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The Army Never Embraced COIN, Exhibit A: No Urban Training Centers

(In the ongoing, never-ending and ceaseless debate over counter-insurgency, Michael C has a unique take: the Army/Pentagon/military never truly embraced COIN and is actively running away from it. Check out the articles below for the proof:

- Exhibit A.1: Where Are the Mock Freeways?)


Listening to Colonel Gian Gentile and John Nagl debate American counterinsurgency, I cannot figure out which side I belong on. I disagree with Gentile that China or Iran or fill-in-the-blank actor will destroy the US in some future conventional war because we trained for counter-insurgency during the last ten years. I also don’t think we can credit counter-insurgency with victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, as John Nagl has argued.

I fall somewhere between this divide, because I don’t think the U.S. Army (stand in for all forces in Iraq/Afghanistan) ever embraced COIN. Can I prove that the Army never embraced irregular warfare in a single blog post? No, I can’t. (Just the way a single blog post couldn’t, say, deconstruct Carl von Clausewitz’ entire legacy.)

But I can present a single piece of evidence. (With more to follow in future months.)

Exhibit A: The Lack of Urban Training Centers

Army commanders love to repeat the maxim that, “You train how you fight.” I agree. If you slack in training, you’ll slack in war. If you practice shooting when you are tired and exhausted, you’ll shoot better when you are tired and exhausted. So if your Army trains in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles, you’ll be prepared to fight in forests, grasslands, mountains and jungles.

But you won’t be able to fight in cities. The U.S. Army doesn’t train to fight in cities because it doesn’t have large, quality urban training centers, and it never built them. Consider:

- My last duty station, Fort Campbell, houses a light infantry division headquarters, four maneuver brigades, a Special Forces group, two helicopter brigades, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and a variety of supporting battalions. Its largest urban training center? 64 buildings (as of 2011). My neighborhood in Clarksville alone had more than 64 buildings. It has a few other urban training centers, but they are mostly made out of container units, which don’t truly resemble any urban area on the planet.

- Fort Benning, the eponymous home to “maneuver” training, has slightly superior facilities. When I trained there in 2007, they only had a single village with about two dozen buildings. Driving around it required all of two minutes.

- The Army’s largest training centers--Fort Irwin, Fort Polk and Hohenfels, Germany; homes to NTC, JRTC, and JMTC respectively--aren’t much better. Since 9/11, they all invested in building expanded mock urban cities. None, as of the time I left the Army, had mock cities larger than 100 buildings. Again, even 100 buildings is an excessively small city.

- Ranger School has a forest, mountain and jungle phase, but no urban phase. (They also cut out a desert phase in the 1980s because we’ll never fight a war in the desert again.)

How did this situation get so bad? First, building fake cities is expensive. (Using contractors with cost-plus contracts doesn’t make it any cheaper.) As a stop-gap, units use portable container units, which replicate cities, but don’t replace good mock buildings.

But costs aren’t really the problem. (I mean, how many buildings could you build for the 150 million it costs for one F-22?) In reality, maneuver officers don’t like cities. Cities bring civilians, and that limits the ability to use overwhelming fire. Armor units like hanging out in wide open plains or deserts; light infantry loves hanging in forests. As a result, the Army built bases in the plains, jungles or forests of America, well away from urban centers. (See Fort Riley/Fort Irwin for armor; see Fort Benning/Fort Polk for the infantry.)

Even though having mock cities seems vital to training for urban insurgencies, like Iraq and parts of Afghanistan, the military still didn’t build them. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were always just passing fads, the Pentagon never wanted to invest in counter-insurgency cities.

Worse yet, this isn’t really counter-insurgency versus maneuver warfare issue. Whether we fight a counter-insurgency, civil war or conventional war in the future, we aren’t prepared to fight on the right terrain. The world is becoming more urban; refusing to build legitimate mock cities is madness. Future wars will occur in cities--urban environments--and the US Army isn’t training for this fight.

I’ll end with my solution. The U.S. Army needs to build a legitimate, 1,000+ building, mock city on every base with four plus brigades. Preferably, we need to build multiple cities, and design them after every continent on the globe: a European city, an Asian city, an African city, and a South American city. Streets should be designed so vehicles can’t maneuver easily on them. Cities should be designed haphazardly, like real world cities. Battalions should practice conducting regular patrols in mock insurgencies in cities large enough to mimic the real world.

