US tests new tactics in urban warfare
Fallujah fight may offer verdict on training - and whether control can bring peace.
FORT POLK, LA.
In recent years the US military has devoted much money and effort to preparing for 21st-century urban warfare - and this preparation may be facing its fiercest test yet in the Euphrates city of Fallujah, as the initial offensive began Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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Fallujah's narrow streets, mosques, and ancient neighborhoods make the city an archetype of an insurgents' redoubt. Defenders will try to use their knowledge of the terrain to gain advantage over the better armed and trained Americans. US forces will likely tighten a noose around contested areas, while attacking from unexpected directions in an attempt to confuse the enemy.
In the long run, the central question may be whether physical control of Fallujah equates to its eventual pacification. In the short run, there's little doubt that US forces will eventually gain control of the city, say military officials and outside experts. New training, tactics, and equipment - plus the weight of American firepower - will see to that.
US commanders hope Fallujah will prove an opportunity to weaken the insurgency, but they don't count on it. Fallujah "has the potential of being a very intense fight, even for a matter of weeks, but I don't think it's a center of gravity," says Maj. Gen. William Webster, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose forces are undergoing a final urban-training exercise at Fort Polk, in preparation for deployment to Iraq. It would be a center of gravity only if the enemy concentrates there, he says.
In many respects, the fight for Fallujah - dubbed Operation Phantom Fury - epitomizes the urbanization of conflict in Iraq and around the world, as insurgents and terrorist groups increasingly operate concealed in sprawling population centers in a bid to survive against militarily superior government forces.
As the world's urban population has multiplied from roughly half a billion in 1950 to more than 3 billion today, while the size of the US military has fallen sharply, cities such as Fallujah are posing daunting demands on the resources of US commanders, who must carefully pick and choose where to allocate forces to "make manageable the chaos," writes Russell Glenn, an expert in urban warfare, in a 2004 RAND briefing. He likens the challenge of urban combat to the parable of blind men "visualizing the elephant."
"Moving into urban terrain is the one way our adversaries can level the playing field," says Col. Randy Gangle (Ret.), director of the Marines Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at Quantico, Va. "It's the most complex battle space you can find yourself in, the way buildings conceal and channelize your movement and give your enemy cover, and the civilians that compact the problem."
The clutter of buildings creates unlimited fighting positions for enemy forces, while making it harder for US forces to see and communicate.