Maj Gen Richard Natonski briefing Task Force 2-2 prior to Operation Al-Fajr of the Second Battle of Fallujah
Military Operations in Urbanised Terrain (MOUT) is defined by US DOD as all operations planned and conducted across the range of military operations on or against objectives within, a topographical complex and its adjacent natural terrain where man-made construction or the density of non-combatants are the dominant feature. These operations are conducted to defeat an enemy that is almost always mixed in with civilians. Therefore, the rules of engagement (ROE) and use of combat force are heavily restrictive than in other conditions of combat.
As briefed earlier, in spite of a great build up of force, MOUT is always a very difficult sort of operation to achieve success in. Urban warfare is still the most vicious form of warfare. It takes the soldier back to the most primitive type of warfare demanding great tenacity, great precision, great courage and above all to conduct operations with little support fire in the most dangerous of situations. Therefore battle planners must be absolutely clear on why they are getting locked into this particularly risky type of operation and how the target fits to the overall battleplan. The risks involved with MOUT was also well versed by Sun Tszu in 500BC when he said that the worst policy (operation) was to attack cities.
Before the second World War most of the main theatres of battle were fought in open fields where the belligerents were lined up in formation. Because of this, fighting in cities or built up areas did not receive much attention until battles broke out in major cities like STALINGRAD or BERLIN towards the middle/end of World War II hence not until 1944 soldiers saw the first doctrines and guidance on how MOUT was conducted. But still soldiers came unstuck and found themselves in unfavourable terrain particularly in HUE during the 1968 TET offensive where the Marines had great experience in jungle but not in urban terrain. Hence it was not until 1979 after the Vietnam war the US Army published a separate Field Manual (90-10) for such operations; Military Operations in Urban Terrain.
With the continuous urbanisation of territory with increasing population and particularly due to 4th Generation warfare it is inevitable that any modern armed force will not encounter confrontations in urbanised terrain one way or another. I have chosen the Battle of FALLUJAH of 2004 because it is considered to be a turning point in modern military evolution due to the new technologies and tactics of the information era and the involvement of 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) characterised by a stateless entity fighting a state.
FALLUJAH located some 40 miles West of Baghdad spans 30 Sq Kms with a population of roughly 300000. It is a city comprising of over 2000 blocks of civilian property, hospitals, industrial sectors and its own 6 lane highway. Due to the 90 odd mosques in the city it was also known as the city of a hundred mosques. However, it was also reputed as the city of the Sunnis with an exclusive culture that instilled hatred against Shiites and Americans. When the coalition forced the Baath party and Saddam out of Iraq the Sunnis particularly of the Al-ANBAR province which made up the Sunni triangle did not accept the end of Saddam because since 1959 the Sunni minority had controlled the political power of Iraq and FALLUJAH was a main source of Baath party supporters.
The presence of Coalition forces, loss of political power, hatred instilled by default towards Americans, backed by the highly urbanised, highly populous terrain made FALLUJAH an excellent recipe for a well dug in insurgency.
After the unsuccessful first battle of FALLUJAH code named Vigilant Resolve which was conducted in response to the death of the 4 Blackwater operatives, it was decided to launch the second battle of FALLUJAH code named Operation Al-FAJR (originally named Phantom Fury). The first operation ended with the Marines striking an agreement with local Fallujahn leaders to handover weaponry of the insurgents to the FALLUJAH Brigade (FB) which was composed of former members of the Iraqi army and Saddam's special security forces. However, the FB failed in its mission and in some instances were part of insurgent activity by surrendering its weapons and vehicles to the insurgents. By September 2004 the FB was disbanded and Operation Al-FAJR (New Dawn) was launched.
Phase I of the operation involved Psy ops to release deceiving information to mislead the insurgents and to drive away as much as civilians as possible to reduce civilian casualties. HUMINT teams specialising in Arabic and interrogation during this phase obtained vital intelligence on insurgent positions. Phase II with a barrage of electronic, aerial, artillery attacks on specific targets determined by Phase I was launched on 7th November 04. The initial strike was meant to soften up enemy pillboxes and exhaust them physically and mentally. As an diversion to mask the actual assault from the North, a Southern thrust initiated the ground assault with the two bridges running across the Euphrates and the hospital captured cutting off the town from the peninsula. This was phase II.
Phase III involved the actual thrust of Al-FAJR which was initiated from the Northern limits while the blackjacks had sealed off the city from the South and the East. Using eight of 2000 pound bombs and bulldozers the Marines blew the railroad berm and captured the railway station that provided a vital foothold (explained below) that provided covering fire for engineers to clear minefields and the rail tracks. In urban warfare it is paramount the force maintain its momentum, not allowing the defender a respite to regroup and position predesigned kill zones, pill boxes and strong points. The original time frame for the Marines to enter the centre of the city was 72 to 96 hours. However the troops managed to achieve their objective within 43 hours and by the 11th of November they had reached the Southern limits of the city and had begun the search and attack stage of the operation which involved house to house clearing operations.
Small units of Marines using tactics similar to the German storm troopers of 1918 spearheaded the assault paving the way for the main assault by infiltrating enemy defences. M1 tanks protected with TUSK and Stryker fighting vehicles provided vital direct fire support with its 120mm HEAT rounds with the support of Combined Anti-Armour teams (CAAT). Even though it may be thought that armour are invincible in MOUT as the battles of Grozny of 1994 between Russia and Chechnya highlights, lack of coordination between armour and dismounted infantry bears the potential to disable or destroy armour. Hence it is important to ensure proper coordination between infantry and armour.
As the Marine armour rolled through the streets of FALLUJAH, infantry cleared adjacent buildings. Snipers and FOs directed tanks to their targets. At times tracer bullets and M203 grenades were used to guide tanks to their targets. Without such guidance tanks as with any supporting fire always pose the risk of engaging wrong targets. Despite the overall good coordination between CAAT and armour there were incidents where Bradleys were penetrated by ATGMs and MBTs flipping over craters. Despite the odd mishap the troops continued to pummel the insurgents.
CAS was provided mainly by rotary wing assets and AC130 gunships both day and night. AC130 gunships proved its value since its various canon choices provided weaponry with smaller blast radii and did not require a FAC unlike other fixed wing platforms. In CAS where close quarter battles are the norm, fixed wing aircraft find it harder to distinguish enemy and friendly positions.
Under the cover of supporting fire Marine squads minimised exposure on FALLUJAH streets and ran from house to house in a stack with some dispersion applying three dimensional security. Infantry squads armed with Shoulder launched multipurpose assault weapons (SMAW), M-16s, M203 grenade launchers and M4 carbines cleared building to building, room to room either using top-down or bottom-up clearing techniques. As MOUT doctrine dictates there is no standard assault method. Squad leader bears the responsibility to assess advantages and disadvantages of each method, to assess the target structure quickly and make a decision to maximise the advantages while minimising the disadvantages. Traditional MOUT training also involves non-standard entry methods to add the lost elements of tactical surprise in MOUT. In either method speed (not haste) exercising tactical patience is the key. On average marines were involved in clearing at least 60 structures a day and entry through blown up walls or windows takes time hence the great majority of entry still involved existing doors. Using their experience squad leaders upon contact with the enemy in a house was to either break contact or flood the house holding onto the foothold. Footholds are strongpoints from which the squad will fight or reinforce. All this requires extensive training physical as well as verbal. However, the most effective form of training in a combat environment is for the squad leader to sit down and talk with his squad and discuss various combat scenarios.
Two different classes of defending insurgents were observed. One group’s main objective was to eliminate as many Marines as possible after engaging on a terrain of their choosing and evade employing guerrilla warfare. The second group were martyrs who unlike the first group would fight till death. They would wait in fortified positions armed with no egress routes. They would have machine gun positions facing each entry point of buildings with IEDs. The guerrilla’s had preplanned, well rehearsed egress routes with minimum exposure in the streets. To reduce exposure to snipers they would always withdraw parallel to the Marine lines (FLOT).
Even before phase III ended, by December 2004, Phase IV was initiated in the sectors that were cleared which involved the humanitarian relief and reconstruction. Civil-Military coordination centres, civilian relief distribution sites were formed for returning residents. Vehicles and civilians were only allowed into the city after a thorough security check to prevent infiltrations. Priority was given to employ Fallujahns for the reconstruction effort which helped to reduce the unemployment rate of the Al-ANBAR province. By December 23rd the city was declared open by the coalition. The Army’s withdrawal from Fallujah did not however, end the fighting. The Marines continued to filter out and kill the few remaining die-hard insurgents for weeks after.
