As Iraqi forces liberate Mosul, now is a good time to reflect on what lessons this recent round of urban combat means for the United States. After defeating ISIS’s mobile defenses of car bombs and suicide vests in Mosul’s suburbs, Iraqi forces attacked into prepared static defenses overwatched by ISIS snipers. In Raqqah, the United States and Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated the Fourth of July by with an airstrike against ancient Rafiqah Wall to bypass ISIS improvised explosive devices. Iraqi forces in Mosul—Iraqi Army units and militias working with them—fought as combined arms teams at the lowest level: infantry enabled by sharpshooters, lethal drones, slick media operations, and an armored bulldozer. After close combat, bulldozers threw up counter-mobility and protection barriers to consolidate gains. Beyond dozers, Iraqi forces also adopted an engineer mindset to stay alive. To avoid the deadly streets, they shuffled through holed walls under the cover of Mosul’s rooftops. Throughout the operation, Iraqi forces directed civilians out of the city as they sought to minimize civilian casualties.

When faced with urban combat, the US Army turns to Field Manual 3-06. Although a decade old, its contents reflect three of the big lessons to have emerged from Mosul. First, we need to train urban offense and defense. The Army prefers the attack, but defense is the stronger form of war. In manpower-heavy urban operations, the Army must concentrate forces for attacks, while defending in other sectors. Second, platoon- and squad-level combined arms teams with organic breaching capability win the day. In an article entitled Immediate Lessons from the Battle of Mosul, the author, an Australian Army officer, sees the “Armed ISR platform, Tank, Bulldozer, Anti Tank Missile, Sniper, and Rifle Squad operating as a micro team [providing] the organic abilities to Identify, Neutralise, Suppress, Obscure, Secure, Reduce and Assault (SOSRA) in a complex urban environment.” Finally, mission command and trust in low-level leaders is essential. Our small units must bypass, isolate, and then reduce enemy strongpoints. Urban operations, like those in Mosul, require trust in subordinate leaders to defeat a distributed enemy.

To meet these demands on the Army, several articles hosted by MWI combine to prescribe a vision of a revolutionary change in urban operations because of megacity proliferation. This recommendation has three major components. First, the Army needs a full time test-brigade to investigate what brigade-level urban operations might look like, despite having seen it before. Second, the Army must have a megacity training site at least as good as the Israelis’ Urban Warfare Center. Finally, the Army should establish an urban warfare school as prestigious as Ranger School. I like a revolutionary vision as much as the next MWI Fellow, but maybe an evolution would be more appropriate and economical.

The United States Army already trains soldiers in urban warfare, but the training is uneven. According to the Range Facility Management Support System, Fort Bragg hosts five mock villages while Fort Bliss has none. Likewise, the 10th Mountain Division runs its own urban warfare course, while other units focus on jungle, arctic, or desert training. At a fraction of the cost of a wholesale revolutionary approach, evolutionary reform of current training practices would smooth out these discrepancies, create a standardized program of urban warfare training across the Army, and ultimately develop a more “urban competent” force.

Raids and Breaching: How the Army Currently Trains for Urban Operations

The US Army’s Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATRRS) lists seven courses with the “urban” in the title. Of these seven, only three are resident, tactical courses aimed at US Army soldiers. (Another is a distance-learning course for commanders and staffs. Two are NATO special operations forces sniper courses. The seventh course, the USAREUR Urban Breach Course, is not meeting this year.) Outside of ATRSS, some units run other courses, but those courses are difficult to find without a central listing, are aimed generally only at the units’ own soldiers, and thus contribute to the uneven nature of the Army’s urban warfare training.

ATRRS course search for “URBAN”

Exploring two of the existing courses available Army-wide, along with two other military urban warfare schools—the Urban Leaders Course, run by the 1st Marine Division, and the Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat program, supervised by the Army’s 1st Special Forces Command—offers an opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the military’s current urban warfare training and develop a plan to develop a better training program for the Army.

Urban warfare course details

Urban Combat Leaders Course

The 10th Mountain Division’s Urban Combat Leaders Course is a ten-day train-the-trainer course at Fort Drum. Open to squad leaders and above, the course focuses on room clearing, door breaching, and decision making. This course prepares leaders in the 10th Mountain Division to improve unit-level urban operations training. The course’s breaching instruction, which emphasizes the shotgun and explosive breaching, focuses on door breaches. While an important skill, forces in Iraq and Israel frequently breach walls to create covered movement routes towards an objective or in the defense. The Urban Combat Leaders Course does not incorporate armor, engineer vehicles, drones, or other enablers vital to the low-level combined arms team.

Urban Mobility Breaching

Staff Sgt. Chris Dupertuis, a course instructor, described the Urban Mobility Breaching course’s main focus as ensuring “infantry and cavalry scout Soldiers are savvy in urban breaching.” A clear focus on breaching is this course’s strength. However, as a breaching-focused course run by engineers, it could be improved by shifting from a tool-centric emphasis to one that reinforces mission command. After an introduction to breaching techniques, the course could challenge students with different urban mobility problems to solve with common equipment available. Facing a wall of burnt out cars? Decide whether the bulldozer or a harpoon gun is more suitable. Taking down an HVT? Explosively breach and clear the room, or drop a 40-millimeter grenade from a drone. After each problem, students and instructors would review the pros and cons of each scenario to reinforce SOSRA: suppress, obscure, secure, reduce, assault.

