TCS Daily

Street Fightin' Man!

By Michael Vlahos - April 4, 2003 12:00 AM

Will there be a Battle of Baghdad? The answer is important not only for the outcome of the Iraq War, but also for the future of classical war itself. The U.S. has been thinking about urban warfare for decades - in Army doctrine it's called MOUT, for Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain - and says that it's "ready to rumble." Yet at least conceptually a Battle of Baghdad offers a weaker army the prospect of effectively defying U.S. military might.

Weaker armies with nowhere to go like to take refuge in strong places - and modern cities are some of the strongest of places. Post-industrial urban zones have excellent underground accommodations (basements and garages) and communications networks (sewers and subways). They also have dense and resilient above ground structures. Bombarding tall concrete buildings - creating instant bunkers - can actually make of a city, a stronger fortress.

A weak army in a strong place forces the attacking army to do battle on the defender's terms (who knows his own city better?) in an environment where the defender's weakness is offset. A battle in a city can be a strategic equalizer.

City fighting is costly too. For example, the Soviets took Berlin in just a few days. Their blood was up, and they had overwhelming force as well on their side. They moved quickly from the Oder River to the Fuhrerbunker, but 100,000 Soviets died. For them, amazingly, raising the Red flag over the Reichstag was worth every soldier. In contrast the Germans assaulted Stalingrad at the end of a string of victories, but the Russians had the Volga behind them, and kept ferrying cannon fodder across. The street battle ate up each side, over 5000 killed a day. But this was a fight on Soviet terms. The German Sixth Army was being chewed up hundreds of miles from home while the Soviets prepared a surprise winter pincer. Suddenly it was the Sixth Army that was surrounded and under attack. Several times in History the battle for a city has led to defeat for the attacker.

This teaching has been extended into a prospect for weak militaries facing Western armies, and has already accumulated several celebrated examples in recent times, from Beirut to Grozny to Mogadishu.

The alternative to assaulting a city is to besiege it. If the attacker has time, or fears losses, he can sit down and starve the defending army into submission. If the defenders are very weak to begin with - perhaps the remnants only of a retreating army - then probing for a soft spot in the defenses may reveal an early opportunity for a relatively easy assault. If the defenders are well prepared, it may still be possible to gradually draw the noose by reducing their hold on the city neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block. Segmenting the city into sectors and then bringing overwhelming force to bear is one way to limit attacker casualties.

The Iraqi Command knows the U.S. will not rush into Baghdad and offer a much bigger sequel to Beirut or Grozny or Mogadishu. The Command must surely have hoped, however, to offer U.S. forces three equally unpalatable options. The first would be a siege, enjoined out of fear of casualties. This would of course, in a city of five million, lead to a monumental humanitarian calamity. The second would be a U.S. assault by main force, with the prospect of heavy American casualties. The third would be a sector-by-sector reduction of the city, which could be the worst of both. It would still take many weeks or even months, and there would still be vicious street fighting albeit with overwhelming U.S. force minimizing casualties.

But to force the U.S. into a battle even on these terms, with only these choices available to American commanders, required the Iraqi Command to do four things, and do them very well.

The Iraqi Command had twelve years to prepare for the Battle of Baghdad. Furthermore, the pause South of the city offered further opportunity to concentrate the forces needed for the coming battle. Preparation means the configuring of the battleground. It means shaping the urban terrain so that defending forces have the best venues for inflicting losses on the attacker while being able to move and survive. It means creating a block-by-block bramble patch that is continually full of deadly tactical surprises.

Effective numbers
Baghdad is a city packed 17,000 to the square-mile, equal to San Francisco, and twice that of Washington, D.C. The people of the city are part of the defensive tapestry, but as they are in the line of fire they need also to be controlled. This means that a proffered defense of Baghdad with just a few thousands or tens of thousands is implausible. These would amount to no more than remnants. A serious defense of a city like Baghdad needs the balance of an effective and loyal Iraqi Army - 150,000 and up.

Command and Control
Again, the Iraqis had twelve years to bury a robust C2 network deep under the city. That goes for tunnels too. And bunkers. But it is the capacity to wage resilient operations under the press of high-tech and relentless American attack that is required. This means Iraqi Command talking to FEBA units - local squad and platoon-level defenders at the forward edge of the battle area - and directing both reinforcements and tactical withdrawals under fire.

Determination and Well-being
If there is no eagerness to fight then there can be no real Battle of Baghdad. Part of eagerness itself is having healthy and alert soldiers. It is not important - and may even be desirable - if ordinary Baghdadi's are starving or without water. Troops must also be fed. Another necessary part of eagerness is believing that, as an individual soldier, it is possible to fight and live; or, alternatively, that it is possible to fight, and die, and actually kill Americans in the process.

There are indications that the Iraqi Command has already failed, permitting their premiere battle units to be chewed up, even destroyed, well outside of Baghdad. Thus it is likely that there will be insufficient numbers for serious defense and, furthermore, that those remnants reaching Baghdad will be dispirited and physically played out.

Moreover, American commentators are talking now about "post-modern urban warfare," suggesting that U.S. operational techniques to take down a city would in no way resemble a traditional assault, but instead take full advantage of information technology, creating the possibility of controlled and clinically precise street fighting.

In the event there may be no real Battle of Baghdad, a "post-modern" vision of clean, high-tech MOUT will remain only a vision. But the alternative prospect - of city battles that can defy American military supremacy - becomes in itself the basis for its realization in future war. Very often the things that might have happened or almost happened become signposts to the next war. In retrospect those who now prepare to fight the United States will earnestly examine the battle that might have been. Thus the battle that might have been becomes the battle yet to be.

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