In other words, the Army should train how it fights. And how it will fight in the future.

twelve comments

Actually Ragner School’s Desert Phase at Fort Bliss (previously at Dugway Proving Grounds) lasted until 1994. Otherwise, the idea of a Joint Urban Training Center has been around since at least the same time and nothing.

Why not just Take over a bankrupt city that has essentially failed and pay off the residents to leave? I can think of no better place and name but Fort DeTroit.

Chris, sorry I didn’t look it up, but yeah. It seems even more ridiculous considering when we removed desert phase.

And apart from a Vermont National Guard battalion there is no dedicated mountain unit. And they of course are not acclimated to altitude.

And ideally the model cities would include the slums that often allow the unchecked growth of non-state actors: http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/cit..

‘Feral cities,’ I like that. Anyone who ever has the opportunity to fly into or out of Mexico City should not pass it up. It’s a sight to see.

The best urban training I ever got was on Failaka Island in Kuwait a month before the start of the Iraq War. It was mostly abandoned, and we were able to go nuts in what was actually a pretty accurate representation of urban streets in Baghdad.

On another note – you would be shocked -SHOCKED – to see the speed at which the Army is dropping COIN stuff to the side right now. We are moving at lightning speed back into old school, direct action doctrine. I’m not saying whether that is good or bad, I’m just saying.

I have two opinions on this
The first is that it is not needed. aside for the purpose of coordination training among the brass there is really no need for a training city that large. the individual platoons aren’t going to raid hundreds of buildings in a single day, having anything larger than a couple dozen buildings only serves the purpose of being able to have multiple platoons conduct training and training for the company brass to coordinate that.

secondly, it’s not just money its space. a thousand building city would take up quite a bit. There’s no arguing that it would be ideal to have this, or multiple ones with multiple designs, but it’s not practical or even doable in many cases.

to address another point you made, yes no one likes taking a fight into cities. you have be careful to keep collateral damage to a minimum, you have to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, it lessens the technological gap and with it our advantage. nothing wrong with wanting war to be 1 sided.

First, it is needed because training is training. It isn’t just about one platoon clearing one building, it is about getting used to different buildings. It is also about conducting urban navigation, which is not the same as rural navigation.

Further, coordination is precisely why we conduct larger than platoon sized training. It requires a great deal of effort, and that is why maneuver-focused folks rightly point out that combined-arms warfare is incredibly difficult. The coordination is the tough part.

As to size, sure, many bases couldn’t support it because of size. But Fort Irwin has more than enough room.

As to the final point, even if we want war to stay out of cities, that want shouldn’t be a planning priority. At some points, the US will just have to fight in cities. (A la the Iraq War, World War II and almost every war.) We should prepare for that.

I come to your post and discussion late but hope that you nonetheless help me understand something. Back in the day, when the ops in Iraq and Afghanistan were peaking, there was a multitude of stories in the papers about how the Army was developing training grounds for urban operations. They would detail how, in 2004, the Army constructed mock villages at the Joint Readiness Training Center (and recruited Arabic-speakers to play the roles of Iraqi civilians and security forces) or how mock villages were constructed also at the National Training Center, and how around the same time USMC underwent a similar reorientation in its predeployment training.

So what gives… were these developments backtracked or do they not count as ‘urban training centers’? Would appreciate your take on this.

David, there were moves. But again, they created villages, not cities. Some of the “villages” were literally just forty or so container units scattered about. Yeah, they were mock cities, but fairly unrealistic. The use of Arabic speakers, though, was fairly effective, though again, it is hard to recreate an entire village.

I have been an “irregular warfare” fan since childhood (1960’s). The real routine employment for the US Army and Marines has been COIN—do I have to remind everybody about Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, the long Indian Wars, the guerrilla warfare before and after the Civil War, labor strife, the 20th Century KKK and urban riots, and multiple minor instances of modern insurrection—the most famous being the “protests” to the Vietnam conflict?
True, in the late 20th Century these were treated as a law enforcement problem and not a military issue—a work in progress. Treating the Waco stand-off as a law enforcement issue instead of open rebellion against the United States was a political decision. Perhaps the US Marines would have botched the job just like the FBI—and I’m sure that the US military doesn’t want to engage in combat on American city streets. Of course, when the police are overwhelmed (Rodney King riots, Katrina) the National Guard and even regular Marines and Army are deployed.
“We ain’t trained for that” is an excuse to avoid shooting other Americans.