The very senior civil servant asked, "have you considered another way to do this?"
The Battle Group Commander bit down on his instinctive reply, "yes, of course I did, you sardonic bastard."
A gulf in understanding and appreciation of war in cities was exposed. The exercise organisers were pleased.
The bloody violence that tore through the centre of Southampton, a port city of a quarter million people on England’s south coast, was all virtual, of course. I had magicked 250 school children and a mobile phone cell onto the top floor of a high-rise construction site, the work of hardcore (though fictional) Ninka insurgents and their military allies from over the border. Hundreds of other Ninka kids were all over the neighbourhood with their mobile phones, texting the location of the British troops sent to clear the insurgents away.
A bright young officer of Fusiliers, a real battalion commander borrowed for the exercise, had the task of using his tanks and armoured infantry to roar past Ikea and, with the assistance of attack helicopters, Joint Strike Fighter and unspecified electronic wizardry; defeat my inventions. His real Challenger II tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles were miles away on Salisbury Plain, as notional that windy Thursday in Southampton as the missile teams I had carefully positioned to slam warheads into his tanks’ thinner side and rear armour.
The Ninkas he fought, canny guerrila fighters in the Hizballah model, are the brainchild of Kristian Gustafson, an academic in the intelligence studies programme at Brunel University and a Territorial Army officer. The commander's advisors that day included a policy wonk from the Ministry of Defence’s centre in Whitehall, the commander of the French Army’s urban operations school, a clever tank officer from the People’s Cavalry, an artillery targeteer, army and RAF pilots and American urban warfare guru Russell Glenn. There would be no groupthink on this exercise.
The fusilier officer and I were conducting a seminar wargame in a multistory carpark. Some of the most senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence; some in their Whitehall gabardines and some, including the MOD’s Finance Director, in well-worn fleece; were our shivering audience. On another parking level was a group of generals and brigadiers working through a similar problem. The top soldiers had advice from the reliably contrarian Professor Mary Kaldor.
Afterward, in a camouflaged briefing theatre pitched under canvas at Marchwood Military Port, the discussion was polite but intense. The practicalities of smoking people out of a modern high-rise block were debated. "This is a mediaeval attack on a fortress," cried an officer from the Household Cavalry. Nobody laughed at the irony. For days the middle-ranking officers had been ground down by the brutal realities of urban combat. Every time they tried to ignore the thousands of civilians milling around their area of operations, realtime images from the City of Southampton’s network of closed-circuit TV cameras reminded them.
Later in the day, as the wind off Southampton Water whipped the camouflage netting over the tent, a hundred senior officers, mostly brigadiers and generals, debated whether the Army needs to fundamentally change itself from a rural-oriented force to an urban-oriented force. This is no small question for an army that has been operating in the villages and compounds of Afghanistan’s rural Green Zone for years and which has urban training areas that look like Serb hill villages and British suburbs, not teeming subtropical cities.
For the British Army, hierarchical and reflexively anti-intellectual, this sort of discussion is hard to create. For the third round of Exercise Urban Warrior Brigadier Tim Robinson used the headquarters of his 1 (UK) Mechanised Brigade as a virtual experimental brigade. For days he exposed himself and his staff to thrice-daily grillings and discussions in his tented arena.
A building across the port was filled with officers and soldiers from the manoeuvre units of Brigadier Tim’s brigade, fighting the imaginary battle by email and conducting sidebar seminars on aspects of urban operations. One table was reserved for THREATCON, the grizzled gunner colonel and perky major of Royal Signals who played the commanders of the enemy force. Beside them was a chief inspector from Hampshire Police, playing the local top cop. A Territorial Army half-colonel, expert in information operations, represented the civilian population.
The exercise was harsh and unforgiving. The wargame geek from Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL), with the ponytail that is practically a badge of his profession, mercilessly taxed not only the brigade commander but also his political advisor and stabilisation advisor with the realities of weapons developments we expect to see in ten years’ time. Over strong Army tea, military historian Toby McLeod, borrowed from the University of Birmingham, debated with the DSTL operational analysts and the staff anthropologist whether the ruins of Southampton would work more like those of Grozny or Stalingrad. A young staff officer from Director Special Forces respectfully explained, again and again, that this operation just wasn’t important enough for the immediate attention of the SAS and SBS but that the brigade commander’s request was in a queue and would be answered by the next available sabre squadron.
Operating in a city is a real horror for soldiers, especially humane soldiers. For our officers, many of whom experienced the long defeat in Basrah, the idea of stability operations in a city is bad enough; the idea of fighting full-scale warfare, “war amongst the people” is dreadful to contemplate. A week in Southampton doing just that dreadful contemplation showed the soldiers that doctrine, training and procedures need to be developed to make success at this kind of warfare possible by 2020.
But over and again the question arose: why would anyone want to do this? Why not stick to the current convention of inking urban areas in black on planning maps and just staying away? Here we come to the reason for the exercise. Cities around the world are swelling with migrants from the countryside, especially cities by the sea. Youth bulge, competition for resources and proliferation of conventional weapons make the likelihood of problems in dense littoral cities ever higher, and more problems means more conflict. More conflict means more chance that the British Army will find itself forced to fight in a city.
The recent fighting in Libya’s coastal cities fits into this pattern, and Lieutenant-General Paul Newton, the Army’s Commander of Force Development and Training, is betting that the Army has to be ready for it. By starting now, setting soldier-scholars in the Petraeus mold to envisioning, developing and training the force we’ll need after we disengage from Afghanistan, Newton hopes to resist the temptation to prepare for the last war and give us an army in 2020 that’s ready for 2020.
For the Armed Forces, a trip to dense littoral cities is dreaded like a trip to the dentist, but exercises like Urban Warrior show they are aware of the requirement. For politicians; notoriously myopic when forced to look forward more than a day, a month or an election; an understanding of the costs and dangers of sending soldiers to fight in cities will be harder to achieve. Nobody will force ministers like our new Secretary of State for Defence to fly slowly around Southampton in a helicopter, contemplating refugee flows from Southampton Common towards the bridges over the Itchen and Test. Nobody will robustly question their assumptions, and if past behaviour of senior officers is any guide then nobody will tell ministers to get stuffed when they send soldiers to fight amongst the population of some dense city.
When the steely-eyed young Battle Group Commander sketched out his plan for attacking through the centre of Southampton he knew that he had to act quickly to stop a long, drawn-out battle that would kill and destroy even more people.
“Ministers would never let you hand the enemy that kind of propaganda coup,” said the very senior civil servant. He was right. Among the gaps that need to be bridged before Britain’s armed forces are ready to fight the wars of the future is the gulf of understanding between ministers and soldiers.