Urban Leaders Course

Like the other courses, 1st Marine Division’s Urban Leaders Course takes a train-the-trainer approach and is focused largely on a single type of operations—a raid. The culmination exercise, where Marines raid and then occupy a small town, reinforces offensive and defensive skills. The Urban Leaders Course’s strength lies in its length—at three weeks, it is a week longer than the two courses discussed above, which allows time to emphasize live-fire room clearing. Staff Sgt. David Agundez, the chief instructor, explained that “not a lot of Marines have the opportunity to go through room clearings, especially live-fire.” While live-fire room clearing is an important component of urban training, the opportunity cost is high for short-duration courses. For these, training tools like Simunition and Ultimate Training Munitions capture most of the training value of live-fire room clearing without the same safety requirements.

Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat

The Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat course differs significantly from the others discussed. Not trainer-focused, SFAUC is a recurring requirement for Special Forces soldiers to hone individual and unit-level urban operations capabilities. The individual marksmanship portion concludes with a must-pass stress shoot that qualifies soldiers to participate in the next portion’s close-quarters battle training. SFAUC concludes with raids on multi-building, multi-story compounds.

Over six to eight weeks, a Special Forces company in SFAUC progresses from individual to advanced collective skills. Companies are able to tailor the course to their specific requirements. The difficulty of SFAUC’s decentralized implementation is ensuring that the program of instruction reflects the most current enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures and not the biases of company leadership. Additionally, because it is a recurring requirement, attendees of the course may also know the scenario, limiting mission command training if leaders are essentially able to direct an effective course of action. SFAUC is also raid-focused, aiming to prepare soldiers for counter-terrorism operations. This focus narrows the course towards rapid assault and precludes the incorporation of urban warfare enablers like bulldozers or armor.

Toward a More Effective Training Approach

Urban warfare training in the Army focuses overwhelmingly on the raid and explosive breaching. The reliance on the raid to teach urban combat skills likely stems from the specialized nature of units with frequent exposure to urban training and combat, like the 75th Ranger Regiment. This focus is misplaced for the bulk of conventional units that rarely conduct high-speed raids, and are more likely to slog through an urban battlefield. This raid-centric training paradigm needs to change. Below, I offer three suggestions to improve the Army’s urban warfare training—and make it more relevant to the types of urban fights US soldiers are most likely to find themselves in.

1. Train the defense

In cities, neither the government nor the insurgents could attack everywhere at once. In Mosul, government forces aimed to first surround and then divide enemy forces into isolated pieces where they can be more easily defeated. Surrounding the enemy and sealing escape routes requires establishing a defense. Whether occupying a hasty strong-point for the night or bulldozing car hulks into a defensive obstacle, the urban defense’s unique considerations must be taught to our soldiers.

2. Integrate enablers

In unit-level training, few soldiers work with bomb-dropping quadcopters, D30 bulldozers, signals intelligence platforms, or other specialized units or equipment. After actions reviews and research both indicate that the key to success in urban warfare is low-level integration. The Army’s training should be informed by this lesson, and quality enablers should be assigned or brought into urban warfare courses. At a post without the D30? Integrate available engineer equipment so soldiers see the equipment’s strengths and weaknesses before they request support in combat.

3. Use mission command orders

Urban warfare’s decentralized and distributed nature forces leaders to embrace mission command. Our schools should do the same. Student leaders must be put into situations with multiple ways to solve a problem and meet their commander’s intent. Even courses focused on breaching should embrace mission orders for their culminating exercise and allow students the freedom to decide the best way to reduce an obstacle.

Improving Army-wide “Urban Competence”

The Army must prepare its soldiers to fight in the urban terrain where 54 percent of the world’s population lives. Like Maj. John Spencer, I see urban warfare as inevitable. However, his revolutionary approach would tie up a brigade, require massive new military construction, and demand a huge new cadre of instructors. I doubt the juice—doctrine and training benefits—are worth the squeeze. Instead, I propose an evolutionary approach to raise the urban competence of the whole Army. Each division would establish a school like the 10th Mountain Division’s Urban Combat Leaders Course. The program of instruction at these schools would be directed by a centralized schoolhouse, perhaps housed at the Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood. This national schoolhouse would train division trainers and house a research body to ensure training remains relevant. Finally, the Army should award graduates of urban warfare training with a special skill identifier and mandate a certain number of trainers per company to ensure urban warfare skills are present at the lowest level.

The Army continues to fight in cities and must prepare for all aspects of urban warfare. Division-level schools with a strong central anchor will ensure best practices get down to the lowest levels in the Army. Rather than insisting on a new construct to fight these battles, we should ensure our existing formations are as well prepared as they can be for the grueling and bloody fights we’ll face in this urbanizing world.


Capt. Zachary Griffiths is a Special Forces officer and American Politics Instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He studies how insurgent groups relate to the water. He holds a master’s of public policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy.

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, DOD, or the US Government.