Stuart Lyle: International Knowledge Exchange on Urban Warfare – Case Study

The Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl) has world-renowned expertise in our areas of specialization in defense science and technology. Our staff travel abroad to learn from allies such as the United States and to share our research internationally.

In July 2022, Stuart Lyle, Principal Analyst, traveled to Los Angeles to attend and help deliver the world’s only Urban Operations Planners Course, as a guest of the WE National Guard.

It’s 8:00 a.m. and in front of me is a room full of military personnel from six nations and ranks from sergeant to brigadier general. I had flown for almost 12 hours, crossing eight time zones the previous day. To add a final kick, I was still recovering from an episode of COVID-19… It’s not the ideal context to present to an international military audience, both in-house and virtual, but it is there I was, so… better make the best of this one.

The 40th Infantry Division HQ building in Los Alamitos, Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

I found myself in Los Angeles at the beginning of July as a guest of the WE 40th Army Infantry Division (IDENTIFIER), an element of the WE National Guard. The 40th IDENTIFIER opens the way to establishing the WE The Army’s (and the world’s) only urban operations planners course to prepare divisional level personnel for the complexities of urban warfare planning and coordination, especially in large-scale combat operations , Where LSCO (pronounced Lis-Co in WE military language). There was a proof of concept course in 2021, but it was the first course established.

In December 2021, I helped organize a NATO Urban Training Course and in the audience was Brigadier General Rob Wooldridge, Deputy Commanding General of the 40th IDENTIFIER and the driving force behind the creation of this course. After the NATO event, he invited me to come and be part of the teaching team for their course and I jumped at the chance to be part of it.

The course lasted seven consecutive days with about ten hours of instruction per day. While this could easily have been the proverbial “death by PowerPoint” we’ve all experienced before, the timing of the instructions and the caliber of the presenters (myself included, I hope) ensured that was not the case.

The course was divided into two distinct phases, best described as; 1. Admire the problem and 2. Overcome the problem.

Admiring the Problem” was intended to provide the context for why urban operations are so different from operations in other environments, and to explore why they can be so complicated. This is where I come in. My topic was global trends in urbanization and their likely impact on military operations. This covered the physical environment, demographic changes, alternative governance and others. It was a condensed version of the Future Cities study I led, with the intention of dramatizing why military planners should invest more time in thinking about and preparing for urban operations.

Other topics included underground operations, protection of civilians, civil affairs operations, and the employment and coordination of joint fires in urban terrain. These were very complex topics on their own, but the instructors did a great job of keeping them accessible and reinforcing relevance for higher education planners. Numerous historical case studies were also explored to provide tangible context to the lessons taught. Another fascinating area was exploring how different nations approach the same challenges. We had presentations on NATO’s urban doctrine (past and present), each country’s urban doctrine and urban operations from our adversaries’ perspective as well.

The highlight of the course was undoubtedly the third day. It was going to be the longest, hottest, and by far the most fun. We were going to visit the WE The Army’s largest urban training site, known as the City of Razish, in the Mojave Desert. A complex of over 700 buildings of various sizes and housing a dedicated opposition force (OPFOR) whose job it is to test visiting formations to their limits. But the day was not going to be as simple as a simple visit.

We arrived at base at 06:00 to receive final briefings for the rest of the day before heading to the flight operations area. There we were divided into our pre-arranged Chalks (groups) and introduced to our transportation methods and crews. I had never been in a UH60 Blackhawk helicopter before, but this was going to be more than just a familiarization flight or just an air move. As a Chalk Lead, I was tasked with giving lessons in appreciating the urban terrain area while flying over THE towards the desert further inland.

