Considerations for Guerrilla Resistance Operations in Urban Areas
(Originally published on the old site, February 2012–J.M.)
The phenomenon of urbanization is an exponentially increasing trend. In virtually every nation in the world, but especially in the Third World, urban population centers continue to grow both in population and area. Even in the USA, the ratio of rural-to-urban population has reversed itself in less than a century. Internationally or domestically, modern military forces are finally recognizing that most battlefields of the future will be urban rather than rural or wilderness.
For political resistance movements, the urban operational area has historically provided both a great deal of danger, as well as ample opportunity. If even a large minority of the civilian population supports the resistance, and the majority is either neutral, or has been alienated by the actions of the regime, the resistance will be able to survive and continue the fight. The classical concept of a resistance movement controlling the rural countryside while forcing the regime to function solely in large, built-up urban areas still has merit, but a multi-pronged approach wherein rural guerrillas use interdiction missions as their primary modus operandi to prevent regime utilization of lines of communication (LOC) and supply routes in rural areas, while both they and urban guerrillas utilize raids and ambushes on security force facilities, infrastructure, and personnel in built-up areas (I wholeheartedly believe in the applicability of a paramilitary force with a guerrilla base area in alpine, timber/swampland, and other readily defensible rural areas, conducting operations in denied territory such as enemy-controlled urban areas, then retreating as quickly as safely possible to their secure base areas, to be the most viable operational concept for future resistance movements to utilize a paramilitary wing. For evidence of how this works real-time, look at much of the last ten years in Afghanistan), while the subversive underground continues its campaign of subversion and sabotage against regime-specific infrastructure, is the future of successful resistance movements.
The ready access to portable, high-resolution video recording devices, even in pocket-sized cell phones, as well as the easy upload of such video recordings to the internet, provides an instant worldwide audience for the resistance to spread its message. The ability of the regime to readily identify fleeing resistance personnel in rural terrain, while certainly not precluding the successful execution of a rural guerrilla campaign in suitable environments, such as alpine areas and thickly wooded terrain, and jungle-like swamp terrain, does offer numerous obvious advantages to the resistance movement who can utilize urban environments to their advantage.
Cities are the centers of human activity, but each city possesses its own unique characteristics. These characteristics are the basis of METT-TC analysis of the environment for mission-planning. Whatever else characterizes a given built-up area, its location may wholly or partially limit its development and thus determine the external form and dimension of the activity. Just as no two cities are alike externally, no city is uniform internally. A city is composed of various different nuclei or neighborhoods. There are business, industrial, and service areas, as well as residential neighborhoods that may range from inner-city ghettos to comfortable, affluent suburbs. Depending on the city and its local surrounding environment, as well as the socio-political attitudes of the civilian population, there may be large wooded parks and “green-belts” in the midst of the built-up areas.
While a truly rural area has the potential to be completely self-sustaining in its essential needs, an urban area can never fulfill all of its own essential survival needs. The resources, goods, and services that residents of an urban area need as well as the goods and services it provides to other communities and/or the surrounding areas determine the essential function of a given city. Included in the standard functions that determine a city’s purpose for existance may include economic, political, religious, educational, residential, or any combination of these.
Despite the differences from one built-up area to the next urban areas possess certain similarities that provide us with some general characteristics that influence the inherent nature of guerrilla tactical operations in urban areas. The nature of cities offer some critical challenges to the military/paramilitary planner as well as the operative. Successful planning must be far more detailed than is normally required for even the most challenging rural missions. As the saying claims, “Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.”
The nature of a city involved in a guerrilla resistance favors the defender who is native to the city. Like the rural guerrilla, the man on the ground, with an inherent knowledge of his daily surroundings, possesses a unique perspective and advantage in urban guerrilla conflict. While to an outsider, an urban area may appear as a hopelessly confusing tangle of buildings, streets, and alleys, they are as familiar to the observant, experienced resident as his own living room. Those buildings, streets, and alleys restrict the vehicular movement and reduce his mobility, providing more than ample opportunities for the guerrilla force to utilize traditional guerrilla tactics such as route and site interdiction operations, ambushes, and sniper attacks with little vulnerability, as long as the guerrilla force is indigenous to the local operational environment, or has adequate experience living in the area to know its peculiarities and characteristics. Obstacles are easy to construct in urban areas, further facilitating guerrilla control of the battlespace. The three-dimensional nature of the battlefield, offering observation and canalization found in no other operational environment other than alpine areas, further provides key tactical advantages to the resistance.
