The film Black Hawk Down burned into the American psyche something intuitive to anyone who has experienced urban combat: the incredible difficulty of fighting in cities. While its title highlights the vulnerability of helicopters operating over complex urban terrain, the film’s more critical lesson is how quickly and completely a formation of dismounted soldiers can be overmatched, overwhelmed, and encircled in this dense, three-dimensional battlespace. One of the most significant tactical problems, which remains unsolved twenty-five years after the Battle of Mogadishu, is that of maneuvering small units without exposing soldiers to concentrated enemy fire. In the open spaces—vacant lots, alleys, and roadways—in which combat forces must operate and where their movements are inevitably channeled, there is simply too little concealment to protect against being targeted by lethal fires in danger areas.
Operating in the large cities of foreign lands can be a terrifying experience. Broad, two-lane streets become narrow, one-lane drives, which then turn into sidewalks, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. Alleyways turn into crevices you can barely squeeze through. Each window of a six-story building becomes a potential firing point. Any number of enemy forces can hide among a population, in some cases, of millions.
When a US military force enters complex urban terrain much of the control it achieves in other environments—massing against the enemy once identified, maintaining initiative, managing standoff distance—can be lost. Soldiers must constantly scan in three dimensions—not only all around them, but also as high as the highest building—and will be separated from vehicles and their capabilities—cover, fire support, and communication. Even if the environment is not contested, it still feels suffocating.
If conditions are hostile, there are strict time constraints, because once a friendly force is identified and located the enemy can quickly gain an advantage. The ability for any armed party to mass fires at an intervening visitor, including from high above, is easily achieved. No real precision or skill is needed. Within moments, the environment can transform from completely permissive (or at least the perception of permissiveness) to entirely non-permissive, with no ability to maneuver or mass return fire against the many alleys, doorways, windows, and rooftops from which rounds are incoming simultaneously.
With insufficient native concealment, US forces must rely on either speed, camouflage, or obscuration for protection from observation or surveillance in urban terrain.
Speed works well until an operation requires a force to remain stationary. Even the most well-trained, highly effective combat units require time to clear a building, conduct a raid, or remove an obstacle.
There are promising research developments in camouflage, including cloaking fabrics that one day will make soldiers and their equipment literally invisible. For instance, a Canadian camouflage maker, Hyperstealth Biotechnology, regularly demonstrates a metamaterial to US military groups that reportedly bends light waves around a target. But this remains a future capability, and on the battlefield today, a dismounted force sent into a city has little that is designed especially for urban terrain.
This leaves obscuration as the most viable option. Obscuration, according to US Army doctrine is “the employment of materials into the environment that degrade optical and/or electro-optical capabilities within select portions of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to deny acquisition by or deceive an enemy or adversary.” In practical terms, and in the context of the urban battlespace, it keeps forces from being seen. The standard device carried by dismounted soldiers for obscuration is a smoke grenade, a piece of equipment that hasn’t changed since World War II. They emit only 50–90 seconds of smoke and can be thrown 35 meters by an average soldier. There are some vehicle variants that offer smoke generators or smoke grenade dischargers but these are not common to all formations, and in dense, urban environments, are simply unfeasible.
The 2014 PBS Frontline documentary Children of Aleppo displayed an ingenious solution to the obscuration problem adopted by a population who, without access to the trusted military smoke grenade, decided to hang massive sheets between buildings to prevent snipers from seeing and engaging them. Despite the US military’s desire for high-tech solutions to problems it encounters on the battlefield, this primitive “war hack” has immediate application for US soldiers in current and future conflicts in complex urban terrain.
The technology to implement this tactic in an enhanced, workable fashion—in other words, without needing to enter or scale buildings to physically string sheets between them—exists today. In 2012, West Point cadets designed, developed, and received a patent for a penetrating anchor projectile that can be fired from a soldier’s M203 grenade launcher. The anchor was designed to assist in rapid scaling of large vertical obstacles. The system consists of a tungsten and steel anchor projectile encased in a plastic sheath weighing approximately a quarter of a pound and traveling so quickly that it can penetrate reinforced concrete. There is a cable attached to the projectile that serves as the lead line to allow an operator to attach a climbing rope.
This projectile could easily be modified for the purpose of deploying a rapid obscuration screen. The existing cable attached to the climbing anchor could be attached to a stretchable sheet and fired into the walls of buildings in an urban environment to replicate the makeshift sniper screens seen in Aleppo. In addition to providing obscuration, the sheet could be made of fire-resistant fabric and could include a wire lining that changes the trajectory of certain slow-moving munitions like rocket-propelled grenades.
