Infantry: February 15, 2000

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Rough Time in the City: In 1998, the Pentagon conducted a wargame concerning a possible Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia. This has been done before, such wargames are played out regularly. But this one had a very disturbing outcome. The Iranians managed to capture the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Because of decades of oil revenue, Riyadh has grown from a dusty desert town to an urban megapolis similar to Los Angeles. NATO troops took 40,000 casualties (dead, wounded, missing) taking the place. The city was destroyed in the process, but everyone realized that there would be a major political stink because of those 40,000 casualties. There was nothing wrong with the wargame either. For decades, U.S. wargame designers have been incorporating data from half a century of urban warfare.

Soldiers don't like to attack cities. The defenders have enormous advantages, even if they are surrounded. Defenders have more places to hide in a city, and the fact that they are resisting indicates that they will fight hard. The first thing you do when approaching a defended city is attempt to get it to surrender. When you are told to take a hike, you do what the Russians recently did in Grozny. Note how much bad press the Russians got for their heavy use of artillery and bombs in their battle for that city. The Russians only suffered about 4,000 casualties, but then the city was really a large town and was apparently held by only a few thousand lightly armed Chechens. Put ten times as many defenders in a city ten times larger, like Riyadh, and you can easily get 40,000 casualties. 

So what do you do? In America, the emphasis in on trying to develop technology that will make it easier for the attackers. There is actually some potential in this approach. Heat, seismic and acoustic sensors have become much more effective and cheaper of late. The military is already using a lot of these sensors for early warning on the front lines. In fact, heat and acoustic (glorified microphones) sensors have been used since Vietnam, and acoustic sensors were used during World War I. Current heat sensors can let you look inside a building for the presence of people. Seismic (microphones that listen through the ground) and acoustic sensors can be fired like tear gas grenades into buildings to detect the presence of defenders, and monitor the enemy troops until the enemy, or the sensors, are discovered and destroyed. Computers even come into play, interpreting the sometimes far off (at the other end of a building) sounds to let the troops know if they are up against troops, civilians or stray dogs. 

Another innovation taken from the civilian sector is the remote control robot that can be sent into a building to check it out, and dispense tear gas or grenades to deal with unfriendlies. Actually, the U.S. military has been working on such combat robots since the early 1980s, but mainly with an eye towards developing anti-tank weapons that crawl around the battlefield looking for enemy tanks. The same technology could be used to turn killer droids loose inside a building. Stick a wireless "battlecam" on it and let the robot show you what's around the corner or in the basement. These little droids can be made bullet proof (or resistant) and, as an infantry officer will quickly remind you, he won't have to wrote letters home to the parents of dead droids. 

Most of the likely future battlefields for American are built up areas. Cities or just urban sprawl. This has been known for some time. But since the Gulf War, American losses have become a no-no. Not that we have been indifferent to American combat losses in the past, it's just that such casualties are more painful with live TV coverage of wars, and a feeling among politicians that any military victory will be tainted (along with their political reputation) if there are a lot of U.S. dead and wounded. So now word is out; take those cities without generating a lot of American body bags. Everybody, especially the troops, goes for this. The only problem is making it work. 

Stay tuned.

 


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