At tactical levels urban combat in Indian Army is referred to as Built Up Area (BUA) operations, i.e. fighting in towns and cities. Urban combat or BUA operations is very different from combat in the open terrain at both the operational and tactical level
Urban combat or BUA operations is very different from combat in the open terrain at both the operational and tactical level.
Lt General (Retd) V.K. Kapoor
CITIES HAVE OFTEN PLAYED key roles in armed conflicts, but more so in political than military terms. World War II marked a turning point in terms of urban combat. At the start of the conflict, armies tried to move quickly, using motorised and armoured columns to outflank the cities and cut them off from the rear however as the war progressed the towns and cities so isolated could not be captured or cleared for lack of troops and lack of desire on part of the German Army to get bogged down in attacking built-up areas which is costly in terms of time and effort. Later these very cities which held out became the spring board for counter offensives of the Soviet armies.
From 1942 onwards, cities in the East and subsequently also in the West gradually became fully fledged targets and the theatres of decisive battles for example: Stalingrad, Kharkov, Caen, Arnhem, Aachen, Budapest, and Berlin. Let us read a paragraph from BH Liddel Harts history of World War II about Stalingrad in August 1942 to understand the nuances of urban terrain and its impact on the military: “The more closely the Germans converged on the city the more their own power of manoeuvre became cramped, whereas the narrowing of the frontage helped the defender in moving his reserves to a threatened point on the diminished arc.”
So while a city being a major communication centre may offer many advantages, they are a field commander’s nightmare because of the advantages that accrue to the defender. Although some cities in World War II (for example Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Sedan) were bombed, field armies generally avoided built-up areas, so as not to get bogged down. Unfortunately, however, this phase was short-lived. The Germans had the advantage in terms of tanks and tactical aviation, and the Allies soon realised that they would not be able to hold their ground in open country. In addition, from July 3, 1941, onwards, the Soviets implemented a scorched-earth strategy. While it is true that major cities were targets of symbolic value, both the Germans and the Allies carried out strategic bombing raids on cities mainly because of the high concentrations of industrial capacity they contained. Finally, with the need to progress the operations faster, the armies on both sides found themselves increasingly dependent on motor vehicles. Thus avoiding cities – with their major road and rail junctions – became more and more difficult, particularly when it came to supplying forward units.
During the cold war years, the challenge of coordinating operations in a maze of streets – compounded by heavy casualties, massive destruction, and the appalling toll on the inhabitants – led to a tacit consensus that fighting in cities should be avoided.
The majority of clashes in urban areas in the second half of the 20th century were associated with stabilisation operations (Suez, Northern Ireland) or restoring and upholding law and order (Budapest, Prague, Tiananmen), rather than with high-intensity battles.
Rapid Urbanisation at Global Levels
There has been rapid and extensive urbanisation at a global level. Forty-eight per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2003. It was projected to exceed the 50 per cent mark by 2007 and expected to rise to 61 per cent by 2030. In the Indian context the so-called semi-desert and desert terrain, with a growing network of canals and irrigation channels, is fast becoming urbanised with population centres springing up close to the border which are becoming bigger and bigger every year with a good network of roads and motorable tracks. Thus the geography of desert and semi-desert is undergoing a dramatic change which will impact upon the military operations in such areas.
Open and Urban Terrain
Open terrain is terrain which is mostly flat and free of obstructions such as trees and buildings and even natural or man-made obstacles such as rivers and canals. Examples include farmland, and grassland. Even desert and semi-desert terrain terrain can be termed as open terrain. Such terrain is significant in military manoeuvre and tactics as the lack of obstacles makes movement easy and engagements are possible at long range and it allows relative freedom for use of heavy firepower. Such terrain is preferred to close terrain or urban terrain for offensive action as rapid movement makes decisive battles possible.
Complicating factors in urban terrain include the presence of civilians and the fact that it denies mobility and helps the defender and prevents large-scale use of firepower because of the presence of civilians. Lack of knowledge of the detailed layout of the urban centres including underground passages creates difficulties for the attacker while giving advantage to the defender.
