Marine Corps Training Drills Expand to Urban Battlefields

By Stanton, John J. | National Defense, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Marine Corps Training Drills Expand to Urban Battlefields


Stanton, John J., National Defense


A series of live war games and training drills in simulated urban centers is playing a critical role in the Marine Corps' preparation for conflicts in non-traditional battle zones.

The Corps is so committed to preparing for urban warfare that it staged elaborate experiments in mock cities in order to get a real-world feel for the type of military contingency that, planners believe, will become the norm rather than the exception.

The experiments aimed to push the technology envelope even though they did not rely on high-tech virtual reality digital environments. And they defied many of the established rules of war-gaming.

There are several reasons why the Corps is focusing on urban war.

Officials cited studies indicating that by the year 2025, roughly 85 percent of the world's population will live within urban areas.

Further, urban warfare is deadly and costly. In 1950, the Marines lost more than 2,000 troops recapturing the city of Seoul, South Korea. In 1968 in the battle for the city of Hue, Vietnam, the Marines experienced more casualties than they did during the bloody fighting on Okinawa in World War II. And with adversarial use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the urban environment looming large in the 21st century, the potential for both combatant and noncombatant casualties has increased enormously, complicating an already difficult warfighting problem.

According to Russell Glenn, senior defense analyst at Rand, a public policy research firm in Washington, D.C., it wasn't until 1998 that the Marine Corps revised Cold War-era, urban warfighting doctrines to reflect the lessons from history, worldwide demographic changes and trends which point to the urban center as the likely terrain-of-choice for adversary forces.

The Marines have moved swiftly to redress the lack of procedure and practice in urban warfare by taking cues from civilian firefighters, altering practice and procedure, and staging broadranging, and sometimes controversial, urban warfare exercises in the United States. The results are promising, said Glenn. Urban areas are tinderboxes. A well-trained and motivated urban guerrilla force can offset U.S. military mobility and firepower by choosing an urban setting to wage war or make a violent statement of protest. And non-combatants often find themselves in the line of fire between the warring parties.

That exact scenario was played out in the city of Grozny, Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, when the Russian Army was pitted against a comparatively small Chechen rebel force. Even though the Russians held a 5:1 manpower advantage and technical superiority, they suffered tremendous losses because of, among other reasons, lack of sufficient training.

Those events and the lessons they offer have not been lost on the Marines.

"The Russians made a conscious decision not to do room-to-room combat" said Col. Gary Anderson, USMC, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) in Quantico, Virginia. "Despite all the hype about how good the Russians were in urban combat, they would blow a building down before they'd fight room-to-room and that, of course, resulted in a lot of civilian casualties.

"We have to figure the room-to-room and house-to-house situation out. The use of incapacitating non-lethal weaponry is of great interest to us, and we're looking into some very interesting classified technology ... We don't necessarily mean to be nonlethal but if we can avoid warfighter casualties and friendly casualties, that's the way we want to do it," Anderson said in an interview.

Three-Block War

The MCWL was established in 1995 by then-Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, to explore innovative methods and combat technologies. Concepts are developed then tested in the field through a series of experiments and subsequently assessed by the MCWL

But the lab is not a gigantic virtual reality and video operation linked to supercomputers, as some believe. …

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