Episode 63: John Spencer: Urban Warfare as the Great Leveller

Peter Roberts talks to the doyen of urban warfare research, Prof John Spencer, about why strategies of 'avoid and bypass' for urban conflicts just don't work, and why fighting in urban areas is so much more than close-quarters battles and house-clearing drills.

It seems Western militaries are going to have to break out of their single-minded focus on manoeuvre warfare if they are going to contest vital spaces in the coming decades.

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  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, the weekly podcast that tries to understand around the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week, I'll talk to a guest about the issues around ways of warfare, how and why we fight, national security, and the western approach to war. 


    Avoid and bypass were watchwords for many military plans over the past few decades, especially for militaries struggling with the concept of fighting more numerous forces in the future and how they should modernise. This peculiar emphasis on national force development teams placed on avoiding and bypassing urban conurbations was at odds with everything coming from strategic trends documentation about the importance of urbanite spaces to future battlefields. It might be more convenient to talk of economic strangulation to achieve political ends, but the reality of ineffective economic sanctions rarely make these viable or decisive moments as part of contemporary campaign plans. It's an uncomfortable truth for many militaries that urban warfare is here to stay. It was out of fashion for many years and introducing recent experiences into the conversations was largely deemed unhelpful, yet if we learnt nothing from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Mali, Yemen, Israel, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Philippines, Georgia, Ukraine, Chechnya, it's how hard these fights are, and that our current training regimes just aren't cutting it. For those who claim that these examples have no relevance to fighting in an era of great power competition or rivalry, they seem to be ignoring the longer histories of proxy wars fought between superpowers across history. Yet urban warfare has subsets within itself, it's not just the density of the space and the presence of civilians, but also, the architecture that matters, and the added dimensions of height and depth that add complexity to standards ways of operating. 


    Securing a housing complex or a block of flats is an infinitely more time-consuming and risky preposition in comparison to manoeuvre warfare in the Fulda Gap gap. They're extremely difficult and the composition, let alone the potential illegality of underground or subterranean warfare adds further dimensions that require skill sets and training that are specialist. A fact that many only got reminded about in the latest Israeli Hamas conflict, but which few people, including the IDF and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, have been working on for a little bit longer. All these factors, variables and complications, the physical, psychological, the natural geography suck up people, and there's no sign technology can overcome that fundamental requirement. Sure, it'll help, but it's an addition, not a substitute. Indeed, the most effective way to gain ground in the urban environment is with specialist combined arms teams. Mechanised, infantry, armour, artillery, comms and EW specialists, Air PAM, medical, and critically, engineers. Some of the capabilities really needed might be considered as chivalrous (ph 03.15) or sunset capabilities in European military language. For example, if the tank has no value in warfare, one wonders what capability managers might consider replacing it with the achieve the deep penetration as experienced in the second Battle of Fallujah. These rather basic concepts to urban warfare are often most uncomfortable for people who want more technology, more cyber, more space, more automation, cheaper and more disposable platforms, and fewer people on a budget designed for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, not modern warfare. 


    These rather basic concepts to urban warfare are often more uncomfortable for people who want more technology, more cyber and space, more automation, cheaper and more disposable platforms, and fewer people on a budget designed for counter-insurgency and CT, not modern warfare. Excelled in combined arms and close quarters combat drill, but I'm no expert, so I wanted to get someone in to talk to us about urban warfare who is. John Spencer served over 25 years in the US Army, joining as an infantry soldier at sixteen and having held ranks from Private to Sergeant First Class, Second Lieutenant to Major. His assignments as an Army officer included two combat deployments to Iraq, both as an infantry platoon leaser and a company commander, a Ranger instructor with the Army's ranger school and a Fellow with the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. He left the Army in 2018 to be Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute, where he was instrumental in the design and the formation of that organisation. John currently serves as the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, Co-Director of the Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project podcast. His research focuses on military operations in sense urban megacities, urban and subterranean warfare. John, from me, a huge thanks for coming on the show, but let's start with a question to set you thinking in the context of this series for our listeners. What does the Western way of war mean to you? 


