Precision Fires Hindered by Urban Jungle


2018-04-16 /

In a March–April 2015 Military Review article, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster wrote about a handful of fallacies that plague thinking about modern war. Specifically, in “Continuity and Change: The Army Operating Concept and Clear Thinking About Future War,” McMaster suggested, “These fallacies are dangerous because they threaten to consign the U.S. military to repeat mistakes and develop joint forces ill-prepared for future threats to national security.”

The fallacies—the “vampire fallacy,” the “Zero Dark 30 fallacy,” the “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy” and the “RSVP fallacy”—are a good starting point when thinking about modern warfare. However, the counter-Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria adds further legitimacy to McMasters’ vampire fallacy, which posits that technological innovation will deliver quick, easy and inexpensive victories while lifting fog and friction from the battlefield.

The counter-Islamic State campaign, underwritten by U.S. precision-strike capability, provided another opportunity for the proponents of precision strike to advance their position. Yet the hard slogs in Mosul, Iraq; Raqqa and Aleppo, both in Syria; and, to a lesser degree, Ramadi, Iraq, have further eroded the promises of precision warfare. As such, McMasters’ vampire fallacy lives on, but perhaps with an additional wrinkle—a precision paradox.

The following quickly scans Operation Inherent Resolve’s Battle of Mosul and looks at how the allure of precision warfare, the physical embodiment of the vampire fallacy, resulted in a pulverized city and discredits the idea of precision warfare in urban environments.  

The battle, in which Iraqi security forces and the U.S.-led coalition defeated the Islamic State group, raged for nine months (October 2016–July 2017). The employment of precision strike in Mosul has been well documented. In fact, many outlets, including Defense One and the Mosul Study Group from the U.S. Army’s Center for Lessons Learned, were quick to praise its employment in Mosul. These outlets posited that the U.S. employment of precision strike yielded proportionality and discriminate targeting, and limited civilian casualties and collateral damage. However, reality illustrates that Mosul is yet another example of the false promises of precision weaponry.

In urban combat, against an enemy that is great in size and possesses indomitable will, like the Islamic State group in Mosul, precision weapons present a paradox. The judicious use of destructive force is fundamentally irrelevant if it does not eliminate the threat within the first strike or two. When precision strikes do not achieve their desired effect within the first strike and threats reposition to another structure, they expand the potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties. As a result, precision strikes’ ineffectiveness of eliminating the threat creates the conditions in which residual threats move from structure to structure, trailed by precision strikes, leaving a swath of death and destruction in their wake.

In Mosul, the Islamic State group used the city’s infrastructure to its fullest. Based on the way they fought, one must assume they did not care for maintaining the city’s infrastructure and were not concerned with civilian casualties. Instead, the Islamic State group leveraged the city’s infrastructure as positions from which to fight, command the battle, evacuate wounded and defend. The result of this approach negated the promise of precision strike capability, resulting in the city and its inhabitants facing a future little different than if they had been hammered with dumb bombs and indiscriminate artillery salvos. 

People, City Not Spared

The Battle of Mosul—just like its antecedent, the Battle of Ramadi, and the subsequent Battle of Marawi in the Philippines—is another data point disproving the illusion of precision warfare. In essence, the battle illuminated a misconception of modern warfare with the precision paradox—the proposition that the employment of precision weaponry can make war antiseptic and devoid of collateral damage or civilian casualties. The Battle of Mosul, a nine-month slog, blending U.S. and coalition precision weapons with Iraqi frontal attacks against an ensconced and determined enemy, precisely leveled the city one building at a time. The result: upwards of 900,000 displaced people, billions of dollars needed for reconstruction, and the city largely in ruins.

In Mosul, the allure of precision strike was overcome by the traps of urban warfare and the Islamic State group’s tenacity. Precision weaponry did not spare the people of Mosul, nor did it spare the city’s infrastructure. Yet the battle was decisive. It fractured the back of the Islamic State group’s army and caused it to recoil from further sustained battles of attrition, most notably in Tal Afar, Hawijah and the land corridor that parallels the Euphrates River to Syria. U.S. and coalition firepower brought an end to the Islamic State group’s land grab in Iraq, albeit at a high cost.

Perhaps the time has come to accept as fact the precision fallacy, and instead of perpetuating the myth of precision strike, come to grips with the reality of war—war is violent, bound in chance, fraught with friction and, ultimately, a human endeavor. As long as we fail to do so, the allure to precision strike will continue to advance fallacies of modern war, much like that of the vampire fallacy.