Whatever high-tech weapons an army possesses, and whatever the conflict – local or large-scale – the armed forces one way or another will have to engage in urban warfare, where a peculiar set of rules apply.
At the current stage of military technological development, modern conflicts and military operations are unfolding amidst a new set of conditions. Over the past decades, wars have become fundamentally different, although, of course, some examples, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, prove that certain traditional elements are still being preserved, involving massive offensive operations and the use of infantry and aircraft over large territories.
The Context for Urban Operations
The option of a nuclear deterrent has been in place since the Cold War. Accordingly, world powers are developing new and more effective methods of coercion. In this context, a wider range of economic, diplomatic, informational, and psychological means of influence are also being employed. Due to the spread of non-military tools, warfare tends to be classified, either as traditional or non-traditional. Therefore, many goals can be achieved without actually deploying a regular army, but only by applying strategies on the margins of war and peace.
Furthermore, regular troops, in the form of a limited contingent, can be involved over a shorter period – at critical moments, while the main functions of maintaining the combat effectiveness of territories are entrusted to puppet regimes, as done by Russia in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Moreover, in those short periods when regular forces are deployed, their affiliation to a particular country remains concealed, as was the case during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 when the troops operated without insignia and their military hardware carried no markings.
In modern realities therefore, a large-scale war is becoming increasingly less likely due to the enormous economic and human losses it implies. New forms of achieving strategic goals by unleashing local conflicts in combination with economic, political, and media influence on the enemy have turned out to be much more effective. However, this doesn’t mean a large-scale war is off the table.
In late 2021, the world’s attention was focused on the threat of China’s military incursion into Taiwan during the massive militarisation of the South China Sea region by the Chinese military, coupled with the wider presence of China’s warplanes in the region, as well as a spree of military exercises. Also, in the fall of 2021, a series of articles were published in the European and American media regarding the build-up of some 120,000 Russian troops on the borders with Ukraine, which threatened another Russian invasion.
As Russia would suffer enormous losses in the event of such an offensive, including due to guerrilla resistance across the country, it remains more profitable for Moscow (and less risky for its international reputation) to exploit the very threat to achieve certain goals in negotiations with Western powers (including sanctions lifting, successful certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipe, etc.). However, as history shows, the line between war and peace amid the prolonged presence of a huge number of troops in the border areas can be quite thin.
Whatever high-tech weapons an army possesses, and whatever the conflict – local or large-scale – the armed forces one way or another will have to engage in urban warfare, where a peculiar set of rules apply. While the advantages of armoured vehicles are obvious in open terrain, their use in an urban landscape could become a liability. Moreover, in urban face-offs, the potential of developed armies is pretty much the same as that of the Taliban, since most clashes involve small arms used at close range.
Urban Warfare – the New Reality
For several decades, many armies were one way or another engaged in hostilities in urban settings. After all, it was the capture of key cities that was and remains the most important strategic element of any military operation. For example, in the summer of 2021, the Taliban rapidly seized the provincial capitals across Afghanistan and after the second and third most populous cities – Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west – fell, Kabul didn’t hold out for long. By taking such large cities, the Taliban proved its weight, resulting in a beneficial propaganda effect.
In 2014, two cities in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, became centres of self-proclaimed “people’s republics.” The pro-Russian separatists, who have enjoyed Russia’s covert support, focused on taking over local government buildings, which would allow them to proclaim “people’s power” in the region. Thus, the ability of armed forces and special operations units to run effective urban missions will play a key role in modern and future military conflicts.
Urban combat is different from open field combat at both the operational and tactical levels. The situation is further aggravated by landscape and civilian presence, with civilian infrastructure sites turning into firing points. Typically, urban terrain is less advantageous for the attacking side, as local forces are able to set up complex defensive systems, set numerous traps, plant explosive devices, and engage the enemy from hard-to-spot locations. Moreover, the pace of convoy movement through city streets is usually hampered by barricades and debris, which create additional ambush risks. The likelihood of being hit by sniper fire naturally increases.
Combat in an urban environment minimises the advantages of any given side, especially as the effect of artillery and air support (excluding surveillance drones), as well as armoured vehicles, is minimised. For example, small groups of soldiers using man-portable anti-tank missile systems, are able to effectively ambush and also destroy convoys of modern armoured vehicles. ISIS fighters would set up their headquarters and hospitals in Syrian cities in densely populated civilian neighbourhoods, thus making themselves almost invincible to aviation and artillery.
There are also plenty of peculiarities related to the urban landscape. Battles in such terrain can be fought in one building on several floors at the same time, including basements and roofs. Furthermore, many cities host an extensive network of sewers and tunnels, including subways. The defender is usually much more aware of these features, being able to move stealthily across city districts. For example, in Mosul and Raqqa, a network of underground tunnels was eventually discovered, which had been used by militants to move between the zones of hostilities, supply weapons, as well as capture and destroy positions held by government forces. These tunnels were equipped with a video surveillance system, communications equipment, and proper lighting. This all creates huge issues for the attacking force.
For the effective use of units in urban operations, they must be trained in close combat tactics, namely, the use of particular weapons and ammunition, night vision devices, and equipment aimed at ramming doors or destroying walls, removing the enemy from confined spaces, etc. For such purposes, many governments set up massive training grounds replicating an urban environment. However, Baghdad in 2003 had a more complex environment than can be recreated in the most advanced training centres.
Armoured Vehicles in Urban Warfare Conditions
At the macro level, in the context of military development and procurement of military hardware, the issues of adapting certain armoured vehicles to urban combat or developing combat control systems in such conditions are now being addressed. Urban warfare requires close interaction between infantry and armoured vehicles, since tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in city streets without infantry leads to large losses of military hardware. Infantry operating without the support of heavy military hardware is also of little to no effect. Modern realities are such that most armies remain more equipped and combat-ready for war on rough terrain than for urban warfare.
