TCS Daily


Urban Warfare

By Joe Katzman - July 1, 2002 12:00 AM

As we've seen with the recent Crusader debate, the Pentagon is awash with talk about military transformation. An important part of that debate goes beyond transformation, however, and into a concept called "4GW" -- (4th Generation Warfare). And in this regard, America can learn a lot from Israeli experience.

On Sept. 11, America received a rude awakening into the realities of 4GW, and in Jenin the nimble Israelis received a similar awakening. As military analyst Donald Sensing points out, urban combat has several features that make it well suited for 4GW tactics:

  1. No easy way to identify non-combatants from combatants.
  2. Three-dimensional killing field. "Troops trained in two-dimensional tactics, as I was, tend to die in droves when sent into urban combat," Sensing says.
  3. Zigzag lines of communication, and obstructed views for the combatants.


Alas, Jenin was a peek into our future too. As Richard Sinnreich has noted, almost every U.S. wargame during the past five years has seen "red" commanders decline to confront U.S. troops in the open, relying instead on urban-type terrain and unconventional tactics.

So how can we respond effectively? Right now, the Israelis are rethinking their military priorities, and some of their early conclusions are worth our attention.

One especially promising development is remote-control vehicles. They'll be playing a more prominent role -- and not just the Predator, Dragon Drone, Cutlass et. al. in the air. Robots are already working on the ground to detain and deal with suicide bombers, and the U.S. will soon be experimenting with wheeled robots of its own at the company level. A base-protection unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called Sentry Owl, meanwhile, is another big step toward a UAV that can be carried and used by an infantry squad in urban warfare.

Still, let's not go overboard about the technology. Melana Zyla Vickers of TCS talked about the need for UAVs to help soldiers on the ground rather than simply becoming flying nannies, and she was right. Donald Sensing brings her point home with a hilarious true story about a soldier caught in exactly this problem, who received a Silver Star and an Article 15 reprimand for the same firefight!

It's just like your workplace: Technology can help or hinder, depending on the answers to certain questions. Why was it purchased? How were the priorities set? Most important, how will it change the way things get done? It military terms, this is called doctrine, and the real revolution will lie in the ability to quickly incorporate new solutions into doctrine.

What happens in many 4GW situations is that the setting (urban, for instance) or environment (foes transform quickly from civilian to military) often creates a kind of "shadow distance." Each military unit can't "see" very far in a given situation. So military units work without cohesion rather than working in concert. If you saw or read Black Hawk Down, you saw this effect in action.

But there's hope. In recent Urban Warrior exercises in San Francisco, Intra-Squad Radios similar to the cellphone-like devices you use with your family were "perhaps the biggest winner." Not only did they improve coordination significantly, but they also boosted effectiveness against unconventional hit-and-blend attacks.

Properly folded into tactics and doctrine, ubiquitous communications supported by squad-level robot spy devices can change the "shadow distance" equation profoundly. Working these elements into a total package, however, requires well-trained soldiers, experimentation, and real life practice. The key element isn't necessarily technology. Without proper training and real life practice, new technologies can hurt more than they help.

Once the right patterns are set, they can foster devastating coordination even in difficult terrain or situations, allowing soldiers to overcome "shadow distance" and react quickly enough to get inside their enemy's "Observe-Orient-Decide-Act" cycle. As the Delta Force did in Mogadishu. As the Mongols did everywhere.

These capabilities should be especially effective against "warrior" cultures, where individual valor is the ideal and individual stands may even be preferred. Coordinated soldiers will beat troops like that every time in a fair fight, but warrior cultures have their biggest disadvantages neutralized via urban warfare's "shadow distance" effect. Eliminate the "shadow distance" equalizer and they'll be ripe for the picking.

As we've seen recently, big-ticket military items aren't always the ones that matter, which puts the U.S. military procurement culture at a big disadvantage. That's why the Israeli Defense Force's "we depend on these for survival, daily" attitude will be so important. To all of us. They have a renewed grasp of the issues, a nimble planning culture, and plenty of opportunities to use new developments in practice against "warrior culture" opponents. That makes Israel a tremendously valuable ally. It's also why I think they'll end up tutoring the U.S. in this area, even with our "War on Terror" in full swing.

Joe Katzman is a Partner with Sensei Associates. He also writes "Winds of Change," a daily weblog on world affairs, technology and cultural/spiritual trends.
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