Train as you fight. It’s the first of the Army’s ten principles of training, meant to ensure that the Army will develop and execute tough, realistic training. As long as we train as we fight, no soldier should confront a situation or an environment for the first time in combat. Unfortunately, the Army occasionally ignores this principle. Case in point: despite history and global urbanization trends, the Army doesn’t adequately train for operations in urban environments.  It is time that changed.  The Army needs to establish an urban warfare school to prepare soldiers to fight and survive in dense urban terrain.

The chief of staff of Army, Gen. Mark Milley, recent detailed his thoughts on urban warfare at the annual AUSA conference, stating that the future battlefield “will almost certainly be in dense urban terrain” and that in the future the Army will have to “optimize for urban combat.”  He described the urban environment’s “huge implications” on intelligence collection, vehicles and weapons, target discrimination, and maneuver, and concluded ominously: “Army forces operating in complex, densely populated urban terrain in dense urban areas is the toughest and bloodiest form of combat and it will become the norm, not the exception in the future.”

The military strategist Sun Tzu advised that “the worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.”  Military forces prefer not to fight in cities for good reasons.  With infinite enemy locations, vertical and subterranean confined spaces, massive civilian populations that can be injured or killed, and psychologically taxing operational requirements, it’s no wonder past urban battles have been described as combat in hell.  But alongside Sun Tzu’s maxim sits another, equally venerated in military circles: the enemy has a vote. From the sack of Troy to the ongoing fight against ISIS in Mosul, military operations have been forced into cities, and will continue to be.  Cities provide a witches’ brew of potential instability, conflict, adversary safe havens, and violence.

I argued in two recent articles that the army should create a unit trained, manned, and equipped to operate in megacities—cities with a population of ten million or more.  For many in the military, planning for the use of military forces in a megacity is a non-starter.  I addressed their arguments in my previous articles, but suffice it to say that failing to prepare for a domain of such rapidly growing importance invites disaster. However, I would argue that the problem is bigger than not preparing for megacities: the military doesn’t prepare for cities in general.

The majority of training for urban operations that most soldiers receive is singularly focused on shooting and breaching small buildings.  Soldiers practice, often using mock rooms with engineer tape laid on the ground to represent walls, and (if they’re lucky) culminate with live-fire exercises in shoot houses.

A fire team practices room clearing procedures (Credit: Sgt. Jerry Boffen, 130th Public Affairs Detachment)

The Army can do better, and should, by creating a dedicated urban warfare school that conducts training courses for soldiers and offers a training facility for entire units.

Current Training Sites

The greatest limiting factor that restricts urban warfare training is the Army’s lack of realistic training sites. To train for urban combat, Army doctrine recommends units build home-station facilities.  These can consist of plywood, multi-room buildings, multi-story shoot houses, a handful of metal shipping containers representing built-up areas, or small towns with an assortment of buildings.  The largest home-station site Army doctrine recommends is a Combined Arms Collective Training Facility, with only twenty to twenty-four buildings.  This site is supposed to simulate all attribute of urban terrain—sprawl, a city core, multi-story buildings, roads, alleys, parking areas, underground sewers, and municipal headquarters—all in just two dozen buildings.  And most units don’t have access to even these relatively small training sites.

Without home-station training facilities, units rely on the combat training centers for simulated urban terrain.  But even the urban sites at these locations, like the Shughart-Gordon Training Complex at Fort Polk, Louisiana, are surrounded by woods or desert and include only twenty to thirty buildings.

A Combined Arms and Collective Facility under construction in Camp Grayling, Michigan (Credit: Spec. Alexandria Robinson, 126th Public Affairs Operations Center)

There are some more advanced sites available to Special Forces and other units with special mission sets.  The Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group has a 300-acre urban training site with several full-scale buildings made of modern material like glass and steel.  One of the Army’s largest existing sites is the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, located in southeastern Indiana.  This 1,000-acre site, run by the Indiana National Guard, contains sixty-eight buildings, a reservoir, tunnel system, and over nine miles of roads.  But despite the continued development of these and other training sites, they fail to adequately represent the scale of the structural density of real-world urban operating environments, and they are all missing a vital component of a realistic city: population density.

Where Are The People?

“Dense urban terrain” has become the most recent term of art to describe complex, urban environments, and yet the Army currently lacks a formal definition of it. Army doctrine does have overly neat population categories to distinguish between a town, city, metropolis, and megalopolis.  Joint doctrine describes density in urban environments as density of structures, infrastructure, and people.  Urban studies scholarship conceives of density in various ways, including how many people live in an area, the size of buildings on a given site (floor-area ratio), or how many homes are in an area (dwelling-unit density).  One possible solution for the military is to define dense urban terrain in terms of a population-to-space ratio; 7,000 residents, and their dwellings, per square kilometer seems to be a reasonable density threshold, based on average densities of cities around the world.

Even without defining dense urban terrain, however, these doctrinal and scholarly conceptualizations have an important aspect in common: people.

Recently, Army doctrine replaced the term “military operations on urbanized terrain” with “urban operations,” explaining that this new term, unlike the old one, “assumes that urbanized terrain is populated, and that the populace must be a foremost consideration.”  The concept of urban operations accounts for not only the necessity of eliminating enemy forces, but also the presence of and inevitable interaction with civilians operating in the urban environment.

Unfortunately, just as the Army lacks any sites that can replicate the structural density of a city, it also fails to incorporate population density into its urban training sites.  Paid role-players or active duty soldiers in civilian clothes are the most common stand-ins for civilians on the battlefield.  Because of the cost and manning issues, army units rarely reach over a few hundred.

