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    Proceedings Article Index

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    Urban Warfare Transforms the Corps

    1st Prize, Marine Corps Essay Contest Sponsored by Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems

    Major Kelly P. Houlgate, U.S. Marine Corps
    Proceedings, November 2004

    (D. J. FOSCO)

    Combat is bloody, materiel-driven, and chaotic—here, Marines engaged in Najaf, Iraq. The time has come for the Marine Corps to change the perception that the high-tech U.S. war machine fights at a disadvantage in urban areas. The focus must shift to urban warfare.

    By 2020, 85% of the world’s inhabitants will be crowded into coastal cities—cities generally lacking the infrastructure required to support their burgeoning populations. Under these conditions, long-simmering ethnic, nationalist, and economic tensions will explode and increase the potential of crises requiring U.S. intervention.”[1] Likely U.S. enemies include a wide array of possibilities: al Qaeda terrorists; dictatorial strongmen; drug cartels; or perhaps tribal/ethnic strife leading to humanitarian crises. These potential adversaries realize that fighting high-tech U.S. forces in open terrain is suicidal, and thus enemies will tend to operate in cities and towns, attempting to use the urban terrain to neutralize U.S. technology. Therefore, it appears the most likely type of future conflict will be urban warfare.

    Though Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom have dominated our nation’s view of modern warfare, post-Vietnam conflicts have been characterized primarily by urban warfare. Of 26 conflicts fought over the past two decades, 21 have involved urban areas, and 10 have been exclusively urban.[2] The Corps’ experience in Lebanon, Panama, Khafji, Somalia, Liberia, and the Balkans demonstrated the need to be able to conduct a wide array of operations in close terrain. The battles for Iraqi cities such as Nasiriyah, Najaf, and Fallujah show that high-intensity urban combat has changed little since the days of Stalingrad, Seoul, or Hué. As the global war on terrorism continues, it is increasingly necessary that the Corps adopt an institutional focus on fighting and winning in urban areas.

    In light of our nation’s future strategic requirements, the Marine Corps needs redefining. It should focus the majority of its effort on developing and disseminating urban warfare doctrine. While the Corps is studying future urban warfare, it has yet to accept fully that urban warfare is likely to be the Corps’ primary role in the future. Despite a visionary warning from former Commandant General Charles Krulak concerning the “Three Block War,” the Corps has done little to develop and advance an urban-warfare ethos and mind-set.[3]

    Problems in Teaching and Training

    Corps-wide urban combat training remains limited and very basic.[4] The Basic School and the recruit training regiments give military operations in urban terrain scant treatment. For the Corps to take on urban combat as an all-encompassing focus, it must become second nature and fundamental to entry-level training.

    Fleet training is also limited and surprisingly unchanged over the past 15-20 years, despite experience in urban conflicts. The capstone unit training exercise is still the 29 Palms-based combined arms exercise, which undeniably prepared the Corps for Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, but remains focused on operations in desert terrain and on mechanized tactics, techniques, and procedures. The combined arms exercise is superb training, and the Corps needs to retain mechanized and combined arms excellence, but this is training for the last war.

    Training facilities across the Marine Corps for military operations in urban terrain are small U.S. suburban-style mock towns with concrete construction and wide streets. While the infantrymen and engineers practice “room-clearing” in these tiny facilities, logisticians, communicators, and aviators, to list only a few specialties, get almost no training and are left on their own to create training opportunities for urban combat. Clearing an enemy from an urban defensive position is a crucial skill for an infantryman or engineer, but it is just one of many skills needed to succeed in urban combat. One would be hard-pressed to find a logistician or intelligence Marine who, in training, has had to supply a unit in simulated urban combat or collect against a changing urban enemy for even two consecutive weeks.

    Marine Corps urban training also lacks the most crucial component of any training for war: live-fire combined arms. It is undeniable that the application of firepower against an urban enemy is perhaps the most challenging of tasks in modern warfare, but the Corps has no facility or range to assist its warriors in the accomplishment of this task. There are small-arms urban training ranges, and “Yodaville” at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is useful for air-to-ground urban combat training, but nowhere is there an opportunity for doing what needs to be done in combat—urban combined arms. As a result, Marines must relearn lessons from past conflicts each time urban combat occurs.


    In terms of doctrine, the new (draft) Marine Corps Warfare Publication (MCWP) 3-35.3 is an excellent start. The most important task for Marine Corps leaders and educators is to disseminate this important document throughout the Corps. This should include not only the MCWP itself, but also supporting documents, such as cargo-pocket-sized field manuals and “gouge cards.” In addition, subordinate publications, detailing specific urban warfare roles, missions, tactics, techniques, and procedures for specific military occupational specialties (MOSs), should be developed and disseminated to the Corps. Though the new MCWP may never reach the Corps-wide familiarity level of the ubiquitous Fleet Marine Force Manual I (Warfighting), the goal should be to elevate MCWP 3-35.3 to that level of familiarity and distribution.

    At the heart of the MEU’s area of operations (AO) was Tarin Kowt, a small town of 17,000. The lush vegetation that follows several watersheds leading down to the town contrasts sharply with the steep, arid mountains that surround it. At the bottom of the Tarin Kowt “bowl” (at 4,400 feet) was an old abandoned dirt airstrip that became the centerpiece of the 22d MEU’s air-ground operations.


    © 2004 The Naval Institute. All rights reserved.

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