As mentioned above tactical doctrine stresses that MOUT be conducted only when required and that built-up areas are isolated and bypassed rather than locked in a costly, time-consuming operation. Well aware of the Tigers’ ability to resist tooth and nail particularly in defending the largest built-up area in Wanni; KILINOCHCHI, the battleplanners as briefed earlier made the entire KILINOCHCHI built-up area into a massive salient and avoided a protracted close quarter battles under monsoon skies. The intention of the Tigers were well seen in clearing operations of the town when prepared strongpoints, high volume of IEDs facing pre-determined kill zones particularly around public institutions such as the hospital, school in an attempt to re-enact the stand off at the DZERZHINSKY tractor factory in STALINGRAD. However, thanks to the far sighted battleplanners of the Sri Lankan forces it was not to be. The 1995 battles of JAFFNA and modern military strategy had taught them well.
As 59 moved North from WELIOYA conducting its battles mainly in jungle terrain and smaller built up areas such as MULLIYAWALI, it came across the PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU (PTK) town limits. There were no flanks available to exploit except the thin coastal isthmus North of MULLATIVU but the risks involved in forging ahead of a Division sized column along a narrow frontage did not allow this.
The PUTHUKKUDIYIRUPPU (PTK) built-up roughly spans 5Km West to East and runs towards the Northern edge of the NANTHIKADAL lagoon. This hampered the 593's initial plan of circumventing the MULLATIVU town altogether and cutting the A35 thereby isolating the entire MULLATIVU coastal strip from the North of the lagoon. A similar strategy was successfully employed in capturing NACHCHIKUDA, Devil's point and ALAMPIL. The difference this time was the built-up. Despite psy-ops to drive civilians out of the way towards the new safe zone still a number of civilians were found among the PTK buildings and in shrub jungles adjoining the built-up areas.
Adherence to the precepts of avoiding urbanised combat at all costs, though valid, was becoming increasingly difficult for the battleplanners in this situation for the following reasons.
- The limited land space available severely restricted the manoeuvre capabilities of the forces, thus to flood away the Tiger defences as done in KILINOCHCHI was impossible
- The available flank to circumvent the PTK town limits from the Eastern edge presented a narrow, open frontage sandwiched between the Safety zone and the built-up and complimented with salty marsh lands. A narrow frontage with limitations in mobility is inherently risky.
- The psy-ops conducted by SLA signals and SLAF meant the majority of civilians had moved to the safety zone which was roughly 4-5km away from the FLOT of SLA thus any escaping civilians had to cross roughly 4-5 Kms to reach to safety. Such a distance through a landmass containing a high concentration of IEDs and anti-personnel mines seriously affects the wherewithal of any civilian willing to cross over to Government territory.
- If not for the concerns of civilian safety the SLA can roll over the remaining tiger strongholds in a matter of days. Therefore the strategy involved on taking the FLOT as close as possible to the boundaries of the safety zone where in a small matter of 5-10 minute trip across the lagoon will guarantee a cross over for the civilians and reduce the number of civilians within the safety zone dramatically. To achieve this the SLA were required to take on the PTK built-up.
Therefore battleplanners set to work in attempt to isolate the PTK built-up area as much as possible to disrupt the Tiger supply and medevac lines by moving the three prongs of 58 from the North towards PTK thus disrupting the Tiger supplies from the PUTHUMATTALAN safety zone running through IRANAPALAI junction. 58’s Southern movement also augmented the Southern push of 55 Division as mentioned in my previous brief since the risks involved in forging ahead along a narrow frontage comprising of land features that severely restricts logistical movement. Meanwhile 682 brigade concentrated on disrupting the A35 that was connecting PTK from the safety zone just North of MULLATIVU by moving towards the Northern edge of the NANTHIKADAL lagoon. This movement has been slow due to the open paddy fields and the possible infiltrations from the flank facing the lagoon as occurred before. Towards inland 681 has been spearheading along with 583 and 582 brigades in MOUT operations while 53 Divisional elements have been concentrating on clearing the built-up area combing house to house. This is the supporting role in MOUT.
