Ur­ban War­fare

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

Equip­ment Nec­es­sary

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

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