    John Spencer: Well, thanks, Peter. Huge honour for me to be here. The Western way of warfare, for me, is an expeditionary, offensive, enemy-centric form of war, wedded to the manoeuvres mind-set, and founded on strategic assumptions on who and where our next, in quotes, big war will happen, that guides everything that we do. 


    Peter Roberts: Mark Milley said a while ago, I think it was when he was Army Chief of Staff, right? He said that it is really likely that the next war, the next big one that we're talking about, is going to be focused around the urban? 


    John Spencer: Absolutely, and I, as an urban warfare scholar, quote him often in that speech, where he said, 'I can say, with great possibility, that is where the next fight will be,' and very specifically, he said, 'We need to train, man, and equip for that dense urban combat that's very close, austere combat in urban terrain.' Arguably, we didn't follow that instruction. 


    Peter Roberts: Philosophically, it's almost at odds with the idea of manoeuvre, isn't it? When we imagine manoeuvre, we think about large formations, divisions, corps, Army groups that are manoeuvring across large open spaces, and they aren't doing the fighting in detail the attritional combat that seems to characterise urban warfare. 


    John Spencer: Exactly. So, if you go back to that, 'Who do you think you'll be fighting in the future?' Even though you spend twenty years fighting a non-state actor, hey, we're prepared to fight, let's be clear, China or Russia, and I want to do that in the open, as far away as possible, and yes, in urban terrain, you can argue that your ability to do a manoeuvre is severely constrained. I'm not a proponent that you can't do it at all. In all echelons of, let's say, the deep close fights, but show me your force design. Show me your force structure, and then show me your training areas, and I can tell you whether you're even thinking about urban operations at all. 


    Peter Roberts: I want to come back to training areas, because I think this is a really important conversation that is being triggered but, you know, again, there seems to be lots of conversation on what's being done about it, but I want to come back to the urban warfare terrain as the great leveller. We've seen highly sophisticated militaries go into dense urban environments against a much less technologically capable opponent, indeed an opponent who's done nowhere the near the amount of training that Western forces have done, and yet it becomes a great leveller in capabilities. It's not just about the will to fight, it's about being bound by the geography, which I think is so difficult. The architecture, right? 


    John Spencer: Absolutely. Yes, the physical terrain is that big, I wouldn't say great equaliser, which has been quoted in the past, and I get criticism for that, but you're right, it is an equaliser. It gives the defender, who usually has the advantage anyway, but the defender of urban terrain has an even greater advantage because as soon as you bring your enemy into the close fight, in urban terrain, most of this ways of warfare won't work as well as he wants it to do. That could be how they manoeuvre around, how their advanced technologies sense the enemy, how they are able to strike, and don't forget that in the urban terrain, it's not just the physical, right? So, yes, sky scrapers or even a building over seven stories tall, the underground space of any urban terrain, all those are going to give huge military problems to any attacker, but you also have the law of armed conflict, and the Western way of war is bound in a great follower, even if your enemy is not, to the law of armed conflict, and arguably, even greater ethical and moral ways of fighting. In the urban terrain, the definition of urban means there are people present. So, the fact that that's going to be a location where more and more controls on the use of force are going to be present adds to that fact that this is the most difficult location to ever fight. 


    Peter Roberts: Most Western experiences of urban warfare, I guess that we look back on, tend to be in the offensive, in terms of taking it, but are there good examples of where we've been on the defensive, and used it, almost like a Crecy or Agincourt, where we break the enemy of a, sort of, strategic defences, break them against the urban they're coming towards it? Do we have examples of Western forces have used it on the defensive, or do we have to go much further back into history to see that? 