Urban combat operations, like alpine fights, are inherently small-unit operations. Combat elements smaller than platoons, including squads, fire-teams, and buddy-teams will dominate the urban battlefield, just like they do the alpine battlefield. Whether the political nature of the conflict requires surgical applications of violence, targeting only regime security apparatus, or general warfare, where there are no civilians in the battle-space, any operations in urban terrain devolve to the small-unit fight, favoring the well-trained guerrilla unit. Combat occurs at extreme close-range, with occasional opportunities for long-range engagement due to the canalization effects of streets and buildings, allowing for engagement by well-trained riflemen at intermediate-distance ranges. The nature of urban construction, combined with the presence of large numbers of civilian population will limit the performance of indirect-fire weapons by regime security forces in order to prevent pushing the popular opinion further to the side of the resistance (it’s one thing to piss off the locals in Mosul by bombing neighborhoods with “precision” munitions from high-altitude aircraft. It’s something else entirely when the constituency that is bombed consists of the people who voted you into office). Additionally, indigenous military personnel may be hesitant to fire area-effect weapons that will put their own families and friends at risk.
U.S. Army Field Manual FM 3-05.222 Special Forces Sniper Training and Employment, April 2003, categorizes built-up areas into four basic subdivisions:
The first category is large cities of 100,000 residents or more. These areas typically provide the core of a larger populated region with a high population density consisting of the city itself, surrounding suburbs, and small towns. Normally, in the case of American cities, these metropolitan complexes appear to be a single large and continuous city with millions of people, such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, and much of the Northeastern seaboard.
The second category, towns and small cities of 3,000-100,000 residents are typically located along LOCs such as navigable rivers, railways, and interstate highways. Like larger metropolitan areas, these built-up areas are continuing to expand and tend to either form new metro concentrations or merge with pre-existing metropolitan areas.
The third category, small villages of less than 3,000 people tend to be agriculturally oriented. These may exist anywhere, but typically exist in cultivated areas of farmland, developed grazing pastures, or in thickly timbered areas facilitating historic logging operations.
The final category, strip areas form along LOCs and serve as connections between villages and towns. In the wide expanses of the largely unpopulated western USA, these areas tend to serve as refueling and rest areas between villages, towns, and large cities/metropolitan areas.
Within any given built-up area, as previously mentioned, urban terrain differs based on size, location, and history. The areas within the city are categorized as:
Industrial areas and residential sprawl. These typically consist of smome houses with yards, gardnes, trees, and fences. Street patterns are normally rectangular or curving, while the industrial areas consist of one- or two-story flat-roofed factories or warehouses, typically close to traditional LOCs such as rail lines and highways. In both types of area, there are generally large open areas in the form of vacant lots, open parks, and other forms. Due to the inherently political nature of UW, operations in residential areas should be minimized in resistance planning due to the risk of collateral damage that will negatively impact relations with the civilian population.
Core periphery. The core periphery consists of narrow streets with continuous building fronts of concrete, brick, or other masonry. These are typically uniformly two or three stories in small towns and villages, and five to ten stories in large cities/metropolitan areas.
City cores and outlying high-rise areas. Typical American city cores today consist of high-rise areas that vary greatly in height and allow for more open space between buildings, depending on the specific city. Generally, city streets form along rectangular patterns, with four to eight-lanes of traffic, allowing uncomfortably high levels of mobility for regime security vehicles in the view of the guerrilla. Outside of limited sniper-interdiction missions, there may be little opportunity for resistance forces to successfully engage regime forces in these environments.
Commerical ribbons. These “strip mall” rows of stores, shops, and fast food joints are built along the sides of major highway LOCs and interstate highways throughout built-up areas.
Urban combat in unconventional warfare operations typically occurs when control of the city contributes to the political strategy goals of the resistance. If a given city offers no political advantage to the resistance, there is little reason for the loss of personnel and logistics support requirements necessary to perform successful urban guerrilla operations. Nevertheless, any serious resistance planner looking towards the future must consider the applications of urban guerrilla warfare, subversion, and sabotage throughout urban areas in any given operational environment during active resistance actions (It is critical to consider this in light of the previously mentioned concept that a resistance movement doesn’t actually have to be winning, in order to succeed. All they have to do is to spread the perception that they are NOT losing. The ability to successfully prosecute offensive combat operations, even small-unit operations, in the heart of regime-controlled, denied territory, is critical to creating this perception.)
Somewhere in the mountains