World War IV Daily

3.25.2006

SFS - Urban Warfare in Grozny

I'm back!

Last term, I took a class in Russian History. In one of the papers we were assigned, we could write about anything we wanted, so long as it concerned Russia. I chose the First Battle of Grozny, specifically its urban warfare components. I ended up liking the paper enough--though I love blogging, I hate writing papers like the plague--that I decided to reproduce it here in its entirety.

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The First Battle of Grozny: A Study in Urban Warfare

Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved and the Russian Federation emerged as its successor state and the Cold War—as well as Lenin’s dream of communist socialism—was over. Nearly 100 different nationalities and ethnic groups are represented in Russia, and during the Soviet period some of them were granted their own ethnic enclaves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of a monolithic central authority, the question of provincial autonomy became a serious issue for many regions seeking greater freedom from their ethnically dissimilar rulers in Moscow.

One of these semi-autonomous republics seeking greater freedom was the tiny oil-rich region of Chechnya, located in the Caucasus Mountains just north of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. In 1991, Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev—a former General in the Soviet Air Force—declared Chechnya an independent nation. In the following years, Chechnya fell into chaos as Dudayev failed to maintain control of the region. Many of his political appointees and members of his teip—a Chechen tribal organization or clan—were involved in criminal activities, and Dudayev’s government soon became rife with corruption. Between 1991 and 1994, nearly 300,000 people of non-Chechen descent left the region; most of them were Russians. During this time, tens of thousands of people were murdered or kidnapped and put into Chechnya’s re-emerging slave trade. Most alarmingly, in May and July of 1994, Chechen terrorists took hostages in the Russian city of Mineralny Vody, and four people were killed. Finally, in December of the same year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian military to retake Chechnya, having been convinced by his advisors that it would be a short, successful, and politically beneficial action to undertake.

The main objective of the invading Russian troops was the Chechen capital of Grozny. They began their assault on December 31st, 1994.

Urban warfare has historically been the bloodiest and the costliest form of military action ever to be undertaken, from the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Mogadishu and beyond. It can be divided into two fields: The first is Military Operations in Urban Terrain, or MOUT, which is the strategic facet of urban warfare (i.e. the use of vehicles, conducting reconnaissance, coordinating air and indirect-fire support). The second is Close Quarters Battle, or CQB, which is the tactical aspect (i.e. how a squad of infantry should clear a building, proper use of explosives, detecting and neutralizing traps).

MOUT/CQB is usually complicated by limited fields of view and fire due to obstruction by buildings, the large amount of cover available for defenders, and the ease at which booby traps and snipers can be employed. MOUT/CQB also produces different casualties from normal military operations. In a typical combat operation, approximately 60% of the wounds are due to fragmentation. In a MOUT environment, however, 52% of the wounds are due to gunshots, which are more difficult to take care of. The following table, taken from a 1999 report published by the RAND Arroyo Research Center, details additional differences between MOUT/CQB and combat in other environments:


Some differences between Urban and other types of terrain


Urban

Desert

Jungle

Mountain

Number of noncombatants

High

Low

Low

Low

Amount of valuable infrastructure

High

Low

Low

Low

Presence of multidimensional battlespace

Yes

No

Some

Yes

Restrictive rules of engagement

Yes

No

No

No

Detection, observation, engagement ranges

Short

Long

Short

Medium

Avenues of approach

Many

Many

Few

Few

Freedom of movement – mechanized forces

Low

High

Low

Medium

Communications functionality

Degraded

Normal

Normal

Degraded

Logistical requirements

High

High

Medium

Medium


More than any other type of combat, MOUT/CQB has by far the greatest potential for success of asymmetrical and unconventional warfare. This is what awaited the Russian military as it launched its New Year’s Eve assault on Grozny.

By far the most egregious mistakes of the Russian forces occurred before they even entered combat. Due to the fears that other semi-autonomous regions might view events in Chechnya as an inspiration, the Russian government felt they had to act very quickly, and they did so. It was to be the first of a great number of failures.

The Russians went into Grozny with an enormous lack of intelligence on the battlefield that awaited them. Such intelligence is always necessary for successful military action, but in MOUT/CQB its importance is far greater due to irregular nature of the combat zone. Most notably, they did not have dependable maps of the city. They possessed some, but they were not detailed enough to properly plan an effective military action, especially on such short notice. To make matters worse, the Chechens re-arranged the city’s street signs, only confusing the few Russian units who did have maps. Furthermore, Russian reconnaissance satellites—which could have been used to survey the city before the attack—had been turned off to save money, and aerial photography missions were rarely conducted. Russian troops entering the city knew almost nothing about its layout and what they could expect to run into once they began their assault. The Chechens, on the other hand, had been preparing for this battle for years.

Russian tactics were also unsuitable for an urban environment, especially against an enemy like the Chechen guerrilla teams who were able to move with almost complete freedom throughout the city. The Russians focused only on conventional objectives—such as the Presidential Palace, secondary government buildings, and public media facilities—which held little more than political significance as the rest of the city was still under Chechen control.

The Chechens, however, had the perfect strategy for MOUT/CQB. They fought in eight-man groups--known as Tiger Teams--each of which typically had two machine guns, two rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) gunners, a scout/sniper, a rifleman/medic, a rifleman/ammo bearer, and a rifleman/radioman. With these small squads, the Chechens were highly mobile but still quite lethal. Usually up to three of these groups would operate together, but rarely would more than three Tiger Teams be involved in an engagement, allowing the Chechens to disengage quickly and avoid being captured by the Russians. Interestingly; the Chechens did not wear body armor. They thought that this would slow them down and prevent them from being able to fight efficiently.

