Mechanised operations in urban terrain

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Mechanised Operations in Urban Environment - Challenges & Way Ahead

When one imagines mechanised operations in urban terrain, one may envision Stalingrad and the Battle for Berlin in World War II, or in recent times, the Israeli operations in Lebanon in 2006 and the American forces experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should the modern mounted warrior be concerned with fighting in an urban environment? All evidence suggests a resounding yes! For years, the generally held attitude has been to avoid urban areas. However, that may have been the correct attitude for that era, but now, as the world and the nature of threats change, built-up areas are something we can no longer avoid or outright ignore.

Urban operations are not new. Throughout history the Armies have fought enemies on urban terrain. What is new is that urban areas and urban populations have grown significantly and have begun to exert a much greater influence on military operations. The worldwide shift from a rural to an urban society has affected combat operations.

Challenges in Conduct of Urban Operations

Tanks can be decisive in city fighting, with the ability to demolish walls and fire medium and heavy machine guns in several directions simultaneously. However, they are vulnerable while operating in urban environment since it is much easier for enemy infantry to sneak up behind a tank or fire at its sides, where it is most vulnerable. In addition, firing down from multi-storey buildings allows shots at the soft upper turret armour and even basic weapons like the Molotov cocktail, if aimed at the engine air intakes, can disable a tank. Tanks can't be used effectively in city conflicts where civilians or friendly forces might be nearby, since their firepower can't be used optimally. Moreover, weight, blind spots, and the size naturally require a mechanised commander to think through an operation very carefully. He must decide where and how he will traverse the built-up area. He must consider likely ambushes and the ability to react. He must consider the maneuverability of the force in confined areas.

The characteristics of an average city include tall buildings, narrow alleys and sewage tunnels. Defenders may have the advantage of detailed local knowledge of the area, right down to the layout inside of buildings and means of travel not shown on maps. The buildings can provide excellent sniping posts while alleys and rubble-filled streets are ideal for planting booby traps. Defenders can move from one part of the city to another undetected using underground tunnels and spring ambushes. The attackers tend to become more exposed than the defender as they have to use the open streets more often, unfamiliar with the defenders secret and hidden routes. During a house to house search the attacker is exposed on the streets.

In built up areas snipers and machine guns suitably sited on the upper floors and roof tops can effectively engage the crew, at the same time successfully evading the retaliation from tanks due to their inability to elevate the main gun. In Grozny, hunter-killer fire teams suitably deployed in upper floors of the buildings and in basements could effectively engage the Russian vehicles. The snipers and machine gunners would pin down the supporting infantry while the antitank gunners would engage the vehicles aiming at the top, rear and sides of vehicles.

Tactical Challenges. Conduct of operations in urban environment is a challenging task. To develop an effective course of action a commander must conduct aggressive ISR operations. Human intelligence is very important as other sensors and devices may not be that effective in such scenario. Some of the other problems are :-

Contiguous and Noncontiguous Areas of Operations. The force must be prepared to conduct operations in both contiguous and non contiguous areas. Contiguous operations are military operations that are conducted in an area of operations that facilitates mutual support of combat elements at varying levels. Contiguous operations have traditional linear features including identifiable, contiguous frontages and shared boundaries between forces. In non contiguous operations the units/sub units may be dispersed and thus are beyond the reach of supporting elements. In such scenarios the sub units may have to operate in isolated pockets, thus necessitating high level of initiative, effective information collection system, security operations and a responsive logistic system.

Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Threats. In addition to being required to face symmetrical enemy threats, the force must be prepared to face enemy threats of an asymmetrical nature. Symmetrical threats are generally linear in nature and include those enemy forces that openly confront the combat elements. Examples of symmetrical threats include conventional enemy forces conducting offensive or defensive operations against friendly forces. Asymmetrical threats are those that are specifically designed to avoid confrontation. These threats may use the civilian population and infrastructure to shield their capabilities. Asymmetrical threats are most likely to be based in urban areas to take advantage of the density of civilian population and infrastructure.

Quick Transition from Offensive to Defensive & Vice Versa. The force must always retain the ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations. Preserving the ability to transit allows the force to maintain initiative while providing force protection.

Rules of Engagement. Urban operations are usually conducted against enemy forces fighting in close proximity of civilians. Rules of engagement and other restrictions on the use of combat power are more restrictive than in other conditions of combat. As a result the mechanised forces are not able to exploit the advantage of better weaponary and fire power.

The Future Equipment Profile

Mechanised operations in urban environment are going to increase in scope as well as intensity with time. Armoured vehicles including tanks and troop carrier are going to remain the primary tools of execution of mechanised operations. However, their shapes, sizes, weights, armor, armaments, propulsion, connectivity, battlefield awareness, and crewing will change profoundly. The continuity will be in the mission, to deliver local killing power and allow protected maneuver. The evolution of armoured vehicles will be driven by technology and strategic requirements, but, above all, by the changing environment of combat, the increasing urbanization of warfare, and the growing transparency of traditional non-urban operations, wherein we will be able to monitor the activities of enemy forces in real time. The key to the future of warfare lies in disregarding what we expect a tank to be in order to focus on what we need the tank of the future to do. We need to ask ourselves, what do we need armour to do? And how would we like it to do?

