Asymmetric Warfare Group Lessons Learned from Modern Urban Operations from 1980 to the Present

Modern Urban Operations: Lessons Learned from Urban Operations from 1980 to the Present

Page Count: 39 pages
Date: November 2016
Restriction: None
Originating Organization: Asymmetric Warfare Group
File Type: pdf
File Size: 407,703 bytes
File Hash (SHA-256): 85B353B2B1FDC476F11CEBDF0D7D495F5A89BBFCB06B30066BE6F45C3769392B

Download File

Urban warfare is not a new phenomenon. The U.S. Army saw urban combat in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and elsewhere. Starting with World War II, overall armed conflict began to occur around centers with a high population density. This new backdrop for conflict has caused a whole new set of challenges, especially in an era of public scrutiny. The “Army’s capacity to engage, fight, and win major urban combat operations will determine the success of future operational and strategic endeavors.”


To illuminate best practices to execute urban operations in Iraq, AWG identified lessons learned from modern urban warfare from 1980 to the present. AWG’s lens was similar to JFCOM’s 2004-06 joint experiment Urban Resolve: “How can [the U.S. Army] fight in urban terrain against an intelligent, determined, well-equipped adversary and win quickly without unacceptable casualties to ourselves or our allies, unacceptable civilian casualties, or unacceptable destruction of infrastructure?” To that end, AWG looked at the following examples:

  • British operations in Northern Ireland (1980-98)
  • Israeli Defense Force (IDF) operations in Lebanon (1982-2006)
  • The Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95)
  • The Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia (1993)
  • Russian operations in Grozny, Chechnya, Russia (1994-95 and 1999-2000)
  • U.S. operations in Baghdad and Fallujah, Iraq (2003-04)
  • Lebanese Armed Forces operations in Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon (May-Sep 2007)
  • The Russo/Georgian War, Georgia (2008)
  • IDF operations in the West Bank, Israel (2014)
  • The Second Battle of Donetsk, Ukraine (2014-15)

Lessons Learned


  • Urban operations are seldom short-lived or low-cost.
  • Civilian casualties are a major concern in urban operations. However, concerns over collateral damage (civilian casualties and property damage/destruction) generally decline as friendly military casualties increase.
  • Generally speaking, the side that is less concerned with the safety of the civilian population has the advantage, especially if this is coupled with a disregard for reporting the truth and adeptness at manipulating international opinion.


  • Urban operations are resource-intensive, specifically requiring large numbers of soldiers and units to effectively clear and hold sections of terrain.
  • Doctrine, tactics, training, and equipment meant specifically for urban warfare improves military effectiveness in urban environments.
  • Rules of engagement must be clear given the ambiguous nature of urban warfare.
  • Urban warfare is high-tempo, stressful, and violent, resulting in higher casualties and higher soldier “burn-out”.
  • Bombing and close-air support can support, but not win by itself, urban operations. Airpower (or other standoff, heavy weapons such as artillery) used alone usually requires the complete destruction of urban areas versus seizing and holding terrain to achieve objectives, but this is often strategically counterproductive.
  • Warfare in an urban environment necessitates decentralized, small-unit operations at the tactical level, with junior leaders capable of operating independently using initiative, adaptability, and good judgment.
  • Adversaries will use existing civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, churches, banks, and government buildings because they often are in tactically useful locations, command key terrain or lines of communications, and are solidly built. Further, many are considered noncombatant or neutral sites which discourage friendly forces from attacking them.


  • Combined arms warfare is essential in urban operations, with armor supporting infantry, infantry supporting armor, and indirect fire and air support supporting both.
  • Adversaries can leverage the urban terrain to canalize military forces; negate friendly forces’ equipment and technology advantages; and engage with multiple weapon systems, such as IEDs, ATGMs, and snipers, from various concealed positions.
  • Adversaries will increasingly use the multi-domain characteristics available in urban environments, such as subterranean, to mask their operations and counter friendly forces’ traditional military advantages.
  • HUMINT is essential to identify adversaries in urban environments.
  • Units must adapt for urban operations: task organizing as appropriate (including enabler integration), equipping beyond MTOE authorizations, and reducing soldier load to increase mobility and agility.