The Chechens mastered the art of the ambush. They would typically funnel the Russian armored columns into kill-zones, and then the experienced Chechen RPG gunners would knock out the first and last vehicles in the line, thereby trapping the rest in the middle. At this point, the experienced Chechen gunners—of whom there were very few—would leave the scene in order that they could be preserved. Then less-experienced gunners would pick apart the rest of the Russian column, while Chechen riflemen, machine gunners, and snipers suppressed the Russian infantry. Almost useless in an urban setting, Russian tanks were unable to elevate their tank barrels high enough to engage the top floors of many buildings, or low enough to fire into the basements.

Russian training was also woefully inadequate. The entire Russian army was in fact in sharp decline during this time, and most forces received very little training in the years prior, with the exception of the ever-declining possibility of war against NATO, which was anticipated to be a tank war across the open fields of Europe, not an urban nightmare such as Grozny. Often, Russian soldiers were too afraid to leave the confines of their armored personnel carriers (APCs) and engage the enemy on foot. Many were killed when then vehicles they hid inside were destroyed by RPGs or set on fire by Molotov cocktails.

Russian soldiers also had very little experience in utilizing combined arms, and as such they brought an overwhelming amount of force to bear upon the city. As the battle progressed, the typical Russian strategy was to bombard an area mercilessly with artillery and air-strikes before an infantry assault, which would often level the neighborhood in question before the Russian troops even set foot in it. As such, the Russians were "faced with the dilemma of having to destroy Grozny in order to save it."

The psychological aspect of MOUT/CQB quickly overwhelmed the Russian soldiers. It was well-known that the Russians had tortured and killed Chechen POWs and raped and murdered non-combatants as well. The Chechens had no qualms about returning the favor. Often, the Chechens would hang the bodies of dead or wounded Russian soldiers in the windows from which they fired upon the Russian troops. In order to engage the Chechens, the Russians would have to shoot through the bodies of their comrades.

The Russian military was not simply under-trained: They went to battle without additional firepower that could have allowed them to seize the city easier, if only they would have waited. Most notably, an additional 38,000 infantry, 230 tanks and 450 armored vehicles gathered from additional Russian military units were on their way to assist in the invasion of Chechnya, yet the assault on Grozny was launched without them. Also curiously absent from the battle was the Russian special forces, the Spetsnaz. Such units were highly trained and very professional, yet they were not deployed to Grozny, possibly due to the rush to take the city.

In addition to these failures, the Russians suffered from poor leadership, especially at the non-commissioned officer (NCO) level. The NCO corps is the glue that holds together any effective army—namely by bridging the lower-ranked enlisted men and the officers—and in this the Russians were severely lacking. They also possessed ineffective night-vision equipment, thereby negating what could have been a possible advantage over the Chechens.

Arguably the Chechens’ greatest strength, however, was their sense of determination to defeat the invading Russians. The Chechens possessed a deep-seated cultural hatred of their invaders going back to Russian expansion in the 17th century. In 1865, the Russians had deported nearly 700,000 Chechens in order to quell a Chechen rebellion. In 1944, Stalin deported nearly 60 percent of all of Chechnya’s inhabitants, nearly obliterating the Chechen nation in the process. These events eventually led up to the First Battle of Grozny, when the Chechens finally dealt the Russians a serious blow on their own terms. It is said that determination wins fights, and the enraged Chechen snipers and RPG gunners surely possessed a far greater amount of resolve than the typical Russian soldier cowering in his APC.

The Russians eventually secured the presidential palace on January 19th, but the battle raged on around them, taking a number of weeks to finally die out in the city. The Russians continued to battle for control of Chechnya but were eventually unsuccessful. Though a Russian missile-strike killed Chechen President Dudayev in April 1996, the Chechens reclaimed their capital in the Second Battle of Grozny and the Russians were forced to sign a ceasefire agreement in August of the same year, a humiliating acknowledgement of defeat.

Over 25,000 civilians were killed in the First Battle of Grozny, and tens of thousands more died throughout Chechnya. The Russians lost several thousand soldiers in the assault on Grozny. They returned in 1999 for the Third Battle of Grozny, again subjecting the city to heavy bombardment and killing numerous civilians. This time, the Russians seized the city in far more cautious and deliberate fashion. Combat in Grozny and throughout Chechnya continues as of this writing.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Russian failures in Grozny: First, Russian operations there can provide important insights into Russian capabilities, tactics, and its ability to learn from military experience. For the United States, this provides a valuable look at another nation’s military capabilities without having to test them first-hand. Second, Grozny pitted a somewhat-modern military against an insurgency force on the latter's home turf. As such, the United States was able to observe the inherent difficulties of operating in a particular theater and reshape its doctrine accordingly, much like the lessons learned from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that were successfully applied to US military action there in 2001. The current war in Iraq not-withstanding, it is inevitable that the US military will be engaged in MOUT/CQB in the future. It is estimated that by the year 2010, seventy-five percent of the world's population will live in urban areas. Futhermore, cities are the centers of commerce, politics, and culture for all nations, and are thus strategically important. Finally, urban areas are by far the hardest to assault and the easiest to defend, and the enemies of the United States surely know this. We would do well to study the lessons of Grozny in order to better prepare for future conflicts.

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