    John Spencer: Yes, I think (TC 00:10:00) you have to go much further in history if you want to give somebody a big scale example, but even in today's warfare, even though I said the Western way of war is very offensive-centric, right? We're going to deeply into theatre and we're going to be attacking the enemy, but you can't really do that, and most people, rightfully so, will fire back at me, even when you're on the offence, you have some component of the defence. So, we have lots of examples of, you know, take the Second Battle of Fallujah, one of the main elements, objective is to penetrate deep into the urban space, immediately go into the defence. So, that combined arms regiment penetrates into a very well-thought-out enemy defence, and then, turns around, and forms a defensive perimeter, wanting the enemy to then come out of their hidden space, give up their advantages and attack them. It's genius, but I don't know if a lot of people think about it that way, and I am a strong proponent that we over-emphasise the offence, and there are plenty of examples I can think about in future, even great war competitions where you need to hurry up and get into the defence to stop an advancing force. In the bulwark, why wouldn't you use urban terrain to that? It is, like you said, the great equaliser. It is the channelling point of even, let's say, we're going to focus on large-scale combat, it is where all roads lead to, right? By the evolution of civilisation, and I think you've seen my example about Nagorno-Karabakh, which the whole world has taken as an example of the future of war, the high amounts of use of technology, drones, artificial intelligence to identify targets, cyber, electronic warfare. 


    Nobody talked about, it all came to a point on a city, and once that city fell, it was a decisive operation by even all of our military definitions of what is decisive, it led to the political outcome and the end of the war. Why would anybody think that any future war against any great power won't centre on these critical strategic terrain of urban space? I don't know. 


    Peter Roberts: I love that idea in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in Susha about, you know, how important that was and how critical, but I do keep coming back, when I try and talk to people about the principles of urban warfare, to that Second Battle of Fallujah. The idea of the two big ones that I bring out are always the nature of a combined arms team going in there, and that was a strange construct, right? You know, joint Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Airforce, I mean, it really was, that was a proper combined arms joint piece, but also, this idea of deep penetration, you know, something that most commanders wouldn't think about in terms of clear hold and build. You know, it just felt at odds with the idea of the counter-insurgency doctrine that we were talking about, at the time. What are some of the big principles about urban warfare that we should get people thinking about? 


    John Spencer: Right. So, you definitely hit on the one. And this is the problem I have on trying to convince people that, (1) you have to convince them that urban is the future terrain of the next war. For some reason, and again, why I think the Western way of war gets it wrong is that we imagine, no matter what the war we're fighting today, no matter what the trends of warfare today, look around the world, can you find war that is not in urban? You might be able to find a couple, but it's all urban, but then, okay, fine, you have another enemy that won't be urban. So, when I talk urban operations, I have to convince them that it's the urban training, and then I have to convince what type of urban warfare, right? So, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism urban is a lot different than doing a city attack. Viciously taking back terrain that you need or you want to recapture. So, if I talk about principles of urban warfare in an attack like that, a city attack where you have a defending enemy, which I know you've already had my friend Amos Fox and Tony King, we all emphasise these city attacks, these sieges, you can't avoid them and you can't just think they're not going to happen in the future, but like you said, Second Battle of Fallujah, you have an enemy, inside urban terrain, and you have to either get the enemy out or you have to take back the city. There are two big differences there in the principles of both, depending on the mission you give to the force, but, like you said, the number one principle is that urban warfare is not light infantry fighting. If that's the way you're going to do it, a lot of people are going to die and a lot of collateral damage is going to happen. 


    Urban warfare, at high intensity, is a combined arms fight, where you have to out-think the defender, and one of the ways you do that is with combination of joint force, right? So, Second Battle of Fallujah is an amazing case study of what happens when you have time, which is critical, to put together your joint force package and bring everything you have to bear against an enemy that should have the advantage, and they didn't, but there's also aspects of the information operations to it that some people leave off their list of combined capabilities. I'm a firm believer of that ability to punch into urban terrain and take away the advantages that the enemy thinks they have, and we've seen in history, even recent history, take the Battle of Mosul in 2016-17, where that has gone wrong, just because all the joint capabilities weren't there. You know, Peter, I'm a big fan of the tank. If you're going into urban operations, in anything other than counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and you don't have a tank? People are going to die, and you're not going to successfully achieve your mission very quickly. So, I have been against people giving up their tanks, US Marines-, sorry, UK military, you give up your tank, me as an urban warfare scholar means you're giving up your role in a high-intensity fight of urban combat and you help somebody else will bring that to the table. Now, is a tank the only tool you need? No, of course not, and I think this is what, you know, the Israelis have shown us. Given a certain mission, where you know a limited objective, you need to get into the urban terrain, your force package to do that will look a lot different than you keep training in your training areas. 


