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Here’s what the Army’s doing with urban combat prep

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Recent intense fighting following the Russian invasion of Ukraine is showcasing challenges, even for peer militaries, operating effectively in urban terrain.

Back in 2016 then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley often reminded his service that future battles will likely take place in cities swelling with growing populations.

While Army units continue basic room-clearing types of training, operational and strategic-level thinking about cities hasn’t necessarily found a home yet.

But the California Army National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division has picked up the guidon in that effort, holding its own “urban planner’s conference” in fall 2021 with another scheduled for July. They’ve partnered with the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, to further analyze up-to-date urban offensive and defensive training.

Some of that is playing itself out on social media posts from Ukraine.

Urban combat veterans share lessons for Ukraine fight

Col. John Spencer serves as the director of urban warfare training for the 40th ID and spoke with Army Times about ongoing urban-focused efforts across the service. Spencer retired from active duty as an Army major. He fought in Sadr City during the height of the Iraq War and spent time working on the issues of urban warfare for West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Spencer, who has beaten the social media drum for years on urban challenges, said he’s hearing from Army generals interested in applying urban problems to their areas.

That signals to him that there may be a shift in the thinking, which, until now, was mostly to ignore the urban challenge, seeing cities as either an obstacle to avoid or sectors to destroy.

“It’s like everybody knows it’s an issue,” Spencer said.

After entering the building and ascending the stairs, Idaho Army National Guard soldiers cautiously move forward. (Thomas Alvarez/Army)

He compared what 40th ID is doing now to when the 25th Infantry Division almost single-handedly restarted the Jungle Warfare Training Center — they just knew that it was important.

Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager, 40th ID commander, is looking to collect the urban knowledge across the force and create a kind of “gray book” for urban operations similar to the air assault operations “Gold Book.”

Yeager laid out her plan in the annual Maneuver Warfighter Conference this February, which was put on by the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“I think the ‘Gray Book’ will leave a mark,” Spencer said.

But beyond a conference and book, the active role 40th ID is playing with NTC “is huge,” he said.

“It’s a commitment. Some of that is to keep the relevancy close to what we do,” Spencer said. “This is the Guard and the Army’s premier training center.”

For example, past city iterations might only take the force “in the box” at NTC a few hours to negotiate. But the opposition force is now employing more hard-hitting tactics, not letting up on the unit. That’s dragging out scenarios, creating more realistic situations, Spencer said.

“You can get bogged down for multiple days even in a city fight,” he said.

While Spencer said he was encourage by the 40th IDs work and the calls he’s getting, there’s still a long way to go.

For instance, a few months ago he traveled to the United Kingdom to observe one of their live-virtual-constructed training events with a heavy urban focus.

“I saw some of the most impressive simulations I’ve ever seen,” he said.

But so far, there’s not been the same level of focus on the American side. Spencer estimated that half of U.K. training is urban-focused, compared to only about 20% in the past, which is where most U.S. forces are now.

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