There are major exercises conducted by US Northern Command, state governments, and National Guard units to exercise “Defense Support of Civil Authorities.” These exercises simulate civil emergencies and often utilize a greater number of civilian participants.  There are even fifteen counties in North Carolina that allow soldiers to operate openly within them during Robin Sage, the culminating event of the Special Forces Qualification Course. But only a small percentage of soldiers ever get an opportunity to take part in training that involves interactions with civilians on the battlefield on anything approaching a scale that prepares them to operate in urban environments.

The Schoolhouse

In the last five years, the army has stood up a Desert Warrior Course and restarted a Jungle Operations Training Center.  There is a Mountain Warfare School and a Northern Warfare Training Center.  These schools provide basic and advanced skills to fight, survive, and win in the particular environments.  And yet, despite conducting operations in cities for the past fourteen years, there is still no school for urban environments.

To be sure, some soldiers are sent to courses with “urban” in their names, and Special Forces might attend the Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat Course or the Special Forces Advanced Reconnaissance Target Analysis Exploitation Course.   They return from these courses and become their units’ experts in shooting in urban environments or breaching houses and clearing rooms.  But although they teach these skills, they are not urban warfare schools, where soldiers would be immersed in urban settings, and definitely don’t adequately address the complex challenges unique to dense urban terrain.

A 1996 RAND report on these very challenges, Combat in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare, recommended the Army add an urban phase to its famous Ranger School—a timely suggestion after the challenges Rangers faced in the 1993 urban battle of Mogadishu, Somalia.  Despite that experience or the RAND suggestion, no changes were made to Ranger School.  Students still learn to survive in the woods of southern Georgia, the mountains of the Tennessee Valley Divide, and the coastal swamps of Florida.

The Army desperately needs a standalone school dedicated to preparing its soldiers and units for urban terrain.  It could, and should, be both a school for individual soldiers and a training venue for units.  This would allow the Army to invest resources in a single, premier site rather than continuing to recommend inadequate, unit-based training facilities.

The school component would be a progressive and sequential course much like Ranger School and others.  Soldiers would start with the individual and collective skills of shooting, moving, and communicating in urban environments, along with specific skills like breaching.  Next, they would be immersed in the facility’s robust, mock urban environment to conduct small-unit operations.  They would learn to live, survive, and conduct offensive and defensive operations as units in dense urban terrain.   The school could be further phased to replicate the full experience of operating in progressively more dense—and complex—environments.  It could culminate with terrain walks and site visits to a nearby city, requiring students to think through the application of the skills, field craft, and knowledge they’ve gained.

The unit training component of the school would have to be able to support units up to a brigade, the Army’s basic deployable unit of maneuver.  The facilities, observers/controllers, and civilian populations should be resourced to facilitate major exercises.  Both the courses and unit training portions of the school would require the Army to build a new, large-scale dense urban terrain site and provide access to thousands of civilian personnel to serve as on-demand urban residents.  A site should be near a population center (not in the middle of the desert or deep in the woods).  The site would also need to support integration of tanks and other mobile protected firepower with infantry forces, which has proven to be a necessity in urban warfare.

Some people believe virtual and constructive simulations can help make up for the lack of urban training resources and assist in preparing soldiers for the urban environment.  This has been a recommendation put forward since as early as the 1990s.   And the school should incorporate these tools to augment the training it offers. But even as simulation technology improves rapidly, it will never be a fully adequate substitute for realistic training. Soldiers will continue to jump out of real airplanes to get their jump wings and carry weight on real ruck marches to prepare for dismounted patrols in combat. Only a school with a realistic environmental characteristics can best equip soldiers and units to successfully meet the challenges of urban combat.

The Israel Defense Forces’ Urban Warfare Center, at the Tze’elim Army Base provides an example of what is possible.  While the facility cannot replicate the full spectrum of dense urban terrain (like megacities of ten million-plus people), it does provide an impressive demonstration of commitment to training for urban warfare.  The site is 7.4 square miles large and includes an extensive mock city that allows individuals and large units to immersive in the urban environment.

The Israel Defense Forces’ Urban Warfare Training Center (Credit: John Rice, US Army Corps of Engineers)

An urban warfare school would also allow the army to build the expertise it currently lacks.  While many soldiers have fought in cities during the past fourteen years—in places such as Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul—the lack of a school dedicated to training, studying, and preparing for operations in cities has required new units to re-learn the lessons of the not-too-distant past.   The instructors of environment-specific schools achieve a new level of mastery that is then fed back into the Army’s operational units.  The school would become the proponent for urban operations doctrine, just as Ranger and Sapper instructors become authors of the Army’s doctrine on tactics, techniques and procedures.  It would serve to capture the tactical innovations and lessons learned on the battlefields of yesterday and today, and simultaneously provide a venue for material testing and experimentation to prepare for the urban challenges waiting on the battlefield of tomorrow.

In addition to capturing practical lessons, an urban warfare school could house the Army’s first urban studies center.  As highlighted in a 2014 report produced by the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group after a year-long megacities-focused research project, “While a large body of knowledge exists on how urbanization and megacities impact politics, economics and the environment, there is no academic effort focused on researching the military implications of these environments.”  An Army urban studies center could provide long-term academic focus on the full spectrum of dense urban terrain.

The Army is fighting in cities today.  It will find itself fighting in cities in the future.  It is time to commit to preparing soldiers for this environment.  To do so, the Army needs a school that provides soldiers the opportunity to build necessary skills, feel the stress, and mentally prepare for the hell of urban warfare—before combat.


Maj. John Spencer is a scholar with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. A former Ranger Instructor, he has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units during his 23 years as an infantryman. He looks forward to connecting via Twitter @SpencerGuard.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Spec. Paris Maxey, US Army