    This isn't about just getting your infantry to the first building and letting them go. I don't know why we keep doing that, but most militaries, and I go around the world, for some reason, focus on this close infantry fight, which is important, but you need to get in there, into the urban terrain, you need fire power, you need protection, and that's a huge one. You know, an Israeli model, you're putting a bulldozer up front, and why do you put a bulldozer up front? Because it's probably the most protected thing you have that's not going to let the enemy deny you terrain. One of the things that happened in the Battle of Mosul, that most people don't catch, is that, you know, we had to penetrate the defensive belts, and the Iraqi military just wasn't designed to penetrate urban terrain. So, they lost an inordinate amount of tanks by sending them up to the breach point and trying to get a tank to breach. It makes sense, and we say the words, we say joint, multi-domain fighting capability, but when it comes to urban terrain, that's just not what we present in our war games, it's not what we present in our training areas. You need this heavy, mechanised, infantry, engineer, information operation package, and you assume you'll have time to put it together. So, that's the other aspect of why I think people get it wrong is they think they have the time to put all this together. So, they'll keep training all these separate types of formations, by themselves, the light infantry, the mobile infantry, heavy forces, they'll all train by themselves, and then, you know, if we get this urban mission that we don't want anyway, that we think we'll be able to avoid and bypass, we'll bring it altogether at that time and we'll adapt. Adaptability, I think, I don't know if I've heard it in other people's responses to the Western way of war, is this very strong, because they're global, if you say the American military, aspect that we will adapt to whatever environment you send us to. We're not going to prepare for any environment, even though we're not going to change our training areas that have been existing since the fifties, sixties, seventies. We'll adapt to whatever environment you send us into. There's a huge amount of risk and I think it often goes wrong and people don't highlight how it goes wrong and then how to change things, and that goes back to, 'Show me your force design.'


    Peter Roberts: I think it's fascinating, you talked about this adaptability because from listening to some of your conversations, the idea about using artillery and direct fire mode, rather than ballistic trajectories, the utility of mortars as opposed to artillery in an urban environment because that gives you a very, very different set of capabilities. The utility of one or two rounds from an Apache gunship making a difference over strafing runs. You know, all these things are about the people on the ground adapting to meet the fight and within the laws of armed conflict, as you say, within their rules of engagement, right? 


    John Spencer: Absolutely. I think you've seen, I wrote an article, 'The Eight Rules of Urban Warfare', to me, those are eight rules that we allow to hold, and that's usually, again, you really have to narrow people down when you say, 'What is urban warfare? How do you prepare for it? How do you train for it? How do you equip for it?' Let's talk about the very specific mission. So, in a city attack, which seems to just keep coming around, in the city attack there are aspects to the fighting and rules that we just allow to remain in place, and one of them is this fact that any enemy, no matter how small they are, can get inside of a really fortified (TC 00:20:00) building and hold off inordinate amount of forces. That's because we don't have concrete penetrating weapons, and we usually figure that out, once we figure out that, 'Hey, having infantrymen stack on doors of uncleared buildings and attempting to penetrate them works out really badly within a few days of the combat operation.' So, then we say, 'Okay, what else do we have?' Well, we have tanks, you can bring a tank up of you have them. And that 120 round will penetrate some concrete. Well, (inaudible 20.30), I have artillery rounds. So, you'll see, across history, from World War Two up until today, especially in, like, the Battle of Muar, people figure out, 'I need to penetrate concrete, so what do I have? Well, let me adapt my weapons to do this mission. So, I'll direct fire artillery into every building before I enter it with my infantry man,' because risk changes as the mission changes. That's a rule. This rule that somebody can get inside of urban structures and defend them so heavily that we have to use-, I mean, there are so many modern examples of it. An inordinate amount of fire power, we'll use to kill or to eliminate an enemy just within one building. And I think that gets to one of my rules or even if-, I don't know if-, I've heard Amos Fox talk about the precision paradox. I call it the precision fallacy. 


