Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Oct 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 020 – Urban Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


Before we discuss planning and executing urban operations, we need to get into a general mindset on key concepts related to urban operations.  As we have said in the past, we must understand the big picture and then get into specifics.  Let’s discuss two key concepts.  First, let’s delve into the visualization piece of fighting in an urban environment.  This will assist you in planning and executing.  Second, there are some essential fundamentals that should guide you in the urban fight.


In order to get into the right mindset when planning and executing an urban operation, a commander needs some type of framework to structure his thinking.  This will assist him during the planning, preparation, and execution of the operation.  In regards to urban operations, there are a few frameworks out there to assist the commander in this process.  One fairly simple framework utilizes the components of understand, shape, engage, and transition.  At first glance, you might think, “Not another checklist or mental model!”  However, there is utility to this and the planning and execution of an urban operation ties in nicely with this process.  Again, this is simply a technique.  As in any technique, this may be extremely helpful for some and useless for others.  Let’s look at each component.


UNDERSTAND – This is the act of obtaining information, analyzing it and then using it to make decisions at the right place and time.  In urban operations, this is very challenging for many reasons.  First, every urban environment is different.  Unlike a conventional fight where you can go back and pull out estimates you developed months earlier; you can not pull out older estimates on a particular urban area or another urban area and expect them to be useful.  Every village, town, city etc… is unique.  Second, the environment is ever changing.  Shoot an artillery round in the desert and the change can be minimal.  Shoot an artillery round in a town and you have changed the dynamic for both sides. Third, because the human dimension is so pertinent (particularly civilians) in the urban area, the complexity increases dramatically.  Put these and other factors together and you have a mix that makes it a complicated ordeal for a commander to acquire the needed understanding. 

The commander’s endstate in acquiring this understanding is to determine the decisive point of the operation.  As a review, here is a brief summary of the decisive point (taken from article 3 – The Decisive Point of the series)

All Course of Action Development begins by determining the decisive point! This is the initial planning focus! The decisive point provides you with a focus for the selection of objectives, the allocation of combat power, and the assignment of mission tasks and purposes. It eliminates the urge to jump to conclusions and employ knee-jerk tactics. It forces you the commander to conduct a critical analysis of what you want to achieve and how you might best achieve it. This is critical since few commanders possess the level of genius where intuition alone can illuminate the correct path to follow. The U.S Army defines a decisive point as a geographic place, specific key event, or enabling system that allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an enemy and greatly influence the outcome of a battle. To put it another way, it is what you believe is the key to accomplishing your stated mission as determined by your mission analysis.

The fireside analogy is a good way to describe the decisive point. When the battle is over and you are all standing around the fire telling war stories, someone says, “I knew we had ‘em when…”. That "when" was the decisive point.

What makes an urban operation so challenging is that the situation can change so quickly and dramatically.  A commander must continually seek to gain his understanding so he can change the decisive point if needed.  Will a commander ever achieve complete understanding of the urban operation?  No, but he must seek to obtain a level of understanding higher than his counterpart. 

SHAPE – Once the commander has visualized the decisive point, he can begin conducting shaping operations to set the conditions for success.  The goal for a commander in his shaping operations is to achieve isolation (or prevent it if you are defending) of the decisive point (normally equates to your objective). So why isolation?  Well, because of the complexity of an urban area you must focus your precious resources in the area which you believe will enable you to achieve victory.  The only true way of setting the conditions is to isolate the area.  By isolation, we are talking about denying access to the area from the outside and containing the opponent from moving outside the area.  Isolating a particular area can be challenging to say the least.  In the spectrum of things, trying to isolate an unconventional force will probably be more of a challenge than attempting to isolate a conventional enemy in a large urban area.  A unit can have many resources at its disposal to isolate the area and set the conditions for success.  The keys to isolating an area lie in fires, information operations, the use of special operations (if available), and maneuver.  Isolating the decisive point enables a unit to now engage his opponent. 

ENGAGE – With the decisive point isolated, a commander utilizes his combat power and resources to achieve the decisive point.  Although a commander wants to minimize street to street and close combat, this is when this type of fighting is likely to occur.  A unit obviously achieves success by the combination of skillful maneuver and effective fires (direct and indirect).  A commander must determine the right combination of maneuver and fires during engagement.  This blend will continually change during engagement.  The ability to successfully alter this blend creates tempo and is a true art of command.  During the engagement, the commander must use combined arms in order to mass effects and achieve success.  Within the engagement, the commander must seek out windows of opportunity and be prepared to make quick changes to his plan.  That is why pre-planning of contingencies is so crucial.  As in all operations, the good commander will analyze and understand thee operation and have potential courses of action for the ‘what ifs’.  With the decisive point obtained and fighting near completion, a unit must quickly begin transition operations.      

[continued on next page]

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7