Unlike on previous occasions where the strategy involved eliminating as much as Tiger cadres from the battlefield before claiming and consolidating real estate, speed and momentum were given prominence during the battles for PTK. Speed and momentum are vital elements of any MOUT operations because the last thing a commander needs is time consuming confrontations in this risky, highly demanding type of operations. Furthermore it presents the potential for taking considerable amount of casualties due to restrictions in manoeuvrability, force employment and expenditure of critical resources in the process.
The shrinking territory also meant for the first time in the conflict the ground commanders were enjoying a full consistent 24 hour coverage of the target areas with SLAF’s recon assets, which earlier during the conflict were overstretched. This coverage formerly known as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) is now called in modern parlance as C4ISR with the addition of the 4Cs; Command, Control, Communications and Computer. Even though its at its infancy in the Sri Lankan conflict it provided rich data for commanders to assess the ground situation on a 24/7 basis. It was such a luxury and the advantages were telling. Such data are crucial enablers for mobility and firepower. It is important to have detailed data of the terrain you are engaging the enemy in especially in urban terrain since observation and fields of fire are usually restricted to the paths and alleys between building blocks and is further obscured due to smoke, debris and dust due to fighting. Observation and fields of fire are also restricted according to the type and height of the building structures hence taller buildings are of value to both parties as observation posts (OPs).
Urban terrain provided excellent cover and concealment for both the SLA and the Tigers. The effectiveness of cover depended on the type structure i.e density of walls and type of construction. However, the defender; the Tigers had in some cases turned some houses into rubble and rigged some with IEDs that were likely to be used by the SLA for cover and concealment. Trenches ran through roads to hinder the movement of armour. Rubble created by IEDs, mortars and CAS were also a contributing factor for restricted movement. Tactical surprise most of the time in MOUT is non-existent hence to offset this soldiers at times employed nonstandard entry points into houses through walls or windows. Squad leaders also varied type of entry to mask their movement using deception to confuse the enemy and use imagination to vary entry tactics.
Using carefully selected OPs strengthened with five zero posts, good reconnaissance, town maps (not 100% accurate due to constant change of man made structures) and building architect drawings if available (mainly of Government property i.e hospitals) the SLA mapped out the terrain and marked out decisive terrain and critical public areas such as schools and hospitals. Decisive terrain involves critical town areas that could provide a strategic advantage (e.g. PTK junction,IRANAPALAI junction) to either side and critical public areas such as hospitals were important to be secured since it provided the Tigers an on field dressing station. Further it was paramount to secure it to minimise the damage in accordance with laws of war. Zones were set up and assigned for each platoon commander. Once the area was mapped the next step was to map out avenues of approach and securing suitable footholds for each objective. By default the avenues are along alleys and roads of the town, however these are open ground and may be predesigned kill zones with snipers, MGs or IEDs. Hence the best avenue of all was to approach through existing buildings wherever possible obscuring enemy OPs with smoke. A foothold is a point where the attacker can continue the assault while rapidly building up a force at that point to achieve the objective. It could be a block of houses or one single room. Multiple footholds may be used depending on the objective and may isolate the objective and prevent the enemy from reinforcing the objective area, cut off lines of communication and suppress enemy fire positions. This sort of systematic clearing were the only option for field commanders if enemy defences were dense and if no critical objectives or decisive terrain were in sight.
In some cases depending on the criticality of a certain objective for example decisive terrain and if the area in question is spread out or lightly defended, commanders may decide to bypass certain strong points and conduct a rapid advance bypassing/suppressing enemy pillboxes within houses and gain control over the decisive terrain and force the bypassed enemy locations to flood away as the rapidly advancing force automatically isolates enemy positions along the way. This method allowed the SLA to reach its critical objectives quicker. Command and control, unit coordination, security of cleared buildings and above all a clear understanding of the Clausewitz’s culmination point was the key. Long, overstretched communication and supply lines running through unsecure terrain was avoided.