    So, this belief that our modern technologies will negate this rule of urban warfare, right? This high intensity, some reason the enemy is in urban terrain, I can give you a whole list of-, but then our current weapons will work to defeat the enemy there, right? So, we'll use the multi-domain operations. It comes down to concrete penetration and your precision-guided munitions will help in your aspect of the (inaudible 21.45) conflict precisely target a building, but if you precisely target a building and you don't kill the enemy in there, it's a fallacy to believe that that should be the way forward. That's what we've seen in modern combat, even the US army firing every hellfire missile that they have in their strategic inventory during the Battle of Mosul to where they're rushing to get more. We're firing every artillery-guided munition they have in the entire theatre of operations during the battle of Roka (ph 22.12). That's not the way that you're going to get-, you need a full suite of concrete penetrating weapons that achieves your mission. So, one of my biggest arguments about this, right-, so if you even think that urban warfare is a possibility, what are the capabilities you'll bring together, if you believe you have time, and do you have the capabilities? Some people have more capabilities than others, and I'm sorry I'm such a big fan of the Israeli defence forces, and rightfully so. They're not global, they're a regional force, and they're not the full spectrum of operations. They're trained for a very limited amount. 


    That gives them great amount of flexibility to design forces for very specific urban missions. So, their urban penetration is going to be a lot different than a force optimises, as we say, for all environments, even though you just quoted your own military saying, 'We should optimise for urban.' And that should be our starting point and adapt to all other environments, but we don't. So, this idea that precision-guided munitions will solve this rule of urban warfare, I think, is a myth. And there's atam (ph 23.20) that will blow people's mind when you really look at it because we train for open warfare that we don't even develop capabilities, prevent, let's say, an enemy from seeing us at distance. So, I just don't get, sometimes, how we don't have massive amounts of smoke generation or fog generation or something that, in the urban training, is one of the biggest advantages of anybody defending, no matter who it is, is that he can see you coming and ambush you at designs.


    Peter Roberts: But it impacts on all parts of the military, doesn't it, right? So, if you're talking about command arms, it's not just about the teeth arms. I mean, the investment that needs to happen in engineering, not just at the platform level, but the individual. I listened to a really great conversation you had with a sergeant who was in charge of the briefing school, right? Amazing detail that you need to train breachers in the engineers. You need a different type of capability. We're not talking necessarily about bridges (ph 24.13), but we're talking about bulldozers, we're talking about diggers, we're talking about the J2 that needs to understand how buildings are built, how much rebar is in them, what are you going to take to blow through them. I just think that we've simplified our forces to one of the easiest environments, which is, like, the wide-open plains. We're not training ourselves for the most taxing environment and, the problem is, even where we think it's about close quarters and we're doing house clearing, as you said, you know, and we're getting expert at that, we're not testing the rest of our structures towards this area. Is that about our mindset? Is it about part of our training areas? Is it about a force rotation? Is it about our philosophy? What do you think sits at the heart of this? When you've got a chief of staff who's saying, 'This is our number one priority,' and we don't get there, where does the problem sit?


    John Spencer: All of the above, Peter. So, all those things you just mentioned, it's all of those. It does come down to leadership, it does come down to resource allocation, and I get it. So, I understand. And this is why I try to tell all the people. When you read about how different armies are preparing for the future, it comes with all their resource constraints, it comes with their vision of what the future war will be. And for urban operations it might not sell to build urban capability because it's the mission nobody wants, even though it's the mission that everybody gets. So, we just continue to negate it to, 'We'll adapt to it later,' and this belief, even though history-, you know, I'm standing on the table pounding on it shows that if you train, man and equip for open terrain, it will not serve you well when you push those same forces into urban terrain. Yes, they will adapt. Yes, you will adapt your weapons and equipment, but it will come at a high cost. It may even come to strategic failure. Like, let's say, if you didn't plan for the information operation aspect of this. The fact that you can't fight war unconnected anymore. Whether you're talking Israel and Nagorno-Karabakh, us and Fallujah, somebody will be watching. If you don't have an information warfare aspect of your urban operation, you'll achieve strategic failure when the build thinks that you're not following the laws of armed conflict. Being overly destructive. It's every aspect. 


    So, usually, if I'm sitting in front a chief of staff of an army, they understand all the nuances of what they can do, what it takes to really change a military, the amount of resources it would take to build a trainer that realistically will allow you to train large scale formations in urban. They get all of it. So, the number one thing I will say is that, show me how you're spending your resources. So, the fact that we don't have an urban warfare research centre in any military in the world really points at the philosophy and the challenges of this ahead, right? So, I'm one of the few urban guys who have been given, thanks to the United States Military Academy, the space to just study urban. Now, the US Army doesn't even have an urban warfare school. Even the urban breachers course you just mentioned has now closed as we realign the great power competition. And the few armies that have an urban warfare, even training school, like the UK military urban operation destructor course, it's so minuscule that it has no impact on this large scale preparing for war that we're talking about. Nobody has an urban warfare training centre, as in full scale. We have jungle training centres, we have mountain training centres. I'm a scholar now. I used to be the infantry man. There are no urban operations research centre aligned to a military, giving the freedom to just study how-, even if you're going to, say, 'Okay. I want to adapt this force to urban. What is the best way to do it? What is the best force package? I'll put into it.' It blows your mind, Peter, when you think about it.


    Peter Roberts: You can see some militaries get it. And they don't just get it, sort of, philosophically or in the narrative of great leader (ph 28.26) speeches, but I was interested to see the Australian Defence Force armour buy recently and the split between the Abrams tanks with the 120 barrel that they were buying, and the engineering tanks that they also bought in that purchase. And that's split, to me, now, I suddenly thought, 'Now, there's a force that gets it. There's a force that's rebalancing to really take on the challenges of urban.' And it struck me that they really got it. It strikes me that the IDF certainly get it. Their investments in subterranean, the stuff that you talk about where they were doing peace time tunnel exploration and exploitation. But there are a very few militaries that really invest this and get it.


    John Spencer: I 100% agree. And, like I said, we can all point to, like, 'The Israeli's do this. Why can't we?' You have to take into consideration that we have to prepare for this global fight. So, how could you do it? You could assign smaller portions of your military to just the urban mission set, and let them optimise for the operation. I argue strongly that you could do that. You could create a school where you create experts because schools aren't just about training individual military members, it's about creating a cadre of experts. Of course, I always come back to the tank, but one of the reasons that most militaries won't push tanks into urban operations, and I've seen it, and it blows my mind, even in war games or in actual physical training, they're holding the tank back and pushing the infantry men into the meat grinder. One of the reasons they say is the tank is just too vulnerable in the urban terrain. Well, how about you fix that? (TC 00:30:00) So, the Israel's have an active protection system, right? It's the Trophy. It's open source. And it will stop an RPG, which is one of the very low scale weapons. Whether you're a great power or you're a non-state actor or a terrorist, if you have a bunch of RPGs, you can hurt a tank. And even in the second battle of Fallujah, it was just a lot of non-penetrating RPGs fired at the front of a tank in order to disable it at close range. So, the fact that all militaries don't have an active protective system, like the Trophy, on their tanks, is almost criminal. But, like I said, the Israelis have the clarity, like, 'I know this will go into urban terrain.' When you hold capabilities like that, it echelons and it shows a window into the fight that you are preparing for, no matter what. And this is a problem in the Western way of war is no matter the fight we're having today, that's not the fight we want to fight. 


    So, we won't adapt fully to it. Like, I won't go into major weapons procurement just for the urban terrain, that's crazy. Is it? But you'll go into major procurement for this vision of the future that you see, that the urban terrain will then break down because the urban terrain will negate advanced technologies like drones, like artificial intelligence. Even your GPS radio signals, it will start to deteriorate those. That's also why I don't think experimentation should happen in the open terrain and then work to complex terrain. I've been a big advocate. Like, why not start in the most complex terrain you can and experiment with these capabilities and then use them in open terrain? 'Well, that doesn't make sense.' It makes a lot of sense to me.


    Peter Roberts: John, I couldn't agree more. I'm completely with you. I think one of the things we haven't done, even if these limited urban environments, is to put a wrap over the top of heavy EW, electronic warfare, jamming, spectrum denial, GPS spoofing. And these are cheap widely available technologies, not just you can buy them from the Russian military and Russian arms-, you can buy them on the black market. I mean, they're genuinely really easy to procure and yet we don't buy that stuff and overlay it on a training environment because we seem to be caught up in this idea, right as you said at the start, this is about the close quarters battle, this is about house clearing, this is about how to go through a door, how to cross streets, how to cross alleyways. It's not about the combined arms part of this. 


    John Spencer: Yes. So, I get equally as frustrated. I work almost in the science and technology field as well, so I get invited to talk to them, and there are amazing capabilities around the world, and we're procuring amazing capabilities, but if you were to fight tonight with the armies that you have, most of the time, they're not going to have that stuff. For some reason, because we haven't pushed it down-, we don't believe that that's the level of the urban fight that we're going to have. I agree with you, right? So, this EW capability, the cyber capability, this active protective system capability, even commercial off-the-shelf drones flying above you, we had this adaptability trait built into our way of war that, 'Hey, if we get that presented to us, then we'll push all these capabilities to them.' That's not the best way to prepare for the future of combat. It gets really frustrating actually, for me, as I see people doing some of the best training events in the world and assume, in a way, enemy capabilities, right? 


    So, Nagorno-Karabakh, it isn't two great powers fighting each other, it's two proxy forces, one heavily backed by a nation state and the most modern capabilities and another not so much. Why can't we see that? Not only did it go to the urban, but some of these technologies were vicious in the destruction of forces in the open that didn't have active protectionisms, that didn't have the most modern air defence capabilities, things like that. Or the fact terrain and urban really-, so what stops an all-seeing eye from above? Fog. So, I think you heard me say this. In this giant urban fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh, fog rolls in and, 'Oh, no. All of our advanced technologies aren't working.' So, now what are you going to do? And I think this is one of the issues I have with-, I don't have issues, I'm trying to be nice with (inaudible 34.20) operations, but we actually can't convince ourselves if that means, you know, basic cut-off from technology, we need adaptable forces that can work in any environment or the most advanced network known to man, target to sensor, that can take out targets before ground forces even get close. So, which is it? Is it an all-seeing eye with a network that will not fail? Or is it this tough, urban fight where some of this stuff won't work and you need to be prepared to operate with all that stuff? There's a big difference, but if you're not spending time on urban, then, to me, none of it matters. 


    So, that goes back, like you said, to the training areas. If you can't replicate this, if you can't replicate the reality of urban combat, even with your different types of simulations, there's no forcing function to the leadership to make giant changes. And, again, going back to the Israelis, what I found is that you don't need to convince anybody about the nature of the challenges because they're seeing it every day and they're reinventing themselves multiple times over. And it's really hard for a Western military to do that, just because of the scale of them or the procurement processes or all the different aspects of the leadership that can be resistant to change.


    Peter Roberts: I get all that when we're talking about the Western side. I know that the Chinese have some really good, very large, urban training environments. I know the Russians, having received a really good kicking in Chechnya, invested some time and space in this. I don't know if you know. Do they train a higher level, in terms of combined arms?


