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Marines Seek New Solutions To Secure the Urban Arena

June 1999
By Fred V. Reed

Experiments underway could be the key to overcoming conflict on city battlefields.

Urban warfare concepts are receiving increased scrutiny through a series of U.S. Marine Corps experiments aimed at preparing the Corps for likely future missions. Participants in these experiments are studying the problems of urban conflicts and are identifying and developing new tactics, techniques, procedures and technologies that could prove useful on an urban battlefield.

Analysts predict that 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2020 and that 70 percent of the cities will lie on littorals, within 300 miles of coastlines. Given the crowding and ethnic and religious hostilities that can be found in many of these regions, conflicts are probable.

Further, potential enemies, having watched the Gulf War, know they cannot stand up to the United States in traditional warfare, and they will seek arenas where they can limit the U.S. technology advantage. Fighting in cities could serve this purpose. Tall buildings limit the use of artillery. Crowds of refugees pose problems, and bombing kills innocent civilians, which is unacceptable in an age in which the world watches war live on television. Buildings provide concealment, which in the past has made bloody room-to-room fighting necessary, and weapons intended for open terrain do not function well in cities. A rocket launcher’s back blast, for example, can kill the soldier firing it in an enclosed room.

The Marine Corps, through its urban warrior exercise that began in 1997, is seeking solutions for these situations before they arise in the real world. The Corps completed its most recent urban warrior experiment in spring of this year.

The 1999 experiments, in Oakland and Alameda, California, focused on the multiagent command and control system, a distributed computerized system. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is also looking at part of the system for use on a possible mission to Mars.

About 6,000 marines and sailors, from the First Marine Expeditionary Force and the Third Fleet, took part in this year’s experiment, which simulated urban combat, humanitarian operations and disaster relief. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (Experimental), or MAGTF (X), from Quantico, Virginia, directed the experiment. The Oakland portion took place at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, an abandoned 183-acre complex with a variety of buildings. The exercise included full-scale combat through the nine-story hospital. MAGTF (X) conducted a helicopter assault and a mass casualty drill, working with the Monterey, California, police and fire departments. Experiments by the Marine Corps’ chemical and biological incident response force also occurred.

The scenario at Oak Knoll, according to Col. Gary W. Anderson, USMC, chief of staff of the warfighting laboratory, was “the three-block war.” Oakland was a foreign city that had suffered an earthquake and had some social instability. MAGTF (X) first went in for humanitarian operations, but factional fighting began, and the marines had to separate the combatants. Some might see a similarity to Somalia. The experiment looked at how to use the chemical and biological incident response force overseas if required and also worked on tracking the common tactical picture from Monterey, Col. Anderson says. The Corps sent out an operational maneuver group employing the end-user terminals for the tie-in to the ship, which had the people who were tracking the common tactical picture, the colonel explains.

The common tactical picture is the datalinked system for sharing tactical data at all levels, from the squadron up. The system enables all units to have access to needed information. At the small-unit level, the marines are temporarily operating Toshiba Libretto 70 CTs as the end-user terminals. These are handheld computers complete with small keyboards and 166-megahertz Pentium processors. The computer folds up the same way as a small notebook does, and when the user unfolds it, the screen sits above the keyboard. The output links to other computers by radio at different levels of command.

“The Librettos are adequate for proof of principle but are really only surrogates for what we actually want, which hasn’t been developed. The Toshiba is too bulky and too hard to type on because of the small keys,” Col. Anderson relates. “Right now,” he explains, “we are trying to have the end-user terminals report the data to MAGTF and to the battalion and also to transmit that integrated common tactical picture back to the end-user terminals. This way the individual marine can use it.” Anderson believes that the system is useful and does what the Marine Corps wants it to do, but the challenge is to make it more user-friendly to the marine on the ground.