Counter Terror (CT) and Counter Insurgency (CI) Operations
Countering terrorists and insurgents in urban terrain once again presents a nightmare because it would be extremely difficult to conduct operations if the insurgents/ terrorists blend with the civilians. In such cases detailed surveillance and intelligence networks have to be established to get information about the location of the terrorists / insurgents. Such networks take time to be established and to be effective and therefore success in such operations is limited at the beginning where as the terrorists/ insurgents can strike at will. Therefore affected nations in the defensive mode invariably suffer greater number of casualties in the beginning till their intelligence gives them the advantage of proactive offensive operation against suspected hideouts.
Tactics are complicated by a threedimensional environment, limited fields of view and fire because of buildings, enhanced concealment and cover for defenders, belowground infrastructure, and the ease of placement of booby traps and snipers.
Type of Weapons Necessary for CT and CI Operations in Urban Terrain
Due to the nature of terrain and the difficulties enumerated above the type weapons that are vital to fighting CI and CT operations are:
Sniper rifles fitted with day and night scopes
Light Weight Assault Rifles with thermal imaging night sights
Corner Shot Rifles: The concept was first developed in Nazi Germany during World War II in the form of the StG44’s Krummlauf, a curved barrel with a mounted mirror developed for urban warfare.
CornerShot Panzerfaust (or CSP): Debuted at the Eurosatory 2004 military trade show in Paris, a derivative of the system for use against armoured vehicles is designed to fire Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets.
Remington Shotguns loaded with ‘hattan’ rounds designed to shoot off door hinges without putting hostages at risk, stun grenades and tear gas canisters. 40mm Grenade Launchers
Some of the equipment considered necessary in special forces trained for CT and CI operations in urban terrain is shown below. This list is not exhaustive but gives an idea of the type of equipment necessary for such operations: Flame retardant carbonised viscose undergarments. One-piece assault suit made of flameretardant Nomex 3 Fireproof knee and elbow pads. Bullet-proof armoured waistcoat designed to stop a round and also absorb its kinetic energy. Ceramic armour plates covering the front, back and groin Armoured helmet able to stop a 9mm round at close range. Respirator providing protection against CS and CN gas and smoke. Assault vest and harness featuring magazine pouches and rings for attaching stun and tear-gas grenades. Harness featuring special rings for hooking up to ropes Radio harness - each assaulter is wired with a radio mic and headset. The headsets also serve as ear defenders to protect against loud noises such as gunfire and explosions. They contain microphones which still allow low decibel external sounds to be heard.
Use of Armour in Urban Terrain
It is interesting to read that in a review of armoured forces in Operation Iraq Freedom, four reasons were given for highly successful armoured operations in urban sectors (built-up area operations): Firstly, tanks are highly resistant to fire - In Iraq, the British claimed that one Challenger MBT near Basra absorbed 15 RPG hits without suffering penetration. American tanks and IFVs repeatedly sustained volleys of RPG and IED hits that dismounted soldiers and other light skinned vehicles would not have sustained. Secondly, tanks and IFVs are the logical choice for leading the advance. Armoured vehicles are essential because situational awareness (SA) regarding enemy forces is generally poor below the brigade level. In insurgent areas it is not possible to maintain full real-time intelligence on the insurgent forces. There is the added complexity of the insurgency inter-mingling with the civilian population. Hence tanks are the weapons of choice for “advance to contact”. It is observed that an inverse relationship between force protection and situational awareness exists. Where SA is poor, strong armour protection is needed and tanks are ideal for this purpose. Moreover tanks are capable of unleashing accurate and high volume of firepower to kill an opponent hidden in the built up area. Thirdly, unlike artillery and aircraft which require a longer response time to engage the enemy, tanks and infantry combat vehicles can respond immediately to enemy fire. Lastly, in urban operations tanks can adopt a variety of tactics and mission oriented groups to effectively deal with changing conditions. Purely dismounted infantry or even infantry combat vehicles cannot match firepower, shock effect, tracked mobility and protection of tanks.
Trends indicate that the likelihood of urban operations is increasing in the future. Whether fighting conventional or unconventional operations we have to be prepared for fighting in urban terrain and therefore we must be equipped and trained for it. While on one hand we need some specialised infantry weapons for role in urban terrain, evidence has also shown that, with simple modifications, armoured forces too can excel in urban operations, as part of a combined arms team that includes infantry, engineers, artillery, signals, air support, civil affairs and psychological operations.
A soldier during an assault operation