This article originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. It is used here with their permission. Click here to get more information on the Gazette

The Urban Defender Has the Edge

As the threat of Saddam Hussein looms larger, Marines must be reminded of the inherent dangers of offensive urban combat. On several occasions in history, urban terrain has been successfully defended by loosely controlled and under-equipped small units. In a type of "urban swarm," reinforced Russian squads stopped whole German divisions at Stalingrad. Twice, Jews armed only with squirrel rifles, grenades, and fire bombs stymied German armies at Warsaw. (Only by flooding and razing the ghetto, did the Germans ever capture it).

Most students of tactics agree that only in built-up terrain does the proficient defender have the edge over the proficient attacker. Any type of forward movement is extremely dangerous. No amount of cover fire can defeat the first bullet; only individual movement can do that. At Berlin, over 300,000 seasoned urban assault troops were lost trying to overpower hastily trained old men and boys.

The defender wanting to stymie a much larger opponent needs only a line that will bend but not break. Those manning it must be able to ambush to interrupt the attacker’s momentum, withdraw to weaken his strength, and then counterattack to blunt the penetration. Platoon strongpoints at 10-block intervals can get the job done. Areas in between are covered by supporting-arms and lateral machinegun/anti-tank fire — thus becoming "fire sacks." To achieve parity with Marine regiments, enemy platoons would only have to tactically withdraw short distances through a series of prepared fallback positions. To further sap their pursuer’s resolve, they could occasionally rig a building for demolition. By covering the rubble by fire from other locations, the defense line would remain essentially in tact.

Not all opponent’s share our unwillingness to backup. Tactical withdrawal is, after all, an important aspect of maneuver warfare. The soldiers manning the strongpoints might be able to move forwards or backwards with equal ease. If surrounded, they could hold out until dark and then exfiltrate along preplanned egress routes.

But, those enemy platoons might not have to back up at all. Marines need to read Phase Line Green — a Marine lieutenant’s account of how hard it was to cross a narrow street inside the Citadel at Hue City. Automatic-weapons fire can knock down a lot of people, and momentum can be interrupted with spoiling attacks from static positions forward of friendly lines. Consider enemy anti-tank men hiding in ventilation systems of buildings or automatic-weapons gunners in manholes beneath junked cars. After killing a tank or hosing down an infantry assembly area, these "combat OP’s" could easily return to their main defense line through the sewer system.

Marine forces must be particularly careful of heavily defended buildings. As soon as they enter, they may come under enemy surveillance — through makeshift periscopes, pin pricks in the wallpaper, etc. They may encounter hidden claymores and small-arms fire through ceilings, floors, and walls. Before they could clear an occupied room with a "button hook," "high-low," "stack" or any other dynamic entry technique, they may have to trigger a door-mounted booby trap or blow another hole in the wall. If the room’s defender has a bunker in one corner, concertina along all interior walls, and a covered escape route, he can further discourage any entry attempt with a fragmentation grenade of his own. The only way to take a room like this safely is to blow the hole with a shape charge thereby creating severe overpressure in the room. Buildings defended like this should either be bypassed or leveled with standoff weaponry. But remember, when houses are occupied by both criminals and innocent civilians, policemen can’t kill every occupant and neither can we. Every attempt must be made to safeguard noncombatants. Sometimes the technological edge helps with this effort and sometimes it doesn’t. But Marines must never forget that in urban war, the under equipped defender still has the edge.

— Lt.Col. H.J. Poole USMC (Ret)

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