As far as firepower is concerned, armour for urban environment need a gun that can do a variety of jobs. We need a crude blasting capability, and manoeuvrable munitions that can follow an assigned target beyond the limits of pure ballistic trajectories. We need rounds that can penetrate multiple layers of steel and concrete before exploding or otherwise have a follow on destructive capability. Weapons that respond instantly to attack and track the assailant until it is eliminated, would be an especially powerful deterrent. We need a counter-electronics capability and crowd control ‘weaponry'. Any means we could develop to isolate portions of the urban battlefield would offer a tremendous advantage.

But the primary job of vehicles in urban areas will remain to protect, manoeuvre, movement, and resupply. Because urban environment promise endless ambushes, we need new forms of armoured protection, not just layers of steel, or laminate, or ceramics, or even reactive armour as it presently exists. Tomorrow's layers of armour will begin with spoofing techniques that complicate target detection on the part of enemy systems, before proceeding to environmental or atmospheric modification capabilities that defeat mines, distort the enemy's perceptions and disrupt the trajectory and integrity of enemy munitions.

Vehicles for urban warfare must also be nimble. While long-range sustained speeds are not a requirement, a sprint capability is essential. The vehicles must be highly manoeuvrable, at least in some variants. Deployment requirements and the varieties of urban operations suggest a modular approach. The ability to customize the vehicle size, power units, armaments, electronic warfare (EW) suites, and battlefield awareness capability is worth pursuing. We will see changes in lethality, protection, propulsion and weight, but the greatest advance is envisioned in the battlefield awareness. On-board, remote, and even strategic sensors will give our tankers a commanding view of the battlefield. Eventually, tanks will gain a much deeper, indirect-fire capability, and sensing munitions will make an increasing proportion of land engagements resemble over-the-horizon naval warfare. These extra-urban tanks will become lighter, and will go faster. Miniaturization of components from engines, communications gear to ammunition, will enable systems to be more rapidly deployable.

To complement the tanks, we need to develop hyper-protective troop carriers to facilitate those dismounted activities indispensable to land warfare. But even here robotics will play a major role so that we can operate under conditions created by weapons of mass destruction and also to deal with the asymmetrical threat in a more efficient manner.

Combined Teams Concept

Although some proponents of mobile warfare such as J.F.C. Fuller advocated ‘tank fleets', but there were other such as Heinz Guderian in Germany, who with the help of others, established the combined arms team, distinct from a purely infantry or cavalry formation. The panzer divisions were not solely composed of tanks, but integrated other arms in it as well, most notably Mechanised Infantry and self-propelled artillery. This allowed the panzer division to become a complete and independent combat force, and overcome the problems that tanks had in attaining a breakthrough against strong opposition by entrenched enemy infantry equipped with large numbers of antitank-guns, which would be very costly without direct infantry support. Subsequently most of the nations included mechanised infantry as an organic component of formations. However, Israel realised its folly of not grouping adequate Infantry with armour formations during the Yom Kippur war. Subsequently corrective measures were initiated in terms of provisioning of tracked transport to para troopers to be used in conjunction with armour formations.

The concept of combined arms teams is more relevant today, than it has ever been, in the history of mechanised warfare. Successful urban warfare envisages use of armour for manoeuvre, fire power and shock effect and mechanised infantry for not only supporting the armour but actually for defeating the en in the close quarter battle, thus necessitating a seamless integration between the two. Therefore, Urban operations may require unique task organizations. In fact urban operations provide one of the few situations where infantry and armour elements may be effectively task-organized below platoon level, the idea may seem far fetched as of now but is a distinct requirement for conduct of successful mechanised operations.

Fundamentals of Urban Operations

In an area dominated by manmade structures and a dense noncombatant population, commanders confront a variety of difficulties. The urban environment like all others is neutral and affects the belligerents equally. However, the side which understands and exploits the effects of urban area has a better chance of success. Some of the aspects which need to be addressed are:-

- Ensure information superiority.

- Avoid the Attrition Approach.

- Control the Essential facilities.

- Minimise Collateral Damage.

- Separate Combatants from Non combatants.

- Restore Essential Services.

- Preserve Critical Infrastructure.

- Understand the Human Dimension.


Throughout history military planners have viewed cities/communication centre as centres of gravity. Because of the changing nature of society and warfare, deployment in urban areas have become more frequent and the trend is likely to continue. If the mechanised forces have to carve out a rightful place for themselves in such a scenario, suitable changes in equipment, tactics and training will have to be incorporated at the earliest. The proliferation of non state actors throughout the world has added to the complexities of the conduct of urban operations, since an irregular who has the knowledge of the area can exploit the built up area better by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the mechanised forces. ‘Combined Arms Team' concept envisaged centuries ago, has found renewed relevance in the evolving scenario.