notes for subterranean warfare heavily featuring CQB tactics for clearing tunnels and underground spaces
  • In 2020, the British Army’s Infantry Battle School (IBS) published “slate cards” to support their Urban Operations Instructor Course (UOIC). These feature tactics that are different from that of the Urban Tactical Handbook and OBUA pamphlet
  • Finally, there is the legacy of the Afghanistan-specific compound clearing drills

Whilst this shows the British Army is committed to learning it presents an incoherent approach to urban operations.

It must be noted that when discussing “close quarters battle”, this term refers to the skills of fighting in close proximity to the enemy within complex terrain.  This may be inside a building, in an alleyway, along a street, etc.  This is about the conduct of infantry fighting in urban terrain and more than simply room clearance.

Synopsis of the urban problem

The urban environment is the most complex terrain we can deploy into and urban operations are often the most complex to conduct.  UO’s are also characterised by “strategic compression” whereby decisive actions occur at the lowest tactical levels, and actions here can have implications at the highest strategic levels, i.e. the Strategic Corporal. Because of these factors, what is required for successful UO’s is thinking soldiers.

Initiative, is a prized commodity in UOs.   It is something a soldier has only when they are fit calm & thinking.  The Infantry Battle School (IBS) currently owns the majority of UO tactical training in the military and it focuses on small unit leadership at section and platoon levels.  Currently “good” tactical UO leadership looks like a section commander physically pushing soldiers into rooms to clear them whilst barking orders down corridors to others.  Wrongly, this drives a culture of micromanagement which in UOs can be extremely dangerous.  This reduces a section commander’s wider situational awareness whilst robbing section members of their initiative.

The section/platoon commander has many concerns competing for their finite cognitive capacity:

  • Front Line of Enemy/Own Troops marking
  • Wider battle orientation
  • Situationally aware on communications networks
  • Resupply route maintenance and security

To be successful, they must train to trust their soldiers’ micro movements so that they can lead from ‘the decisive point’ not necessarily from the front.

Information angle?

UO’s often involve partnering with allied and indigenous forces, local agencies, and local communities, all of which will have differing views of the occupying force. Inappropriate uses of force inside an urban community will rapidly change the views of local people turning them from friendly to hostile.  These mistakes can be exploited by our adversaries on the information layer.  Maintaining a formation capable of simultaneously providing peacekeeping, host nation mentoring, and all-out offensive operations is difficult.  It requires a human solution set against a human problem and cannot be solved by technology.  Creating leaders who understand this requires a training system and the freedom to think.  Junior leaders should not be weighed under the mental strain of issuing micro-orders to their soldiers.  Our approach needs to change to correct our course.

Issue 1: Adversary Mass and Potential Quality

Our adversaries are engaged in weapon proliferation, research, and design.  This includes specific urban-centric weapons such as the BMP-T and dismounted thermobaric weapons.  Many offer military support to favourable regimes as a vehicle for testing their equipment.  Additionally, many adversaries are larger than any deployed UK force and have access to arsenals that far exceed our own, in mass if not quality, but sometimes both.  As such, now more than ever, our focus should be on quality.


By Nucl0id – http://nucl0id.livejournal.com/98788.html#cutid1, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9102884

Issue 2: Subterranean Warfare

Subterranean (SbT) warfare is an inherently tactical activity.  Brigades and divisions do not fight underground.  Tanks, aircraft, and artillery cannot clear SbT spaces. Small bands of infantry do.  The clearance of SbT networks is an issue of two parts; the tactics and the equipment required to support it.

Tactically SbT combat is ‘close combat in an enclosure’ and the tactics do not change from inside that of a building to inside a subterranean network.  Clearing around cover is clearing around cover.  Combined arms and joint enablers cannot make up for a lack of combat skill.  Yet these skills need to be taught properly.

Additionally, the British Army does not have an unarmed combat system that could be employed leaving a training gap.

Israel Defence Force picture of captured Hamas tunnels. Used under CC license.

Equipment: current ISR and C2 technologies are incapable of supporting subterranean operations.  Therefore, it forces greater demands on old-fashioned C2 at the lowest tactical levels.  It is up to the frontline soldiers to scout ahead, fight, and coordinate.

Committing to an unofficial, human-made SbT network would be something that should not be taken lightly or on the spur of the moment.  You are committing soldiers down a hole that you know nothing about and without the slightest guarantee of a tangible military success.

If the British Army wishes to contest SbT spaces rather than just secure and by-pass (and there are valid arguments for that), then this requires greater investment at the lowest level.