  • Civilians will be on the urban battlefield. Commanders must balance operational necessity with minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.
  • Urban operations frequently result in higher casualty rates. Commanders must plan appropriately to mitigate this. However, commanders should not allow casualty rates to reduce attempts to limit civilian casualties.
  • Urban operations are resource- and Soldier-intensive. Commanders must plan adequate quantities and types of forces to successfully conduct urban operations. Because urban operations are fast-paced, violent, and stressful, commanders must plan for the relief or replenishment of forces.
  • Urban operations are a combined arms fight. Commanders should use armor and infantry together. Indirect and air firepower should be used to support ground fighting. Appropriate enablers, such as engineers, should be used to ensure freedom of movement for maneuver forces.
  • Urban operations are multi-domain. Adversaries will use all aspects of physical and virtual domains to mitigate friendly technological and other advantages. Commanders must do the same.
  • Urban operations are often a decentralized fight. Small-unit commanders must be resourced and empowered to operate independently based on mission command.
  • Enabling efforts such as information operations and intelligence are often more than just supporting but instead vital to the success of urban operations.
  • Urban operations do not end upon completion of hostilities. Commanders must plan for post-operation support to the populace, to help ensure a return to normalcy for civilians in the urban centers.



The Ukrainian revolution in February 2014 resulted in the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, on 27 February, the Crimean peninsula was occupied by “unmarked” Russian troops and later annexed as part of the Russian Federation. Russia used political protests in the Ukraine to affirm their position to protect ethnic minority Russians living abroad. Following the annexation of Crimea, rebel factions in Donbass and Luhansk, backed by regular Russian forces, attempted to gain more autonomy within Ukraine. This led to a “de-facto” civil war in Ukraine, with the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic forces, backed by Russian forces, engaging regular Ukrainian forces for control of their areas. During two years of fighting, the most intense urban combat between Ukrainian and Separatist/Russian forces has occurred in the city of Donetsk, with the airport a central engagement zone between the two forces. There have been two “battles” or periods of intense fighting on this key terrain, with the second being the most decisive and resulting in Ukrainian forces withdrawing to Pisky, outside of the city. Adaptations and adjustment of tactics were seen on both sides, with the Ukrainian forces severely unprepared for an open military conflict at the onset of the war. Russian forces and their separatist counterparts created a modern day adaptation of hybrid warfare, integrating newer Russian technologies into their strategies to test new systems and tactics. While the conflict is still ongoing, the Second Battle of Donestk Airport in 2014 displayed the most modern example of hybrid warfare in an urban setting.

Lessons Learned


  • Information operations continue to remain essential to the success of any urban campaign. Control over media messaging and use of social media to perpetuate narratives has proven vital to Russia’s continued involvement in Ukraine. Russia can continue to use the “protection of ethnic Russian minorities” to justify military action in foreign sovereign states to great effect. As seen in Georgia previously, Ukraine at present, and potentially other border countries, Russia justifies their actions through effective messaging and inspiring internal conflict within the opposition nation.


  • Navigation in the urban environment can be difficult, especially if navigation tools are inoperable. GPS spoofing has had great effects on Ukrainian forces, limiting navigation accuracy and causing confusion in the Ukrainian forces.
  • Military forces should use UAV platforms for reconnaissance and fire support. Russian platforms were improved significantly since 2008, providing better realtime reconnaissance of Ukrainian positions and providing another forward observer option to coordinate fires. Russian UAVs would fly in pairs, one at low altitude to draw fire and one at high altitude to locate the threat and facilitate responding fire.
  • Urban operations often require specialized equipment to enhance unit effectiveness. Russian-supplied enhanced optics, heavy armor, artillery, and air platforms enhanced the capabilities of the separatist force by creating a new “beyond peer” force within the separatist ranks.

Share this: