Urban Warfare: U.S. Forces in Future Conflicts

By Alexander, Steven E. | Military Review, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Urban Warfare: U.S. Forces in Future Conflicts


Alexander, Steven E., Military Review


The U.S. Army's transformation has been predicated on the assumption that the preponderance of future strategic, operational, and tactical missions, whether offensive, defensive, or stability and support operations, will be conducted in urban environments. The assumption is based on the shift, over the past several decades, of populations worldwide into urban areas. Most stability and support operations in urban areas are necessary because of conflicts that arise from the suffering that occurs in the world's densely populated cities.

There is little disagreement about the need to conduct stability and support operations in urban areas; however, is the validity of the assumption that operations will be conducted primarily in urban areas the same when it comes to offensive and defensive operations? If so, should there be an attempt to engage an enemy on predominately urban terrain?

Defense in Urban Terrain

U.S. Army and joint doctrine espouses victory through decisive offensive operations. Can an armed conflict be won through decisive offensive action focused in an urban area? History indicates that the answer is no. Because of its highly restrictive nature, urban terrain is best suited to the defender.

World War II. During World War II, the German High Command fell victim to the belief that the German army could win a decisive victory in an urban setting on the Eastern Front. The Germans had won several victories within Soviet cities, such as Smolensk and Kiev, before being defeated in Leningrad and Stalingrad in 1943.(1) The victories at Smolensk and Kiev had been tactical, however.

At Leningrad and Stalingrad, the Germans sought strategic decisions on the ground outside the cities where the terrain best suited German capabilities.2 The defenders had opted not to-or simply were unable to-seek a strategic decision any place within the Soviet Union. Arguably, once the Germans decided to make the urban areas decisive, the Soviets were able to grasp the initiative. By attempting to seek a strategic-level decision by attacking both major cities, the Germans ended up losing on all levels-strategic, operational, and tactical.

The Germans committed the better part of two well-trained, wellequipped, experienced armies-the 6th and the 4th Panzer-at Stalingrad.3 Despite having a less trained, less technologically advanced force, the Russians halted the attack decisively.

The German advantage in armor and air combat power and technology, primarily in communications, was mitigated within the urban battle space of Stalingrad and Leningrad. The Germans could no longer use the tactics that had so well suited their organization. They lost even more advantage once German Mark III/IV tanks and Stuka ground attack aircraft were tasked to execute offensive tactics in highly restrictive terrain-functions for which they were not designed.

The Russians were able to use the terrain to level the playing field. They had unsuccessfully defended against German armor formations on open plains, but within cities Russian infantry was able to close with German armor. This negated any advantage the Germans enjoyed in firepower and maneuver. In the 1943 pursuit following the encirclement of the 6th Army in Stalingrad, the Russians forced their own strategic-level decision through a counteroffensive but not within the restricted nature of either city.4

Vietnam. Another example of failed offensive action on the strategic level is the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) succeeded strategically by seizing key areas in several cities throughout South Vietnam, then by defending them against combined U.S. and South Vietnamese assaults. While the NVA lost the battles on tactical and operational levels through the offense, they were successful strategically through the defense, despite their intent to end the war that year through the use of offensive actions during Tet.

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