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Mumbai Lesson: Urban Warfare Tough as Hell

In the Mumbai tragedy, it took three days for India’s police and commandos to overwhelm 10 fanatical fighters who killed some 160 people and wounded nearly 300. The attack speaks to the lethality of guerrilla fighters armed with fanatical fervor and small arms, the difficulties inherent to urban combat and the security challenge of the modern city as soft target.

After the five-plus year battle of Baghdad, Americans have become accustomed to snipers, IEDs and car bombs as the most common urban warfare tactics. The Lahskar-e-Taiba fighters were of a more dangerous breed than a suicide bomber who detonates him or herself in a crowd as the number of casualties was directly related to how long they stayed alive and their ammunition lasted. Although they embraced eventual martyrdom, they sought to delay it as long as possible so as to rack up a higher body count. That is a very difficult enemy to counter.

In a column penned last week, strategist Edward Luttwak called the Indian security forces response “pathetically inadequate in quantity and quality.” Instead of the 200 National Security Guard “Black Cat” commandos tardily dispatched to Mumbai, India should have sent 1,000, Luttwak says. The Indian government response was certainly shoddy, but it should also be kept in mind just how difficult and complex a tactical challenge the Indian security forces faced.

I was reminded of an article written some time back (December 2003) by former Australian Army officer David Kilcullen, of counterinsurgency fame, in that service’s excellent journal. In the piece, Kilcullen discussed close combat in complex terrain, defined as “terrain where you cannot see as far as you can shoot.”

An important point he makes is that more than sheer numbers, urban combat requires “small, networked, mutually supporting semi-autonomous teams.” Even big battles in urban terrain rapidly dissolve into a series of “mini-battles” fought in streets, courtyards and rooms in houses. “If a thousand troops attack a hundred in complex terrain, what ensues is not one large, single battle, but several dozen individual duels and small-group engagements fought over a dispersed area.” He used the Black Hawk Down Mogadishu battle as an example.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters dispersed upon landing in Mumbai into two man teams and rapidly fanned out into the city. Countering such an enemy requires security forces that can also rapidly disperse and operate individually with very high levels of tactical skill. Even the standard ten man section may be too large for such battles, Kilcullen says. Instead, “the four-man fire team may become the true building block for the close fight in the first quarter of the 21st century.”

I would be curious to know how many countries possess troops with that required level of tactical skill and unit cohesion. Kilcullen’s piece in the Australian Army Journal brings up an interesting discussion as we contemplate how to counter what are sure to be future Mumbai style attacks and is well worth a read, along with an earlier piece he wrote in the June 2003 issue.

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