Urban warfare is the concept of combat operations occuring within an urban environment, ie that of a city. It presents specialized challenges and obstacles that require extensive knowledge to deal with effectively, yet is necessary for any modern military force.
Among the challenges faced in an urban combat situation are:
- Limited sight lines/lines of fire.
- Numerous available hiding places.
- Increased difficulty of use of fire support.
- Numberous paths of reinforcement and escape, the vast majority of which are all but impossible to observe.
- Limited routes by which friendly forces can move, almost all of which can be easily blockaded.
- Often, the presence of civilians can limit friendly use of weapons.
Examples of recent and semi-recent urban operations include Task Force Ranger's mission in Mogadishu, specifically the events depicted in the book and movie Black Hawk Down; the ongoing operations in Iraq by American ground forces; the battling among clans in Sarajevo from '92 to '95; and the battling within Grozny, Chechnya by Russian and Chechnyan ground forces from December '94 to February '95. Earlier examples include the fighting within Berlin and Stalingrad between the Soviets and Germans in World War II; the amphibious invasion of Inchon and the fighting within Seoul during the Korean War; and the siege of Saigon in the Vietnam War.
The fighting during the initial invasion and capture of Iraq was not truly urban warfare. While there was some conflict within cities that falls under the heading of urban warfare, the vast majority of the fighting was done in open terrain. The current situation in Iraq is that of a low-scale urban warfare. American troops conduct patrols within an urban environment; indigenous forces use limited weapons and improvised explosive devices to engage them. American troops return fire, and the enemy departs via back-alleys and unobserved streets. This is a different type of urban warfare, then, say, Mogadishu, where almost the entire city was opposed to the American presence, but exposure in the city was limited to operational periods.
Urban warfare can range from all-out house-to-house fighting to quick snatch-and-grab operations in enemy-held territory. In the former, whole houses are often turned into strongpoints: they are sandbagged and reinforced, the doors sealed and barred, the windows removed and replaced with wood or metal with firing ports, effectively turning a residence into a semi-hardened bunker. Taking one of these strongpoints is extremely difficult, especially when the operation requires that collateral damage be kept to a minimum. In the latter instance, battles must often be fought with hastily-organized groups of armed civilians, who, though poorly trained, are often fanatical and large in number. Also encountered are technicals, which are civilian vehicles equipped with weapons and armor in an attempt to turn them into low-tech fighting vehicles. Another risk is the advantageous situation for snipers, who have many places of cover from which to fire, many routes by which to escape, and protection from the large-scale supporting fires commonly brought to bear against them.
Recently, American forces have started to receive specialized training in urban warfare. This type of training often involves small simulated towns and villages, in which the trainees are forced to respond to situations they would likely face in an urban operation. Units such as the Army Rangers, Delta Force, and Special Forces receive their own brand of advanced training in these situations. The Rangers and Delta Force have proved their skill in the field: the battle within Mogadishu in 1997 was entirely an urban warfare situation, and the Rangers and Delta Force Commandos responded with skill and daring, succeeding and surviving where almost any other military unit would have failed.
Urban warfare is deadly to those unused to it. During the Battle of Stalingrad, untrained German and Soviet forces suffered massive casualties as a result of their unpreparedness. At the same time, a trained force can turn an urban warfare situation into one ripe with possibilities. The Rangers and Delta Force Commandos within Mogadishu not only succeeded in their mission, but survived a night within a hostile city while destroying assets that far offset their casualties. Although the operation was a success, it did lead to failure: the task force as a whole was hurriedly withdrawn by the Clinton Administration, despite the incredible opportunities they'd created and victories they'd achieved.