In 2018, I created a soldier’s urban warfare Christmas list. I limited myself to items that could (mostly) fit under a tree. I have learned since then—or maybe I have just become greedy. Either way, this year I want twelve days of Christmas, with a gift each day that brings a new urban warfare capability, technology, or tool to a formation preparing for or deploying into dense urban terrain for any mission along the range of military operations. The only limitation I imposed on these days of Christmas was to only include capabilities that exist today, or could exist today, rather than future or developing technologies—like technology that enables users to see through concrete walls from a distance, which would also be a nice gift, but is not yet fully available.
As a special holiday treat, the episode of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast that will be released later this week, just as Santa is placing gifts under Christmas trees around the world, will feature a more detailed conversation describing why each of these items should be on the wish list of any military professional preparing for the future of urban warfare. So if you aren’t already subscribed, be sure to find it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss it.
- City watchers. These would be retired US military personnel living in large urban areas around the world with the responsibility to study and monitor them. They would act something like the Coast Watchers of World War II that provided critical intelligence on Japanese activities in the Pacific and served as guides and advisers for arriving Allied forces.
- Warfare watchers. This item on my wish list would consist of a small group of Army officers and senior noncommissioned officers tasked with traveling the world to study the character of urban warfare in major conflicts. These advisers would freely travel with front-line forces, both American and allied. They would provide immediate recommendations to tactical problems, monitor evolving enemy tactics, and share and distribute their solutions and research summaries throughout the operational Army. There have been different variations, types, and forms of watchers in military history—from S.L.A. Marshall to the current-era Asymmetric Warfare Group.
- Google War. In urban combat, the information requirements are often unknown until a mission is being conducted. Cities are complex, adaptive systems that can range from developed smart cities full of sensors to feral cities with complex informal power structures. Soldiers and leaders need the ability to ask and have immediate answers to a wide range of questions depending on the environment and mission. Where is the closest crane, dump truck, data center, or water main? What is the average thickness of the building walls in this area? Where is the tallest building? What does a piece of graffiti mean? Many of these questions are unclassified and could easily be answered by an advanced, open-source search engine like Google.
- Assistant company commander, platoon leader, and squad leader. In urban combat, complexity is compounded, the number of information feeds is larger, and decisions to be made are more frequent because of the environment. An assistant at all levels of the tactical chain of command would reduce the cognitive load and both information-processing and decision-making requirements at the point of need. These assistants would be senior in their rank and would be in training to assume the position they are assisting.
- Body and vehicle cameras. The shear amount of data, interactions, and changes surrounding soldiers in an urban environment exceeds human capabilities to record and process. Information warfare has also become more and more a part of urban operations. A simple camera on every soldier and vehicle would aid in intelligence collection and performing effectively in the information environment.
- Remote, persistent, on-call mentor. In 2008, ten untrained terrorists attacked the megacity of Mumbai, India with military precision akin to that of a highly specialized military unit. One of the key aspects to the terrorists’ proficiency was that they wore earpieces through which military professionals with years of training and experience gave them orders, encouragement, coaching, and real-time intelligence from television and social media. A mentor, with access to soldier body cameras, environmental data, and a career’s worth of experiences, could provide a wide range of support to combat operations.
- Tear gas. This was listed on my urban warfare Christmas list two years ago. Tear gas can be used in the United States for civil disturbances, but not in war against enemy forces. In the 2017 Battle of Marawi, the Philippines military effectively used tear gas to clear multi-level buildings of, at times, over one hundred enemy fighters.
- Flamethrowers. History shows that portable and vehicle-mounted flamethrowers are major force multipliers for clearing enemy bunkers, especially inside buildings, instead of completely destroying them with aerial, high-explosive munitions.
- Winches on all vehicles. This gift comes from an underground warfare experiment that was conducted a few years ago. Winches on vehicles can facilitate underground entry, exfiltration, casualty evacuation, and equipment transport. They can also be used for interior obstacle reduction.
- Lightweight persistent smoke generator. The smoke capabilities in Army infantry, Stryker, and armor units are extremely limited. During the 2017 Battle for Mosul, US forces supporting a major Iraqi Security Forces mission to rescue civilians trapped in an hospital complex had to fire white phosphorus artillery rounds to provide the necessary smoke to conceal the movement of Iraqi forces across a four-lane highway surrounding the objective. Close combat forces need a range of persistent smoke capabilities in urban fights.
- Dismounted remote firing stations. The US Army has battle tested remotely operated weapons stations for army vehicles. But it does not have simple, lightweight remote firing stations for urban defensive operations. If a smaller force was preparing an urban defense against a larger attacker, a simple station allowing even small-caliber weapons like M-4s or sniper rifles would strengthen the defenders’ abilities. Crude but effective versions of this technology was used by Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
- Urban training battle effects. Today, the US Army can only replicate about 60 percent of the capabilities of a brigade combat team at a combat training center. Replication is mostly limited to 1990s technology, such as MILES—the multiple integrated laser engagement system—which replicates direct fire weapons systems, but relies on having a clear line of sight between the laser on the weapon and the sensor on the target. Once in dense urban terrain, these lasers fail to simulate the challenges soldiers will face in combat, such as the effects that various munitions will have—or crucially, will not have—on different types of buildings and their interior spaces. Even innovative uses of the existing sensors could provide the effects of different weapons systems in dense urban terrain.
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute and co-director of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-four years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.