Improving the survivability of vehicles for urban combat has certain criteria, but making a balanced vehicle is difficult, meaning that some elements have to be sacrificed. Armour protection of existing combat vehicles in urban combat cannot provide all-round protection from above and below, making them easy targets even for RPGs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). There is no obvious solution regarding the preference of wheeled/tracked vehicles in urban combat. On the one hand, wheeled combat vehicles are more mobile, while on the other hand, tracked combat vehicles are capable of turning 360 degrees on the spot and are more manoeuvrable in rubble and among debris.
Other requirements for military equipment in urban conditions include:
- a large angle of gun elevation for firing at the upper floors of buildings
- an additional remote-controlled machine gun
- high manoeuvrability
- comprehensive armour protection not only in front, but also on the sides, rear, as well as IED protection at the bottom;
- improved all-round visibility
- additional orientation sensors
Equally important is specialised engineering equipment to ensure stable operation amid the ruins, blockages, and enemy barricades. Therefore, the deployment of armoured bulldozers, as well as engineering means of demining, contribute to mission success.
Robotics and UAVs
In many aspects of future urban battles, the share of the use of robotics and drones will further increase – by all sides. The use of such robotic technology is required to gather situational intelligence data, engaging designated targets, demining, and fire spotting. Light tracked or wheeled robotic systems, being several times smaller than standard hardware, have a higher cross-country manoeuvrability, as well as a significant level of protection. They are able to overcome obstacles and operate in the dark. Entrusting such tasks to robots will lead to a significant drop in casualties.
While ground-based robotic equipment is now used mainly for reconnaissance and demining, tactical UAVs are already of a wide use across the armies. The drones are small in size, able to fly along streets and between houses, as well as peep into the windows, which raises awareness of concealed enemy positions. The situation will change dramatically when drone swarms become common. DARPA is currently developing small UAVs able to operate in a swarm, while collecting data or interrupting enemy operations.
In 2016, DARPA launched the OFFSET programme to develop software that allows combining up to 250 different robots and UAVs into a single group, which will be set to address issues as one, with over 100 options for tactical action available. In 2019, the US military tested a group of various kinds of robots. They simultaneously conducted reconnaissance, made a map of the location of all buildings in the designated area and ensured the safety of QR tags, designated by operators as priority.
In November 2021, DARPA launched tests under the OFFSET programme with the participation of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. The military tested the operator’s ability to control a swarm of 200 unmanned systems. In the summer of 2021, Israeli defence officials reported that they conducted more than 30 operations using drone swarms. According to the report, this was the first combat use of drone swarms. Drones would collect data, as well as locate and engage Hamas militants. At the same time, all drones were controlled by a single operator.
To adapt combat vehicles to the modern combat realities (including taking into account urban warfare conditions), the US Army launched the Next Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCV) programme. One of the projects within the NGCV is Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), aimed at developing a vehicle to replace the M2 BRADLEY. Although the BRADLEY remains a fairly powerful vehicle, the US Department of Defence believes that the vehicle cannot accommodate additional technology that will prove crucial for survival and victory in the future battles.
In July 2021, the US Army announced it was selecting five competing firms to participate in OMFV:
- American Rheinmetall Vehicle
- BAE Systems
- General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS)
- Oshkosh Defence
- Point Blank Enterprises
In August 2021, American Rheinmetall Vehicles showcased the concept of a combat vehicle it is developing as part of OMFV. For the project, Rheinmetall took the LYNX KF41 infantry fighting vehicle, designed specifically for Australia. Rheinmetall’s project boasts of high survivability, mobility, and agility, high firepower, a large payload, and the ability to adapt to various combat operations thanks to modular survival systems. Also, thanks to its modularity, it is capable of being continuously upgraded with the latest technology throughout its service life, which is one of the programme’s requirements.
Another programme is the Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) to create a new generation of light tanks to provide support for infantry and penetrate enemy defences, including in urban environments. After considering the proposals available, two prototypes remained – by General Dynamics Land Systems and BAE Systems. After determining the winner, the production of the first 26 vehicles is set to kick off in 2022.
Also, the US Army Command intends to supply light, medium, and heavy robots to the troops as early as 2028. Prototypes will be developed by the consortia of Textron and Howe & Howe, as well as QinetiQ North America and Pratt & Miller. Also, HDT Global and Oshkosh will be involved. The use of such robots will become a priority in urban environments.
In 2019, the consortium of Textron and Howe & Howe presented their RCV RIPSAW M5 medium tracked combat robot project. The robot weighs 10 tonnes, with a payload of 2.7 tonnes and is armed with a 30 mm gun. The robot’s systems are capable of detecting and classifying targets, as well as engaging them at the operator’s command.
Lighter robotic platforms such as WOLFG by HDT Global Hunter or RCV-Light vehicle prototypes by QinetiQ North America – Pratt Miller are capable of carrying up to 500 kg in payload, being able to have 7.62 mm or 12.7 mm machine guns installed, along with a variety of detection and surveillance systems. Also, these robotic platforms are equipped with armour protection against shells and boast a range of about 100 km.
The experience of hostilities over the past decades in different regions of the world has shown that future wars will definitely take place in urban areas, therefore, with a varying degree of success, governments are adapting and training their infantry units to conduct operations in urban settings. There is also an ongoing effort to renew the fleet of armoured vehicles, for which increased survivability in urban battles, increased firepower, and modern sensor systems are already mandated. Meanwhile, the introduction of different variants of robotic platforms for reconnaissance and offensive operations will soon change the rules of urban warfare, as it once was with drones. As for the unmanned systems, the next step in their development is swarms and operations in urban environments, alongside ground robots.