Only a fraction of training time is spent teaching soldiers and commanders how to operate in the restricted, confusing and inevitably lethal environment of house-to-house combat and it could be 10 years before units are “up to speed” on urban battle techniques.
The US Department of Defence has now launched a study into urban warfare tactics which could involve troops using miniature robot spy planes and tracked robot scouts to probe enemy-held areas.
General William Kernan, head of the US joint forces command, said yesterday: “Fighting in a city is probably the most complex environment for military operations. It has been compared to a knife-fight in a telephone booth. Casualties in the average rifle company can run as high as 30%.
“It is vastly complicated by the presence of civilians and the need to minimise casualties among them and it is a potential nightmare when trying to avoid friendly fire incidents. Hi-tech superiority counts for little when every house is a potential strongpoint.
“The chaos experienced by US Rangers and Delta Force troopers in the warren of alleys in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 is typical. It is easy to become lost, sniper fire can come from any window or doorway, and exercising control is next to impossible.”
The US lost 18 men killed in a running street battle against Somali militiamen and several helicopters were shot down or damaged as they tried to extract trapped and wounded soldiers.
On using robots, Captain Tom Johnston, who heads a team studying the problems, said: “We have the capacity to ‘own the city’ in much the same way as we already own the night and own the skies through the application of cutting-edge technology.” But he admitted it “could be a decade before all the pieces come together”.
The Israeli army already uses robot drones to spot sniper positions and to pick out key buildings to be occupied.
The US army says it would take four to five weeks to teach the average infantry battalion to cope with street fighting, and refresher training would then have to be carried out every 30 days.
Pentagon investigators have also admitted that many soldiers who might have to spearhead an assault into Iraq have insufficient training to cope with an environment contaminated by nerve gas or germ agents.
Although the US Marine Corps spends time teaching its riflemen to use protective suits and fight in a lethally-polluted atmosphere, the army has dedicated less prominence to this form of combat since the end of the Cold War.
Analysts think Saddam Hussein would turn several major cities into fortresses and use chemical and biological weapons to inflict maximum casualties on a US-led invasion force.
All British service personnel are given regular training in the use of protective “Noddy suits” and decontamination procedures in the event of exposure to nerve and germ agents.