    John Spencer: So, China's harder to tell. So, China has, like you said, large scale training environments, that they're training for very specific urban missions they think they might have, but, again, offence versus defence. Do I think a Chinese military is overburdened by only thinking about offence? No. Do I think they're resistant to change? Yes. Russians, right, so they get their butt kicked in Chechnya, they changed themselves a little bit, still overburdened by problems such as conscription and-, just leader development has a huge aspect of this, right? So, your professionalised army has an aspect of this. Did Russia learn more lessons than we did from modern combat because they sent almost every leader in their army into Syria? Yes. You see Russia not wasting time on preparing for urban combat. They're developing off-the-shelf robotics that will take the fire, right, so that these eight rules I talked about, you see Russians advancing at a faster scale to negate these urban capabilities because they either experienced them in Syria or watched them being experienced and developed solutions. And then, hopefully, quickly integrate them into the force. Again, it goes back to, what war do you think you're going to fight? Does Russia think it's going to fight us on the open? Yes. And they have long-range artillery that is very scary and that we should be paying attention, but they've also adapted and prepared for urban operations because of the Ukraine, because of Syria, that I don't know if everybody in the Western arena has done. We're still holding onto the future that we want.


    Peter Roberts: John, listen, we don't have time now. I really wanted to get into subterranean warfare with you, but I'm going to have to get you back for another episode to do subterranean warfare because that in itself deserves some serious attention and we, sort of, negate it. So, this idea of heightened depth in a battle field, depth in a different way that we've been used to thinking about in terms of depth of fires, but depth underground. And I think whether it's the legality of it, whether it's the differences you experience in it, I think there's a whole subject there that you and I need to get into, and I think our listeners would be genuinely interested. But, at this stage, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been awesome.


    John Spencer: Thank you, Peter. It's been an honour.


    Peter Roberts: Thanks for all your feedback, comments and banter about the show. Several people have been asking about what I'm listening to and reading at the moment, so here are a couple of notes. If you want to tune into one of the best podcasts I listen to, try John Spencer's Urban Warfare Project on MWI. It really is a fascinating and informative set of discussions about this most challenging of environments. The perspectives that John illicits from his guests and the people he picks for the show, are diverse and genuinely insightful. You might also consider delving into some of this writing. His commentaries, op-eds and articles are certainly worth looking up and will be a great segue into his forthcoming book called Connect Soldiers, that should be out in 2022. I've also been reading the last couple of RUSI journals, with entries from previous guests on this show, from Amos Fox on siege warfare, and Ewan Lawson on hybrid warfare, plus a really insightful book review from the inimitable Beatrice Heuser. And then there's a really good challenging piece from Paul O'Neill, from my team, on why we should be focusing on adaptability, not integration. 


    Finally, also published there recently is a piece that won the Trench Gascoigne prize in 2020 by Samuel Zilincik, titled Why the 'Fear, Honour and Interest' Trinity Harms Our Understanding of War. Sam also got the prize money for his work, a timely reminder that RUSI is still open for essay entries for 2021 competition. Entries can be up to 4,000 words and can cover any topic related to national or international defence and security. There are two prizes for £1,000 to be won. For more details, check out the link on the page for this podcast. RUSI members automatically get sent copies of the journal, and if the last two issues don't trigger you to take out membership, one might wonder whether (TC 00:40:00) you are serious about the profession of arms. Check out our current membership offers at rusi.org/membership. This show is produced by Peppi Vaananen and Kieran Yates, and is sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. I really appreciate the opportunity and freedoms they give me to continue these conversations. Thanks for listening. 


    KEY: Unable to decipher = (inaudible + timecode), Phonetic spelling (ph) + timecode), Missed word = (mw + timecode), Talking over each other = (talking over each other + timecode). 

2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize

Submissions are now open to our annual competition for original writing on contemporary issues of national and international defence and security. Find out more details on the 2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize and how to enter.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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