Stuart in a military plane

Just after take off and about to start my UTZ training series. Definitely the most unusual presentation/teaching experience I’ve had so far. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

Cities are divided into areas of general urban terrain (UTZ) that are all familiar to us, e.g. low density residences, business centers, light industries, etc. Each of them has different characteristics in terms of physical build, population, diurnal trends, and other elements that can influence military operations in various ways. The Blackhawks kicked us out THE on a road that has flown over so many UTZ as possible and it was my job to give as much relevant information as possible and to lead discussions throughout the flight.

Helicopters above the desert

It’s not my usual route. Round trip transportation for the return flight. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

When we arrived in Razish, the temperature was already approaching 40°C and the landscape around Razish looked like a moonscape. We were ushered into the “Embassy” where we met the 1* Commander who discussed his personal experience of urban warfare as a tank company commander in Iraq and how that shaped his understanding of urban operations in the higher education. We then took a guided tour of the training center, meeting many of the specialized teams that make up the OPFOR and learn about their experiences using specialist areas such as engineering, drone/counter-drone capabilities, and urban firefighting to really push visiting formations.

At the end, we re-boarded our Blackhawks and flew over THEfollowing a different route to continue the UTZ Classes. This flight was particularly interesting as we flew over some of the critical infrastructure that has not only local, but international significance as economic and transportation hubs; Los Angeles International Airport (RELEASED) and the Port of Los Angeles. We got to see the web of connecting infrastructure that only a bird’s eye view can provide and also see how some of the topics covered so far in the course manifest in reality.

Aerial view of the Port of Los Angeles

Fly over the Port of LA, the busiest container port in North America and one of the 10 busiest in the world. Over 9 million containers are handled annually to and from the United States through this node. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

Aerial view of Los Angeles

Observe the wider LA low level spread. The city is one of only two megacities (population over 10 million) in the entire United States. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

As an avid student of city ops, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the movie Blackhawk Down, so flying over the rooftops and city roads was as exciting as it was intellectually fascinating. .

The course continued for several days and I gave a session on the use of operational and historical analysis techniques to support a better understanding of urban operations. I have drawn some of the key lessons learned from dstl research and applied them to case studies for context. This was a great discussion (and debate) on some of the misconceptions surrounding urban combat. It also got students thinking more about the role data can play as well as the need to interrogate data to understand where and how best to apply it, which is something we strive to do here at dstl.

People in uniform sit around a table and play a war game

Staff Sergeant versus Brigadier General during urban wargame. (Photo credit: Stuart Lyle)

The course ended in style when students were able to play a bespoke division-level urban war game designed by war game designer Brian Train specifically for this course. The students divided into several competing teams and were able to put their newly acquired knowledge to the test against each other. I was able to help present the game and animate the games, which was a very rewarding experience. We use wargames extensively to support our analytical work at dstl, with the training of military actors being a side benefit. It was great to see it being used purely for education and to see students not only putting their lessons to good use but also enjoying the process.

The 40th IDENTIFIERThe Urban Operations Planners course is a unique course, not only in the WE military, but anywhere. There is no equivalent course in the British Army and I learned a lot from it, even after studying this particular subject for over seven years. This is in part due to the scale and scope of urban operations and the unique challenges they pose to military activities, hence the need for the course. However, this was also due to the caliber of the leadership and personnel of the 40th IDENTIFIER as well as the incredible instructors they managed to muster to support him.

I was able to spend time with longtime friends and colleagues in urban operations, such as Colonel John Spencer of the Modern War Institute and Major Jayson Geroux of the Canadian Armed Forces. I was also able to create and get to know new ones like BG Rob Wooldridge, Sahr Muhammedally from the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and Dr. Jacob Stoil of the School of Advanced Military Studies. It was an honor to be counted among them.

Group photo of course participants with helicopters in the background

Urban Operations Planners Course, 2022 (Photo credit: 40th Infantry Division)

The course was a huge success and dates are already set for next year with the aim of making it a permanent course accessible to WE and international soldiers to attend. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to not only attend, but also to contribute to this effort and to represent dstl and our work.

More information on this unique course:

Donald E. Patel