Another consideration that was made by the commanders was how to integrate combined arms tactics into the planning. Due to the limits in visibility, on average, MOUT confrontations take place at hugging distance i.e 50m or less. In such a scenario using heavy firepower is limited with minimum arming ranges, back blast of RPGs/LAWs and splash damage radii in mind. Also because of the close nature of combat and broken nature of the urban terrain the time available to engage targets is short. Commanders must also account for dead space created by elevation or depression limits of weapons. Unlike artillery, mortars are the preferred weapons in MOUT as these particularly the 60s and the 81s can be carried to the very edge of the Forward Line of own Troops (FLOT) and can be operated by the squads themselves enabling a firing solution in less than a minute. These are also high trajectory weapons hence dead space where the enemy can take cover is a minimum. Further the splash damage radii is low negating hugging tactics of the defender. Tomba guns are another favourite of MOUT troops. 40mm grenade launchers are ideal for close quarter battles particularly in confined spaces as it causes minimal damage to the structure itself but cause maximum damage to the enemy within a structure. A further advantage is its ability to bounce off walls hence allowing the infantry to fire around corners. Because of the trajectory of the round it can also be delivered behind walls, piles of rubbles or buildings.
MPMGs/GPMGs are the primary direct fire weapons used to suppress designated targets, to establish kill zones or to isolate enemy targets. The cumbersome nature of these weapons makes them inappropriate for clearing houses hence are primarily used for above uses. Open areas along roads and alleys in urban environments meant these weapons were able to achieve grazing fires that are seldom achieved in other terrain. Its rounds will penetrate most urban walls with continued concentrated fire. Tripod mounted 0.50 calibre weapons are capable of producing significant amounts of damage to structures and will penetrate walls with ease. However what limits the capability of MGs is the the limited availability of long fields of fire in urban terrain.
Some of the enemy pillboxes within houses were reinforced with logs and steel with heavy overhead protection. In such a scenario if a direct safe LOS is available RPGs/LAWs were the weapons of choice. Back blast particularly in narrow alleys or rooms, debris that will be kicked off the blast and minimum arming distances are considerations before using such weapons in MOUT. If not infantry were ready to call in the support of armour with devastating effect.
As in FALLUJAH armour played an integral role in PTK MOUT operations. Mounted T55 MBTs and BMP/BTR/dismounted Mech infantry mix proved invaluable. Mech assets were used extensively to break barricades, isolate objectives, deliver squads over to key areas in rapid time bypassing potential kill zones and suppress enemy positions with direct fire support. Wherever troops encountered fortified enemy pillboxes MBTs were called in for a direct fire support role with devastating effect. The secondary weapons of these and thermal NVG sights of certain assets also proved a handful to the defender. Armour also proved to be mobile road blocks. However due to the broken nature of the terrain with obscured fields of fire and limited manoeuvrability at times allows the enemy to close in on armoured vehicles. Therefore it is paramount armour and infantry coordinate to prevent an episode of Grozny in 1994. It is always risky for a single armoured asset to operate on its own hence at least two armoured assets are needed to cover for each other and to rescue a disabled vehicle if required. Good coordination with infantry is essential for mutual survival in MOUT. It is the responsibility of the infantry to clear out and secure any buildings adjacent to the armoured vehicles.
If fixed wing CAS was a hallmark in jungle terrain it was not so in the PTK battles. As mentioned earlier most of the engagements were in close quarter hence it fails to meet the minimum safe distance requirement. Fixed wing CAS has great effects on the ground and a major problem is the amount of time to get the payload on the intended target. Rotary wing CAS are more suited in MOUT especially in the deeper battle space while the immediate theatre requirement of support fire was sufficiently provided by armour. MBTs and supporting troops were the ideal fire support element in MOUT as it provided a firing solution on enemy contact in a matter of minutes.
Despite the era dominated by technology and heavier fire power, MOUT still requires the individual soldier to fight street to street, house to house and even down to room to room. It still demands great courage from individual soldiers to do the most dangerous of jobs in the most dangerous of situations. All these risks and danger were involved due to the great concerns the battleplanners have displayed towards the civilian safety and to leave collateral damage to a bear minimum.
Civilian casualties bring nothing but negative effects to any war machine and is a stepping stone to potential disaster on the media front. Further civilian casualties bears the potential to create hostility among the civilians regardless of how noble the intentions are. This clearly demonstrates the current consensus within the Sri Lankan military machine that battlefield victories alone are worthless if the army fails to muster a victory over the population’s hearts and minds. That is the purpose of the unbelievable bravery and heroism displayed 24/7 by our men.