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Urban is Not Exceptional: A Response

In a recent article, Wilf Owen dismissed much of the recent writing about urban warfare, as misconceived, badly evidenced, and misguided. He fears that the ‘urbanistas’ are undermining the British Army by promulgating false lessons; they are trying to persuade the Army to specialise in urban operations, at the cost of most general tactical competence.

At one level, Owen’s fears are well-taken. At a time when the threats are increasing, but the Army is small and poorly equipped, it must develop a doctrine that maximises its traditional strengths so it can prevail on the battlefield. A serious debate about land warfare and the Army’s preparedness for it is essential. Wilf Owen has made a significant contribution in highlighting this point. He is a knowledgeable and honest observer. He deserves to be taken seriously.

In his article, Owen makes two central claims. Firstly, the urban environment is only one among many. Other environments are hard too. Indeed, against his ‘urbanistas’, he cites evidence designed to show that, in fact, urban may even be less demanding than other environments. For instance, he references David Rowlands’ research, which suggests that defenders have typically incurred more casualties in the urban battle than the attackers. Affirming the point, he gives the more recent examples of the Second Battle of Fallujah and the Battle of Marawi where more defenders were eventually killed than attackers. On the face of it, Owen seems to have a point. The urban exchange rate is not as bad as conventional wisdom would have it and may actually be favourable. Therefore, urban operations are not that difficult; relying on an urban defence is a mistake.

Urban combat: Armed soldiers walk through lit streets at night

Secondly, urban operations are no more likely now than in the past. Urban battles were common throughout the twentieth century in both inter-state war and counterinsurgency campaigns. They are common now. On the basis of these two claims, Owen professes a clear policy for the Army. Given its limited resourcing, the Army has to decide which environments it will prioritise. The Army should not prioritise urban; the Army should stick with traditional manoeuvre training in the field. Is Owen right?

The Likelihood of Urban Conflict

Let us take his second point first; are urban operations more likely today than in the twentieth century? Owen is correct that there was very significant urban fighting in the twentieth century. The Second World War was characterised by major engagements in the field, but there were a number of major urban battles; Stalingrad, Leningrad, Ortana, Manila, Aachen, Groningen, and Berlin.

Moreover, field operations are not irrelevant in 21st century inter-state warfare. Most of the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh War took place in the mountains and valleys in the south-east, where the Armenian forces were decimated trying to hold onto the Bagramyan and Ohanyan lines. During the current Russo-Ukraine War, the Kharkiv counteroffensive was successful precisely because the Ukrainian forces were able to manoeuvre in the field. During the Iraq invasion, US forces routinely engaged Iraqi army and Fedayeen outside urban areas. Their success lay in manoeuvring in the field.

in recent conflicts in Georgia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, in the fight against ISIS, Yemen, and in the current Russo-Ukraine, urban fighting has predominated.

There is no evidence that fighting will only ever take place in urban areas; and no commentator, whom I know, has ever suggested it. Yet, in recent conflicts in Georgia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, in the fight against ISIS, Yemen, and in the current Russo-Ukraine, urban fighting has predominated. The largest and most intense battles have occurred in and around cities. Why?

There are three reasons. Firstly, cities are simply much large than they used to. In 1960, the world population was three billion, of which half a billion lived in cities. Today, there are seven billion humans on the planet of whom, three and a half billion live in cities. It is operationally difficult for the armed forces to avoid proliferating urban areas, especially since they are so often the site of political conflict, alienation and immiseration. Secondly, whatever the casualty figures, there is a consensus that urban areas provide irregular – and regular – defenders, the best opportunity for evasion and protection from advanced surveillance systems.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to interstate warfare, armies have contracted. Military forces are now very small in comparison with their 20th century predecessors. The US Army, for instance, is about half the size it was at the end of the Cold War. Most European forces about a third or less what they were during the Cold War. The Russian Army, for its part, is only a tenth of the size of the Soviet Army. This might seem mundane, and yet it has profound implications for the geometry of military campaigns.

In the twentieth century, mass, citizen armies formed large fronts; most of the combat power was in the field and therefore, that is where most of the major battles took place. Periodically, they fought in the urban areas which punctuated the front – and sometimes, at Stalingrad or Berlin for instance, those urban battles developed into large engagements. In the twenty-first century, this geometry has been reversed.

Urban combat: A tank moves through streets

Today small, professional forces do not have the combat power to sustain large, dense fronts. Combatants now converge on urban areas, where key strategic, operational and tactical objectives are located. Sometimes forces have fought for major cities which are politically important, Mosul, Aleppo, Kyiv. However, more often they have struggled over small towns. These towns are significant because key roads, bridges or rail-junctions run through them. Unlike in the 20th century, they cannot be bypassed because the enemy garrisons within them can attack vulnerable lines of communication from them.