The West Point projectile was designed to be made from low-cost materials, and due to the simplicity of the device, does not require extensive manufacturing processes. The cost of production was estimated to be $125 per unit at most. A cheap expendable tool for obscuration would be a critical enabler of combat effectiveness. Too often, soldier requirements lead to expensive pieces of equipment, for which the soldier is accountable, and which end up not being used because of the risk of the equipment being lost (the Army’s Raven drone is one example). A cheap, simple, easy-to-use, fire-and-forget device would be ideal.
Some will say that obscuring an avenue of approach prevents your own ability to see the enemy. This is where US technological advantages should come into play, by attaching cameras to the sheet or cable, for instance. But there are many missions—raids against high value targets’ houses, recovery of a disabled vehicle, reducing an obstacle in the road, or simply exfiltration after completing actions on an objective—where the priority is simply not being seen.
US military forces must be capable of operating in all environments. History has taught us that much of military innovation is born of necessity. In urban environments, that necessity can be as simple but as crucial as providing concealment, and the best innovation can be as simple as deploying a sheet with a grenade launcher.
Image credit: 225th Engineer Brigade
Urban camouflage: not exactly the Sacred Hand Grenade of Antioch, but close to it. How, actually, do you design camouflage for urban operations, given that built-up areas lack the invariant properties of natural environments?
Most “urban” designs are fashion statements: woodland patterns printed in gray shades. Um…cities usually aren’t gray (although it can be argued that rubble usually is), and the woodland geometry matches very little when you leave the woods.
Materials and styles vary widely. Construction methods, paints and coatings, and other artificial techniques usually try to attract the eye. Sure, Starbucks is low-conspicuity, but it’s rare. Bricks are red, or painted. Wood is usually painted arbitrary colors. How do you develop a color palette to match random hues?
Traditional camouflage, which we are stuck with for the foreseeable future, has a real challenge. We’ve looked at different geometries that make biological movement hard to see (testing this is a major problem, but display technology is catching up). But a real answer has to embrace active/reactive changing arrays (the chameleon solution, although I thing the cuttlefish does it best). This is a materials and information challenge. There are ways to do it, but at the moment they lack durability and economy and are barely more than creative ideas.
I’ve been designing and researching this problem for 46 years. It you want my advice (the best I can provide without charging my hourly consulting rate): you can’t easily match an urban background, but urban areas do provide lots of stuff to hide behind. Like any practical camouflage, effectiveness depends not only on design technology and technique, but on training, doctrine, and good sense.
Tim, sorry for the Necro-posthere . The thing about urban camo is that like rural areas urban areas are highly variable butbased on differences in culture,building material, construction methods, prevalent lighting( huge factor) etc rather than just climate, geology etc. There are a few decent urban patterns like WASP ,Pencott Metropolis, and the Comb patterns(Rust and Arid) from Arktis. MilspecMonkey also has a good series of articles on his search for a " True Urban Grey" – winds up looking like something between Mas grey, 499tan,and Ranger green. Add in something lighter like Frost or Wolf Grey and having those solid colors available would go a long way, even just a 499 and ranger green lightweight reversible cover-up like an over-white( could be adapted with krylon in a few colors) would be a big step .
Another brilliant John Spencer article!
Sheets used as obscuring “war hack” were also also used, at a minimum, in Grbavica during the Bosnian Civil War; see, e.g., The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia
By Tim Judah (2008).
See also: Owen Bowcott and Alice Ross, Military ‘invisibility cloaks’ could breach Geneva conventions, The Guardian, Monday 14 March 2016 08.23 EDT
Very thought provoking article! Not all military developments need to be oppressively expensive to help achieve our goals.
Excellent article. Inexpensive solutions are often the best. ‘Hacks’ have been a constant trait in warfare (remember, for example, the hedgerow cutters that were applied to Shermans in Normandy). I would suspect that a few more in an urban combat situation would be found when studying some of the major urban combat operations of World War II.
A constant throughout the history of warfare has been to see before being seen. This is certainly true in urban warfare. I would suspect that the miniaturization of UAVs will greatly add to this too. Imagine a swarm of fist- or smaller-sized UAVs dedicated to the squad, platoon, and company level with data-links (probably the biggest hurdle in a cluttered urban environment) and real-time imaging and mapping of reconned areas….