To save money and decrease the procurement cycle, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment is used in urban warrior when possible. According to Col. Anderson, “We were happy with the COTS squad radio—a Kenwood.” He also believes a lot of potential exists for a $130 COTS global positioning system for navigation and situational awareness. This option received thorough testing as part of a red team effort that used radio battalion assets and intercepts from the National Security Agency and other government agencies.

The test results were good, Col. Anderson relates, but he also adds that he does not want to sound definitive because the results are based on raw data. When deployed at half-mile intervals, he explains, intercept teams about half a mile away were only able to intercept about 12 percent of the time when the radios were used properly. While it is an uncovered commercial system, the squadron moves so fast that it is hard to exploit any intercepts that are obtained.

Misuse of these radios at the company level and above could cause trouble, Col. Anderson warns. With its purpose being to test concepts, urban warrior made extensive use of simulation. Participants did some work with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). “Basically we put some UAV instrumentation aboard a helicopter, and we used it as a surrogate to track targets and so forth. It’s a pretty good system, but we need some more work with it. We couldn’t get enough data because we got some noise complaints at Oak Knoll and had to stop flying the helicopter,” the colonel explains.

Some of the nonlethal directed-energy concepts that are possible in the next five or 10 years may preclude the necessity for doing room-to-room fighting. For example, sonics might have the potential to knock down and disarm everybody in the building. But it is not a near-term solution, Col. Anderson reports.

Another possibility the Corps is looking at, he says, is quick-hardening rigid foam that might be used to seal enemy soldiers in a room, allowing them to be bypassed, or to seal entrances to sewers and subways, which troops can use to move undetected during urban warfare. In the past, clearing a room often meant either destroying the building or throwing grenades into room after room and killing survivors with rifle fire. Historically it has been slow and deadly. To avoid snipers, soldiers have sometimes resorted to working from inside, blowing holes in intervening walls.

“The troops think that maybe if you don’t have a door on the room, you come in with a piece of plywood or Kevlar, and put the foam on it quickly, and seal them in. We didn’t actually try that at Oak Knoll.” Part of the multiagent command and control system that the Corps is experimenting with is intelligent software agents that automatically analyze the tactical situation and warn soldiers of things they might otherwise miss in the stress of combat.

The system, for example, will try to prevent fratricide by looking for blue-on-blue engagements and signaling that someone is trying to shoot a friendly target. “But the greatest potential is that those blue icons give you information about what they represent,” Col. Anderson says. The icons representing a tank column convey how much ammunition and fuel and how many crew members the column has. The analysts can freeze the picture and do realistic mission planning from this information.

The Marines also have discovered that some concepts supporting urban combat efforts involve little technology but make a big difference. The troops like the rollerblade knee pads and elbow pads that let them crawl on concrete. These pads are a simple fix, but they work. The new urban uniform is gray, and the pattern looks like bricks, not trees. The uniform has a very low infrared signature, so individuals are a lot less visible at night.

However, not all initiatives have proved popular with the troops, Col. Anderson allows. The Dragon Fire autonomous 120-millimeter mortar, which is a working prototype, has a small gasoline motor to power the mechanism. In principle it can function unmanned, being fired from radio control by a small-unit commander. It is a good system, the colonel explains, but there have not been a lot of people asking for an automated mortar. They like that it is light enough to take along with a maneuver force, he adds.

Finally, Col. Anderson says that better use of computers may reduce personnel requirements at the headquarters level. “We find that our staffs are too big,” he acknowledges. Most of the staff has specialist assignments, and the number of the staff is multiplied by three because there are three watches. So by eliminating the need for those people or reaching-back their functions, the Corps can reduce the manpower requirements.

The bottom line, Col. Anderson relates, is that there is still more progress to be made in tactics for small-unit combat in cities. “We see some glimmerings of hope; we see some things that need to be done; but it remains a very difficult challenge. We can’t sugarcoat that,” he acknowledges. After analyzing the experiment to decide what worked and what did not, Col. Anderson says, successful projects will go to combat-development and procurement organizations.