Today’s Russo-Ukraine War provides a vivid illustration of this process. In 1943-44, the Red Army which expelled the Wehrmacht was over three million soldiers strong. It was able to form a front right across the country from north to the south. There was significant fighting in various cities, including Kharkiv and Kyiv, but combat in the field predominated. Compare that with the current war. On 24 February 2022, the Russian Army invaded with a force of about 190,000, with a combat element of some 150,000 troops. Russian necessarily converged on decisive urban objectives, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Severodonetsk, and Mariupol, which Ukrainian forces, with a force of about 120,000 led by five highly capable brigades (i.e., about 30,000 – 40,000 troops) defended ferociously. The war converged on urban areas and continues to do so despite the efforts of both states to mobilise.

Owen argues that urban warfare is no more likely today than it was in the twentieth century. On this evidence, he is wrong. Land warfare has not become exclusively urban. Other environments such as deserts, jungles, mountains, and the Arctic, remain important. To be sure, British soldiers might fight in any of those environments. However, when deployed on a major campaign, the British Army is most likely to have to operate substantially in and from urban areas. With its extremely limited resources, it would seem wise to invest in the most likely scenario.

Urban Casualties

Is urban warfare easy? Even if urban is the most likely, this presents no problem according to Owen. Owen asserts that the data apparently shows that urban combat is, counter-intuitively, most disadvantageous to the defender, not the attacker. Defenders take more casualties. Military professionals and analysts are universally wrong in worrying about the difficulty of urban operations.

To prove his point, Owen cites David Rowlands analysis which itself draws upon a 1982 ‘Kings Ride’ study of urban combat. This study involved an analysis of 78 urban trials. The results showed that defenders lost. The Cold War era Berlin Brigade also did a trial when a platoon held a larger urban position, consisting of about 50 structures (including a large housing block), against a company with similar results; there were 27 experiments in this series. Defenders again lost heavily. There is no doubting the figures in themselves. The results showed that unsupported infantry in the defence incurred 3:1 casualties, in comparison with the attackers.

Urban combat: Soldiers defend from within a buildingThis trial evidence was supported by some historical examples. Rowlands, for instance, gave the example of the Grenadiers Guards attack on Heesch, a village of about twenty-five small buildings, on 25 September 1944. The defenders, a (probably under-strength) German infantry battalion with no anti-tank weapons, initially repulsed the attack of a patrol, destroying two tanks. The Grenadiers then attacked with two armoured companies after a heavy artillery bombardment: ‘as they advanced they fired almost uninterruptedly with small arms and their main armament of 75mm high explosive shells’. With 30 tanks against 15 machine guns, the defenders surrendered quickly with significant losses at an exchange rate of 25:1. The findings are clear. When light infantry defends a very small urban area against a larger force, with superior fire power and armour, they are likely to be defeated and to suffer heavy casualties.

Rowlands’ work is important and cannot be ignored. However, the evidence – valid though it is in itself – was drawn from a very limited scenario. In the Kings Ride study, the defenders were located in one building or a small number of buildings and attacked by a larger force, which practiced and repeated the action, improving their performance each time. It was closer to a house clearing trial, rather than a simulation of an urban battle. The same is true of the Berlin Brigade and the historical examples. In each case, the actions involved only a few buildings or took place in villages.

A genuine urban battle does not take place in a few buildings. Urban battles occur in much larger settlements. Military doctrine has suggested a population of 3,000 (at a density of about 400 people per square kilometre) is the lowest plausible number for a settlement to be called urban. Of course, many urban operations take place in towns and cities which are much larger, with populations of tens or hundreds of thousands.

Consequently, urban battles have not taken place in single buildings, nor in small villages like Heesch, but in much larger towns with complex topographies consisting of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of structures, road and rail systems, critical heavy infrastructure, tunnels etc. The increase in settlement size alters the challenge of urban operations profoundly; scale must therefore be recognised in any analysis of them.

urban operations in bigger settlements typically require numerical advantage (even if it is held in reserve), but, above all, fire superiority, and armour too.

As urban areas become larger, the defenders are no longer isolated and constricted, as they are when they fight from a few buildings. In a town of any size, combatants can conceal themselves with ease in any number of structures. Combatants can set up system of defence in depth, they can move between buildings, they can canalise attackers, and they are able to counter-attack into rear areas. Indeed, Rowlands himself noted the point. While he rejected static defence from isolated strongpoints, he recognised that ‘successful defence in urban areas is best achieved by light or false defence and by counterattack’. Rowland also noted that rubble, more likely to develop in a large settlement, is disadvantageous to attackers.