Steps in the right direction

The Royal Marines, after having spent time on training exercises with the USMC, used some of the formulated tactics to write their own training manual and create their own Close Quarter Battle Instructors Course.  This is a six-week course covering marksmanship, tactics, and teach-backs.  It was the first of its kind in the UK’s “green military” and it raised the standard of CQB skills across the Royal Marines.

The Royal Air Force, with help from the RM, created a similar course aimed at the issues they face when protecting aircraft and their crews whilst on the ground called the Complex Air Ground Environment (CAGE).  Both the RAF and RM courses share similar testing standards and have been operating for more than ten years.  Both of these courses result in qualifications that are recognised in personnel records.

Image: British Army Crown Copyright

The British Army is lagging behind.  Currently, IBS delivers the Urban Operations Instructors Course for Defence which is a three-week course covering UO’s at the tactical and operational levels.  This course deals with larger-scale combined arms operations within the urban environment.  An example of this would be how sub-units get from ‘the wood line’ to the target building and integrate with other assets.  While these elements set them apart from the RAF/RM courses, there are no tests and students are encouraged to go back to their units and ‘experiment’.  It is this experimentation that has led the British Army to its current state of incoherence demonstrated by the range of doctrine noted at the start of this article.  Currently the British Army lacks the corporate knowledge to achieve CQBI in less than four weeks.

Further steps along the road

In late 2020, the Coldstream Guards sponsored a six-week test course to trial the concept of an Army close quarter battle instructors course.  The stated aim was to assess if there is “utility in delivering an Army CQBI course, as a coherent mechanism for promulgating enclosure clearance TTP’s”.  The course included marksmanship tests witnessed by a representative from the Army’s Small Arms School Corps and tactics tests overseen by instructors who had completed the RM and RAF courses previously mentioned.

The course breakdown was as follows:

  • Week one: A foundation covering close quarters marksmanship theory, equipment, ballistics & terminal, psychology, and an overview of subject history.
  • Week two and three: Static close quarter rifle & pistol a week respectively , culminating in a pass/fail tests.
  • Week four: Basic tactics.
  • Week five: Instructor teach-backs with students delivering battle lessons. Their understanding of subject matter was assessed as well as their delivery.
  • Week six: Advanced tactics and innovation.

The UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory were invited to trial new equipment and explore urban-centric concepts with the, now trained, students.  The students were also encouraged to innovate and try new tactics.  Importantly, this experimentation is conducted during the course and under the supervision of the experienced instructors, creating a fast lessons loop.

What we learned along the way

Firstly, the course demonstrated the gulf that exists between our junior leaders and the current tactical and close quarters marksmanship standards.  For example, there was a 40% failure rate for pistol shooting tests due to a lack of familiarity with the weapon.  There was also a clear lack of standardised knowledge of basic tactics including the basic “stack”.  These factors alone demonstrate the need for more low-level training.  With other infantry tactics being standardised across the Army, close quarter battle should be no different.

Secondly, it demonstrated that our training estate, ranges, and accompanying safety procedures are not capable of supporting the training and tactics they mention.  Many UK military ranges are not compliant with close quarter shooting requirements and our urban training villages lack the infrastructure needed.

Having just read a laydown of the course, you could be forgiven for assuming that a student’s ability to pass the tests was linked to being an accomplished soldier. However, we learned that success at close quarters was not linked specifically to marksmanship or tactical knowledge.

Individual success was linked to the ability of the student to assimilate what we were teaching them at pace.  It is this pace which mirrors close quarter violence and being able to react to your team mates micro movements; “your dynamism” wins the battle. You fight for each square metre of enclosure.

Royal Marines conducting urban experiments. MOD photo.

Final thoughts

The Infantry Battle School’s urban operations instructors course and subject breadth is excellent and remain world class.  Nowhere else in defence can assets like amour and fast air be integrated into training specifically for urban operations.  However, the absence of a close quarters battle instructors course delivered at divisional level means that there is a training gap in the foundational skills this course should build on.

The requirement for a universal, distinct, low-level close quarter battle course should not be ignored.  Technology alone cannot protect us from the human devised aggressions that inevitably manifest in conflict.  Betting on technology over human ingenuity in urban close combat will likely result in failure.  Both the RM and RAF have identified gaps in their capabilities and have addressed the need.  The Army will provide the majority of troops in any future urban emergency or conflict, so these skills should be trained to prepare for likely future operations.  Close quarters battle should not be considered niche but rather a force protection and war fighting capability which we simply must assimilate now.

Dave Wimbush

Dave is a Colour Sergeant in the Coldstream Guards with operational experience in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan. He has also worked as a close protection officer, in acute trauma in Iraq.

He became disillusioned and confused by “compound clearance” drills whilst studying on the Army chartered degree managers and decided to learn more to affect change.

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