US Marines Launch Assault on Chicago Sewers

In a major shift in tactics, Corps is training on urban streets to prepare for 21st century warfare.

A crack Marine Corps unit showed up in Chicago this week - not to do battle but to learn about sewers and subways.

Armed with pens and quizzical looks, the burr-headed marines are part of an effort by the Marines to hone their skills for urban warfare in the 21st century.

For generations, marines have been trained to fight on beaches, deserts, and other open battlefields. Now, with much of the world's population expected to shift to urban areas over the next 20 years, they are learning how to confront the enemy amid the mirror-skinned skyscrapers and crowded sidewalks of downtown America. It represents one of the biggest shifts in Marine Corps tactics in 70 years.

"This really is the first time we've actually gone into a city and looked to see what's involved in the infrastructure and terrain," says Lt. Col. Jenny Holbert, an officer for the Marines Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., which is in charge of the training.

For the 80 officers involved, it was a clipboard exercise. The marines didn't rappel down the Sears Tower brandishing M-16s or dig foxholes in Wrigley Field.

Instead, they toured some of Chicago's antiquated sewer tunnels, learned about electrical grids, and took notes on police communication tactics. The only conspicuous things, perhaps, were the fatigues.

"They're out here to train their minds," says Marines Lt. Col. Tom O'Leary.

Behind the new thrust is the prediction that 70 percent of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2020.

Although marines have fought in urban areas from Seoul to Somalia, the landscape has changed dramatically. When they fought in Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968, for instance, the tallest buildings were just three stories high. By their own admission, Marine Corps officials say they aren't ready for combat in urban environments. Indeed, they point out that city streets are tough places to wage war because of the density of buildings and people and problems with mobility and communication. "If we're going to do our job right, we've got to figure out how to fight and operate in an urban environment," Colonel Holbert says.

The visit to Chicago is part of a Marines experiment called Urban Warrior, in which officers are developing new combat methods and equipment to wage wars in foreign cities. Over the next year, marines will descend on New York City and Camp Lejeune, N.C., for training and will conduct tactical exercises in Jacksonville, Fla. The experiment began last year with training in a model town at Camp Lejeune and will finish next March with a mock battle in a still-undisclosed West Coast city.

Techniques officers are developing include how to maneuver through streets and alleys, how to move around inside buildings when the power is out and how to handle hazards like sewers. "We're also trying to figure out how to cross from the 16th floor of one skyscraper to the ninth floor of another," Holbert says.

The last time the Marine Corps looked seriously at any kind of new tactics was during the 1920s and '30s, when amphibious assaults were developed.

The goal for the Chicago visit is to learn more about "how a city operates so that we will be better at fighting in any city of the world," Holbert says. The Windy City was chosen as a training ground because it features most of the major elements of an urban setting: skyscrapers, sewers, subways, and crowed sidewalks. Nothing was said about its famed deep-dish pizza.

Local officials welcomed the marines, which may have been the biggest contingent of fatigues in the city since the 1968 Democratic convention.

"We were happy to cooperate - one reason being that we may learn something from them [about] security," says John Camper, of Mayor Richard Daley's office.

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