Over the Water and Out of the Woods; a review of Guerrilla Warfare Tactics In Urban Environments


As sunset falls in Jerusalem on 7 May 2021, the muezzin or muʾadh dhin calls the Muslim faithful to prayer at the al Aqsa mosque. It is the final Friday before the end of the holy month of Ramadan and tensions are running high in a city seemingly historically beset with tension. A crowd, estimated by some at 70,000 strong, files out of service and immediately begin to clash with Israeli police officers who are posted at the nearby Temple Mount. Rocks and shoes fly from the recent attendees at prayer while rubber bullets and stun grenades are dispatched by police. Over 200, mostly Palestinians, are wounded and by Monday evening Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) begin exchanging rocket fire. On Tuesday 11 May, news outlets broadcast the destruction of the 13 story Hanadi Tower in Gaza. The IDF brings the building down utilizing airstrikes against what it claims is a Hamas headquarters.

Just after midnight on 30 January 1968, in the final hours of the first day of Tet Nguyen Dan or the Lunar New Year in Vietnam 80, 000 North Vietnamese troops made up of People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), and Viet Cong (VC) descend across South Vietnam. By 3 am 31 January, the next morning, the main thrust of the offensive begins against cites, towns, and important military locations, including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals. Saigon (today renamed Ho Chi Minh City), the capital of South Vietnam and the historic capital of Hue are among the cites struck. Early that day North Vietnamese sappers blow a hole in the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and roam the grounds until they are repulsed by 10 am.

Both of these events provide examples of modern urban warfare. Differences, of course, remain. Although a ceasefire has been reached, the eventual outcome of the recent confrontation between Israel and Hamas is unknown at the time of writing and the ideologies, weaponry, and combatants are different. Important similarities exist, however.

Guerilla Warfare Tactics in Urban Environments questions one of the upcoming fundamental questions most practitioners of modern warfare want to discuss. The relationship between modern military tactics and an increasingly urban and littoral battlespace.

Hamas and North Vietnam had similar motivations. Namely the reconciliation of what they perceived to be their country. Both are also insurgents fighting against a much more technologically superior opponent in the form of the IDF for Hamas and the United States for North Vietnam. Another primary similarity is the terrain in which the confrontation occurred. Namely the littoral urban environment. Additionally, in both the case of the Tet offensive and the attacks by Hamas (Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Israel as well as many other nations despite its de facto rule over the Gaza Strip) irregular combatants engaged in the fighting.

The Tet offensive in Vietnam, led primarily by irregular VC forces backed by conventional PAVN soldiers, lasts anywhere up to 21 weeks from the initial clashes depending on your definition. In all, North Vietnamese troops struck more than 100 towns and cities, including the aforementioned 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities, and 72 of 245 district towns. The breaching of the U.S. Embassy was broadcast in America. The offensive, although a tactical defeat, even caused Walter Croncite, who until that point was in favor of the war, to question U.S. participation. As President Nixon is reported to have said, we lose Walter Cronkite, we lose the American public. You lose the public, you lose the war.

The confrontations discussed above, however, lack primacy as an irregular or guerrilla conflict. The majority of the tactics used by both sides consist of conventional military tactics. Rockets, artillery, and airstrikes in the Middle East, and light infantry supported by armor and air in Southeast Asia. Elements of irregular warfare, however, are utilized – primarily by the less technologically sophisticated party to the conflict.

The PAVN and VC developed a sophisticated operational concept and formed a robust supply line through Cambodia and Laos to move irregular forces and material to prepositioned locations throughout South Vietnam prior to the start of hostilities. They developed diversionary attacks to keep the South Vietnamese forces, and more importantly, their more sophisticated and better armed ally, the United States, off track. Although U.S. intelligence understood an attack was likely, the overall size and scope of the operations, as well as the exact timing, were a complete surprise.

Hamas is rumored to have instigated the initial attack after Friday prayers on 7 May. Regardless of the factual basis of that statement, Hamas became the face of the uprising and led the subsequent assaults against Israeli targets. Firing thousands of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Hamas utilized tunnels it has developed over years of occupation and control over the territory to move those rockets. The overall effectiveness of the IDF Iron Dome system allowed few if any of the Hamas rockets to hit their intended targets. This had little impact on the overall strategic picture from Hamas’s perspective. The destruction of several office buildings (including the al-Jalaa Building which housed the offices of al Jazerra and the Associated Press) and overwhelming destruction was turned into a propaganda victory for Hamas as it claimed to hold its own against the IDF and bring it to the ceasefire negotiations.

All of these tactics, the covert movement and use of irregular forces in an urban environment, movement and use of artillery within an urban environment for surprise, and most importantly the co-option and manipulation of the media story to support the guerilla force are classic unconventional warfare techniques.

It can, perhaps, be understood why modern tacticians would rather not address the question of the shift in conflict to urban littoral regions. Urban warfare is exponentially more complex, time and resource intensive, and generally and historically one of the bloodiest types of warfare in which to engage. Any Soldier or Marine would much rather conduct a “stand up fight” utilizing traditional maneuver warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures than slog street by street – potentially room by room – engaging in urban combat. Let alone urban guerilla combat. It is probably safe to suggest, although I only have hearsay to go on rather than any empirical evidence, that even traditional guerrilla warfare would be preferable to the urban variant.

Traditionally, military forces have preferred to bypass urban areas and make use of open territory to perform classic combined arms and maneuver warfare. This has been the primary method to which conventional militaries have trained since World War II. Centers of gravity against which modern military force can focus have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 30 years, to a more urban and littoral setting. A full development, utilization, and understanding of unconventional warfare in an urban environment, however is little understood.

Major Partrick D. Marques, in his dissertation for his Masters Degree in Military Science, recognizes this disparity in modern military understanding and attempts to address the concerns of present and future war fighters regarding what doctrine is available to the small unit practitioner. MAJ Marques does identify a small amount of research and historical references to the emerging field. He also correctly identifies the three most prominent developmental conflicts, describing the trajectory of urban guerilla warfare – the “Troubles” in Ireland from 1969 to the present, the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet forces from 1979 to 1989 and the two Chechen wars of 1994 and 2000.

Unfortunately, the dissertation only covers the most basic acknowledgement of what little doctrine exists. Little time is spent to develop a direction to take to rectify the shortfall. Additionally, he fails to look at secondary or tertiary steps that would need to be taken, including the development of larger unit tasks and joint doctrine as has been developed for counterinsurgencies and counterterrorism. Finally, he also spends no time looking at the overarching effect a littoral conflict zone is likely to have on the impact of both urban and guerilla combat as the three increasingly intersect.

Bringing up questions and identifying shortfalls in understanding is an excellent beginning to developing knowledge and fermenting eventual wisdom. It would have been advantageous if MAJ Marques had developed his dissertation to address next steps and best practices to take in order to develop the doctrine he so rightly points out is in need for our developing defense practitioners.

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