Army May Have to Rely on Simulators to Train for Future Urban Combat

Paratroopers assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment provide security on a hallway during a nighttime air assault of a notional enemy compound at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., March 20, 2018. (U.S. Army photo/John Lytle)
Paratroopers assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment provide security on a hallway during a nighttime air assault of a notional enemy compound at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., March 20, 2018. (U.S. Army photo/John Lytle)

The head of Army Training and Doctrine Command said recently that the service will have to depend on high-tech simulations to prepare soldiers and leaders for the challenges they will face in complex, megacity warfare.

Army leaders are certain that future conflicts will occur in large urban areas, known as megacities -- a reality that is forcing senior leaders to rethink how the service will prepare for this new type of warfare.

"Our military doctrine used to tell commanders to avoid cities altogether -- bypass cities if you can do it," TRADOC Commander Gen. Stephen Townsend told an audience Tuesday at the Association of the United States Army LANPAC Symposium and Exposition in Hawaii.

"That's been impossible for a number of years; the enemy will dig into cities and force you to root him out," he said.

Over the years, Army units have built small-scale urban training centers, but it is impossible to design anything recreating the unique obstacles combat units will face in cities with populations of 10 million people or more, Townsend said.

Instead, the Army is developing new, synthetic training technology to allow soldiers to run through virtual training scenarios mimicking terrain around the globe.

"We cannot expand all of our little urban warfare training centers to the degree necessary," Townsend said. "We are going to have to do that in simulations. We are going to have to portray megacities in simulations."

Combat in megacities will be more complex than anything Army units have faced in the past, he said.

"[In one part of a city] you might be doing humanitarian assistance," he said. "In another part, you might be doing counter-insurgency or wide-area security. And in another part, you might be fighting high-intensity conflict."

To illustrate the complexities soldiers will face, Townsend pointed to the recent nine-month battle of Mosul, where the U.S. military supported Iraqi Security Forces fighting to take back the city from entrenched fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Mosul cannot be classified as a megacity, but it took several months to surround and isolate it, Townsend said, adding that it would be impossible to surround a true megacity.

Much of the western side of Mosul was almost completely destroyed, creating highly effective defensive positions in the rubble, he said.

"Imagine collapsed buildings. They produce some of the most impenetrable bunkers you can imagine," he said. "A five-story building being collapsed, and what is surviving is the first floor and the basement. The other four stories are a 20- and 30-foot cap of steel rebar, reinforced concrete rubble."

This made the U.S. military's high-tech munitions less effective.

"When we design munitions, we design them to penetrate through constructed buildings, poured concrete ... a really tough problem to solve," Townsend said.

The final stages of the fight, the "assault forces were led by a bulldozer, and on each side of the bulldozer was a squad of infantry and their mission was to protect the bulldozer," he said. "And the bulldozer was doing the clearing and destruction ... identifying where ISIS popped up out of a hole or outside of a building, and the bulldozer would promptly turn and bury them."

The bottom line, he said: combat in a megacity will be "extraordinarily violent and extraordinarily destructive."

"Future enemies will deliberately go to the cities and dig in and fight," he said, "because they know it takes away a lot of our technological advantages."

To prepare for these new challenges, the Army has to get away from hard-stand simulation centers that require weeks of scheduling for a unit to come and train for a very short time, Townsend said.

The Army has created a cross-functional team to focus specifically on developing a new synthetic training environment. Army officials plan to leverage the $5.2 billion virtual gaming industry to develop first-person shooter simulation technology that's more accessible for soldiers to use at home station, officials said.

"We want to be able to do battles every day, even in your unit's footprint," he said. "Anywhere you are, you can run simulated battles right there," Townsend said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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