Support: MOUT For The 21st Century


February 22, 2017: Since 2010 the U.S. Army has cut way back on training troops to fight Islamic terrorists and irregulars and has replaced that with the pre-2001 training for conventional war. There have been some surprises as the military took a closer look at how combat conditions have changed since the late 20th century and has had to make some unexpected adjustments.

The military calls this pre-2001 style training preparation for “near-peer” (against someone who has similar weapons and abilities) warfare. That means many Army veterans of ten years’ service, including several years in a combat zone were now, for the first time learning how to deal with a near-peer foe. It’s an unsettling experience, especially in the U.S. Army, which uses some very realistic training methods. The realistic training these troops had used for years for learning how to cope with ambushes, raids and roadside bombs now involves dealing with enemy tanks, guided missiles and aircraft. It’s scary stuff for a veteran of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the military did discover that one major aspect of the post 2001 combat, MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) was becoming a larger part of near-peer operations. That’s because more people are moving into cities and now most of the world’s population live in places like that.

Meanwhile there are some very real near-peer concerns. In Iraq and Afghanistan the troops got used to a foe who had no air power, few real electronic weapons and that enabled many American troops to acquire some bad habits for anyone trying to fight a more conventional opponent. For one thing there is the prospect of electronic jamming that would disable, if only temporarily (hours or days) GPS navigation systems and a lot of satellite based communications. So troops, including some senior NCOs and officers who entered the military right after 2001 and got all their experience on a non-conventional battlefield, had to learn how to do things the old-fashioned way. That meant using a compass for navigation map, not a GPS system that gave you constant directions as you moved. A conventional foe can also disable or degrade the networking troops have become accustomed to. Now soldiers and marines have to learn how to operate with less or no networking. In addition to all this there are calls for less defense spending and that usually means even larger cuts to the training budgets.

But there are some near-peer lessons that have changed while everyone was focused on fighting Islamic terrorists; more people were living in urban areas and in sturdier structures. One of the lessons to come out of the Cold War and the post-2001 fighting was that in the future there would be more fighting in urban areas (buildings and streets). This came to be called MOUT. This trend was noted back during the 1980s when it was realized that a war with the Soviet Union in Europe would involve a lot more fighting in built-up (urban) areas than in the open. That was discovered when a staff study revealed that West Germany was rapidly urbanizing and the construction was largely cement and steel, creating structures that made better bunkers for defenders. Fortunately NATO was preparing to play defense against an expected Russian invasion. About the same time Russian planners noted the same urbanization trends in West Europe and noted that there was nothing similar in Russian occupied East Europe. What was discovered after 2010 was that these two trends merged with a lot of the most difficult combat taking place in urban areas. Moreover a lot (if not most) of the growth in urbanization took place in areas that were most likely to be future combat zones.

About the same time the U.S. Army Center for Lessons Learned (CALL) was established so U.S. commanders use it to determine what works in combat and what doesn't. This is more important than ever in the 21st century, where urban combat and counter-insurgency conflicts dominate, and new technologies appear at a rapid rate. In urban warfare and counter-insurgency, the potential for mistakes to be made is exponentially larger than in conventional, large-scale warfare.

Another major problems with urban warfare has been having a decent place to train for it. The U.S. Army and Marines began building have built training areas for this, at great expense. What drives the cost up is the need to install equipment so you can video most of the action, the better to critique the troops after they are "killed." And special building materials are used to allow the use of low power training bullets and practice hand grenades. While having these facilities is great for the units that can be brought in, there is still the hassle of shipping infantry units to them.

One solution to the problem is portable urban combat trainers. Called "Mobile MOUT." Shipping containers were converted to modules that can be endlessly reconfigured for training. The containers are 2.44 meter (8-feet) wide by 2.75 meter (9-feet) high by 6.1 meter (20-feet long) and have movable walls that allow quick reconfiguration for whatever MOUT training is desired. The containers can also be joined side-by-side, or stacked to create multi-story buildings. There are also reconfigurable stairways (open or enclosed), allowing the troops to learn to deal with the tricky business of fighting up and down stairwells.

The containers can be covered with brick, stucco, cinderblock or other facades to enhance realism. Plywood interior lining is realistic and enables the use of short-range (low power) training ammunition for live-fire scenarios. You can do a lot of training with just one or two containers, or build your own little town with up to 30 or 40 buildings composed of 100 or more containers. All the containers come equipped with cameras, microphones, motion detectors, smoke and smell generators. Everything is recorded in a digital format, both video and audio, for the after action critique. For this, two containers can be put together, with one providing a control room in the rear and the other a 30-seat theater, featuring 61-inch displays, in front. The first two of these MOUT training containers were sent to Afghanistan by 2003. There was a lot of MOUT operations in Afghanistan, as Special Forces or infantry stage raids on compounds suspected of harboring Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. Each MOUT training container costs about $140,000 (if you buy a 15 container set).

As expected after 2001 there came a lot of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan which made it obvious the importance of realistic MOUT training. As a result, additional training areas are being built all over the United States. One of the first ones was a U.S. Army urban warfare center in Alaska that covered 480 hectares (1,200 acres). Over 24 buildings were built initially, enough to allow an infantry battalion to practice street fighting and clearing buildings of hostiles. Nearby, a live fire range is being built, so that a company at a time can train with live ammunition. Down south in San Diego, the U.S. Marine Corps built a similar MOUT center.

As a result of all this both the army and marines have developed new tactics for MOUT battles, and needed the specialized training areas to teach the troops how it's done, and to work on improving current tactics, and maintaining skills. One thing that was learned going into Afghanistan, was that you can't have too much practice when it comes to MOUT. It's a tricky business, with ample opportunity for getting ambushed, and for friendly fire losses. You must have well thought out, and combat proven, drills, and the troops must be well practiced in their use.

This led the marines to $15 million on expanding its MOUT facilities at Camp Lejune, North Carolina. The expansion area will contain 75 buildings, most of them constructed to allow for repeated urban warfare training. Some of the buildings will be for training staff or trainee support. The new facility was ready by late 2009. The army and marines spent several hundred million dollars over five years, to construct these urban training areas. Even in Afghanistan, a lot of the fighting gets done in, or around, buildings. To get troops ready for this kind of combat, you need training areas that mimic the urban terrain that will be encountered in the battle zone.

It turns out that with the emphasis on near-peer all that MOUT combat experience will not be wasted, but rather built on.