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Concrete Jungle: The Future of Urban Warfare

In January 2017, the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report acknowledged steady urbanisation and human migration to cities as an emerging security challenge. In 2018, the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities supported the creation of a dedicated urban combat training school. And on 29 August, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that it was looking for complex, human-made “university-owned or commercially managed underground urban tunnels and facilities” for its tactical technology office to test a new project in. Furthermore, during the past summer, hundreds of U.S. Marines participated in ‘Project Metropolis II’, an urban warfare training exercise jointly carried out with their British counterparts. 

Source: The Times

DARPA’s announcement shows a growing understanding among security planners that the planet’s cities are tomorrow’s battlefield. Rural insurgencies have not disappeared but recent trends show the increase in intrastate conflict involving non-state actors who use the advantages of cites to achieve their political goals. This implies a need to step up the Marine Corps’ game in urban strategies because, according to the United Nations, by 2050 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban environment. There has also been a great deal of turnover in the Marine Corps since combat operations slowed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, due to the tensions heating up with Iran, China and Russia, it is likely that Marines could face a far more sophisticated enemy than the insurgent groups they have fought in the past.

Source: Army Times

The Metropolis II Program evolved from the Marine Corps Urban Warrior experimentation and largely consists of technologies and structural changes. The main conclusion that emerged from the training was the high relevance of tactics, techniques and procedures in an urban battle. In 2001, the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory conducted a series of battalion-level urban warfare exercises named ‘Project Metropolis’, building on earlier experiments from the 1990s that had highlighted alarmingly high casualty rates among friendly forces in city environments. The experiments showed that the high initial rate of casualties experienced by Marine units consistently decreased after hard and realistic training in managing conflict in a city or town.

Project Metropolis II is a five-year experimental program that the Marine Corps has conducted as part of its Sea Dragon 2025 concept. Each year there will be a focus on a different warfighting function in which Marines will be armed with prototypes of emerging technologies. The early weeks of their training will focus on mastering the new gear and putting to test new technologies in a more complex urban setting similar to the future warzone. They will then move onto training in a highly contested environment before a four-day force-on-force exercise. Whereas current urban training concentrates on best practices with current technology, Project Metropolis II will seek to integrate new gear or find new ways to use existing tools. In fact, Marines tested different infantry squad sizes to incorporate drone operators. The next step is trying to incorporate a test on organisational teams that will operate with a new tactical self-driving vehicle, the Expeditionary Monitor Autonomous Vehicle, which will carry a .50-caliber machine gun. Rifle squads will continue experimenting with unmanned aerial systems and ground robots that have the ability to map the insides of buildings and aid decision-making.

Last summer, training focused on sensing and locating the threat, speed of decision versus speed of action, lethality, command and control and manoeuvre. The training operated in the new 12-Marine rifle squad configuration, including a squad systems operator that will help bring cyber, electronic warfare and unmanned vehicles to the fingertips of the squad. To explore those areas, Marines worked towards five goals: to improve the situational awareness of small units operating in a Dense Urban Environment (DUE); to improve the ability of platoon and company level headquarters to process information, issue direction and grant authorisation; to expand the scope and depth of lethal engagement options available to the small units operating in a DUE; to improve the ability of small units to operate in and dominate subterranean environments; to examine and assess developing technologies to improve the ability of landing forces to operate in a DUE.  This focus emphasises the need to fight with a new mix of armour and infantry that support each other without sacrificing manoeuvre warfare capabilities. 


Instead of trying to solve urban warfare challenges by only incorporating brand new technologies, the training will in future focus further on a few core configurations whose personnel would be instructed in urban conflict. Forces would move in small groups to create clear areas, moving with greater manoeuvrability and the ability to operate separately and attack any enemies on several fronts. This tactic is facilitated by new robotic reconnaissance technologies, allowing the Marines to save time in reconnaissance missions and avoid unexpected enemy attacks.

Results gleaned from the first phase spawned a comprehensive basic urban skills training curriculum that ranges from the individual Marine to the company combined arms level. 

The current need is to fill the communications gap between the squad leader and the platoon commander. Different options are under consideration, including the Racal multiband inter/intra team radio (MBITR) multispectral radio. The optimum system for a rifleman would have a push-to-talk capability that does not require moving hands far from his weapon system. This could be in the form of a chest-mounted button or even a wireless one attached to the rifle. 

In the future, the U.S. military may be involved in some capacity in any type of conflict. It is therefore critical for the U.S., its allies and its partners to reassess their readiness for these eventualities. The U.S. military has jungle, mountain, and arctic warfare schools, but not an urban one and so the Metropolis II may be an effective approach to have an on-field readiness to overcome new urban challenges. With a five-year framework, it is likely that the program will contribute a substantial improvement in tactical and operational terms, together with the inclusion of new technologies created to be effective in urban areas.

This exercise could be a great success even at European level: armies could take inspiration
and replicate a similar project to provide their soldiers with the ability to deal with an urban conflict in a much more effective way. At the same time, the European defence industry could further develop the latest technologies and make them specific to tackle a guerrilla war. Therefore, even Europe may benefit from Metropolis II, using this model and training its soldiers for the future of the war.

Written by Flaminia Del Monte, European Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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