At this point, it becomes possible to reconcile the assumption of military professionals that urban areas are hard to attack, with Rowlands’ figures that, in fact, defenders suffer the worst casualties. In the trials, even when isolated in few buildings, defenders were defeated by a superior force employing skilled combined arms action.

Combined arms skill is, of course, even more necessary in urban settlements of any size. Defenders can be defeated, but urban operations in bigger settlements typically require numerical advantage (even if it is held in reserve), but, above all, fire superiority, and armour too. Urban operations demand careful preparation, planning, and professional execution. Urban operations are unforgiving; they are punishing.

Urban combat: A soldier scrambles up a building wall while others provide protection

The advantage typically lies with the defender, therefore. Owen cites Fallujah and Marawi as evidence of how easy it is to attack urban areas and how costly to defend them – the exchanges ratios favoured the attackers. We could also add Mosul to this point. Yet, in each of these cases, a very small, lightly armed insurgent force was attacked by a far larger regular state force, which had total air superiority, unparalleled surveillance and target acquisition, and almost unlimited firepower. The surprising thing about these battles was not that the defenders were eventually defeated and killed, but that such poorly armed defenders held out so long, and inflicted so many casualties on attackers who utterly outgunned them.

Precisely because urban attacks are demanding, there are obvious cases of successful urban defences. Leningrad and Stalingrad are historically the most obvious. The Battle of Kyiv (24 February – 1 April 2022) is now, of course, the most famous example of urban defence. In the course of this battle, the Russian forces, which attempted to seize the city, suffered very heavy casualties against a numerically inferior Ukrainian force fighting from Kyiv and Chernikiv. The precise Russian casualty figures are unknown but 10,000 – 20, 000 killed and wounded seems possible, including many of Russia’s best forces. The Ukrainians declared about 1,000 casualties of whom 260 were killed; they were probably higher but still far less than the Russians.

There are other examples which point to the advantages of the urban defence. For instance, during the Second Lebanon War, about 100, well-armed, and excellently trained Hezbollah fighters defended the small town of Bint Jbeil. 5,000 soldiers from the Israeli Parachute and Golani brigades, with extensive air and artillery support, unsuccessfully attacked the town. 15 Israeli soldiers were killed, and many others wounded in the process. The Israelis killed more Hezbollah defenders (about 50), but they never took the town, despite their 50:1 numerical advantage.

Operation Iraqi Freedom’s Battle of Sadr City in 2008 is, perhaps, the most striking Western example of the potency of defensive urban warfare. In order to prevent Shia militias from rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone, Coalition forces constructed a concrete wall along Baghdad’s Route Gold across the south-east of Sadr City. The concrete wall pushed Shia militia mortar and rocket teams out of range and cut the militias off from their supporters in two key districts in Baghdad. This action cleverly inverted the battle. To prevent their isolation, the Shia militia had to contest the erection of the wall. They had to attack an urban position. In a six-week fight, it is estimated 700 Shia militia men were killed, while the US lost six soldiers during the operation. The conditions were unique, but the defender/attacker exchange rate was 1:116.

Conclusion

What are we to make of Owen’s argument? Owen is absolutely correct to remind us of Rowlands’ intriguing data. They protect us against the facile belief that the urban is the ubiquitous answer to everything. Moreover, they emphasise that we need to be careful analytically. Urban operations are complex and they are diverse. Each battle is unique. All the evidence needs to be treated with great caution, therefore. There can be no definitive, final answer – but only a probabilistic induction.

Nevertheless, two points seem clear. Firstly, the British Army is likely to have to operate in urban areas on any future campaign, and therefore it might seek to make a virtue out of that necessity. Secondly, once Owen’s evidence is put in a wider context, it would seem very unwise to suggest that attack in the urban is easier and less costly; or to imply that urban operations are not distinctive, with their own special challenges. Once forces attack an urban settlement of any size, operations become demanding, and potentially very costly. Skilled combined arms, and, in fact, joint, integrated operations by competent, trained units are essential for success. Defence in larger urban settlements has, therefore, recurrently proved to be a very effective tactic. None of this means that the Army should only train in the urban environment. But it might recommend that it takes urban operations even more seriously than it is currently inclined to do.

Anthony King
Professor of War Studies at Warwick University

Anthony King is the professor of war studies at Warwick University.  In 2019, he completed a trilogy on western military transformation, The Transformation of Europe's Armed Forces (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Combat Soldier (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Command (Cambridge University Press, 2019).  His most recent book, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century was published by Polity in July.  He has advised the British Army and Royal Marines for nearly two decades.

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