Military Operations on Urban Terrain: What are they?

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For the past several days, U.S. military Special Forces personnel have been conducting training exercises in the Twin Cities metro area.  According to local press outlets, the exercises have involved “urban environment” operations accompanied by military transport helicopters.  Members of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command are reportedly taking part in the exercises, as are members of some local police agencies.  The exact scale and nature of the training has not been publicly disclosed.  PRM has submitted data practices and FOIA requests to several agencies, and we hope to have more specific answers soon.

MOUT Doctrine

Military exercises in urban environments are not a new phenomenon – they are part of a training regime that has been in place since at least the 1990s.  This regime is studied and practiced by multiple components of the U.S. military, including the Army and the Marine Corps.

The doctrine that underlies such training is called MOUT in military parlance – Military Operations on Urban Terrain.  MOUT doctrine has become increasingly important to U.S. military planners, as urban geography has come to define the physical battlefield in many conflict zones.

The path to MOUT

For the U.S. Army, the distinctions between operations that relied on traditional armor and infantry tactics – and those that required more specialized urban warfare tactics – came very much to the fore during the early 1990s.

In 1990, the U.S. Army engaged in “Operation Desert Storm” – a large scale military operation designed to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.  The operation began with an air assault on Iraqi military targets, followed by a large ground assault comprised of infantry and armor units.  U.S. forces quickly routed the Iraqi military in this traditional combat engagement that was conducted (for the most part) in the open spaces between major urban areas.

Three years later, U.S. Army personnel were involved in another conflict – this time in Somalia – that ended in relative disarray during the so-called “Battle of Mogadishu.”  This smaller-scale operation took place inside the dense, urban capital of Somalia, and was intended to capture two specific Somali militiamen. 

During the operation, Somali fighters shot down two U.S. military helicopters, and a protracted urban battle ensued.  This Special Forces raid – intended as a rapid extraction operation – devolved into full-scale urban warfare for nearly two days, with a high number of casualties. 

The two disparate operations showcased the evolving nature of the post-Cold War battlefield to U.S. military planners.  Operation Desert Storm featured an army that had been built to confront Soviet armored units in the European theater, and which easily prevailed against similarly equipped forces.  In contrast, the Battle of Mogadishu highlighted the difficulties of confronting so-called “irregular forces” embedded within a civilian population center.  Such areas were poised to become the locus of military operations in a post-Cold War environment that featured collapsed governments, irregular militias, and terrorists.  Mogadishu demonstrated that the challenges of urban terrain were difficult to overcome – even for Special Forces personnel.

As a result, MOUT doctrine quickly evolved to fill the gap that planners saw in U.S. military capabilities.

Differences in MOUT tactics

MOUT doctrine expanded upon tactics previously developed by U.S. Special Forces units, including the Army’s DELTA Force unit, which was developed in response to various international terrorist incidents during the 1970s.

MOUT doctrine places an emphasis on fast, light troop insertions, although it can also accommodate the use of heavy armored vehicles and other traditional military assets.  Helicopters play a key role in urban operations, as both transport and attack vehicles.  According to KARE 11 news, the training currently underway in the Twin Cities involves the use of such aerial assets – both Blackhawk transport helicopters and Hughes 500 choppers.

A feature that differentiates MOUT doctrine from more traditional operations is its use of more restrictive rules of engagement.  MOUT rules places limits upon on the use of particular weapons systems, due to the presence of civilians intermixed among military targets.  It seeks to use lethal force with more precision, and provides extensive guidance to troops on close-quarters battle tactics.

The contours of the rules governing urban operations were adjusted and tweaked extensively during the peacekeeping operations of the 1990s, as part of the military’s focus on “Military Operations Other Than War” (MOOTW) during that decade.  These operations involved both foreign peacekeeping (a staple of the Clinton administration) and so-called “civil support” missions on the domestic front, including civil disturbance suppression in the event that the military was called into action under the federal Insurrection Act.  This was the case in 1992, when federal troops were called up to support National Guard units during the Los Angeles riots. 

MOUT/law enforcement overlap

The development of Special Forces tactics and the rise of MOUT doctrine have gone hand-in-hand with the development of police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units on the domestic front.  Many common SWAT procedures – such as those for clearing rooms within buildings – were gleaned from early DELTA Force practices.  Pieces of commonly-used SWAT gear – such as “flash-bang” grenades – also had their inception in Special Forces applications.

MOUT’s more restrictive rules of engagement have spurred the development of “less-lethal” technologies intended to subdue or repel crowds of people.  Many of these less-lethal technologies have ended up in the hands of domestic police agencies, including the rubber bullets used during the Seattle WTO protests, and the LRAD (Long Range Accoustical Device) systems deployed in Oakland during Occupy protests last fall.  Both technologies were initially designed for use in urban environment peacekeeping operations. 

Twin Cities exercises

Over the past dozen years, MOUT exercises have occurred with regularity across the country.  For instance, the U.S. Marines conducted a mock invasion of the Bay Area during MOUT training in 1999.  Some previous MOUT exercises were not as widely publicized as those in the Twin Cities have been.  During the late 1990s, Special Forces personnel conducted secretive exercises in the Pittsburgh area using helicopters and live rounds, causing much local controversy.

Military-police cross-training related to urban operations has also proliferated in recent years.  The exact degree to which this cross-training is occurring in the Twin Cities is unclear at present.  PRM will have updates regarding the details of this training as we receive responses to our document requests.