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Are we doing enough to prepare for the coming urban conflict? Benchmarking the French Army’s approach

11 December 2020
Army briefing from wall in a darkened room

Global demographic trends and urbanisation are combining to increase the size and density of cities… Conflict will be fought underground, in jungles, swamps, deserts, mountains and wherever people are, and increasingly in urban and littoral areas, the electromagnetic spectrum and the cyber and information domains.

Reflecting common consensus, empirical evidence and even vicarious experience (Mosul, Marawi), the Australia Army’s most recent employment concept, Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy, Edition 2, clearly predicts future urban conflict. Most would deem this a prudent prognosis. Perhaps what is less clear is how well the Australian Army is preparing for it.

To clarify, the Australian Army has laid some solid foundations in preparing for the future urban fight. For almost two decades, it has incorporated urban instruction and desk-top exercises into their officer and senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO)/warrant officer (WO) tactics courses. Enabling Army’s ability to operate and fight in urban chasms is an unequivocal requirement for all current and future equipment acquisitions; armoured fighting vehicles, attack helicopters, combat communications, body armour, night fighting equipment, robots, drones, simulation systems, training aids (such as paint munitions) and more. Doctrine for the urban environment, developed in the noughties, is routinely reviewed. ‘Home station’ training, particularly in infantry battalions, is often urban in nature. Without doubt, the various unit-level ‘Yard’ facilities and CATC’s dramatic evolution of combat shooting training (inherited from SASR) have enhanced our individual and small team urban fighting competence – albeit infantry and not combined-arms centric. Not to be forgotten, the Australian Army is increasingly invested in the construction of urban training facilities that will better prepare it for the coming combined-arms urban conflict.

The key question is whether the Australian Army is doing enough to future proof its preparedness for the increasingly likely urban fight? Of course, the question ‘are we doing enough’ (but not too much) muddles all military matters and dogs all military commanders and planners.

While acknowledging its sound investment to date, as well as its perpetual prioritisation predicament, this piece posits that the Australian Army could do more to prepare for future urban conflict. What is ‘more?’ ‘More’ is increasing Army’s investment in ‘live’ collective combined-arms urban training via a dedicated Australian Army urban collective training centre of excellence.

To assist mental conception of what an Australian Army urban collective combined-arms training centre of excellence could look like, it is worth benchmarking what may well be the leading international example – the French Army’s Centre d’entrainement aux actions en zone urbaine (CENZUB).

Predicting future urban conflict, the French Army established CENZUB in 2005. CENZUB’s motto? To generate (and, by doing so, integrate) combined-arms competence in the urban environment. By 2012, it comprised a multi-Combat Team-sized urban village, an urban city capable of soaking up multiple Battlegroups, a live fire facility accommodating Platoon groups (six ranges, 360-degree shooting house) and a purpose-built After Action Review (AAR) compound.

All facilities replicate the inherent Tactics Technique and Procedural (TTP) challenges posed by the urban jungle and its indivisible human population. The Combat Brigade-capable facility includes high-rise, residential and commercial precincts. The Battlegroup village incorporates a shantytown. Future developments integrate an expanded sub-terranean network, battle-damaged areas, increasingly dense precincts, fortified approach axes with trench networks and support positions (to better test the crucial ‘perimeter battle’) and the installation of a state-of-the-art weapon effects simulation system. Via pyrotechnics, lights, sounds and live instrumentation system (LIS) connectivity, this system will both register and represent all weapon effects on individuals, vehicles and buildings: from small arms to main battle tank armament to artillery and more.

Notwithstanding its impressive infrastructure, CENZUB’s centre of gravity is its people. It is one of four collective training centres within the French Army’s Combined-Arms Training Division – a Division dedicated to delivering the French Army’s individual and collective combined-arms training. (All French Army Combat Teams rotate though their collective training centres at least once during their biennial force generation cycle. As directed by their Chief of Army, to prepare for future high-intensity conflict, most likely in an urban setting, this level of combined-arms collective training will elevate to Battlegroup in the coming year. To read more on the French Army’s approach to training, please see previous blog.

CENZUB’s headquarters, comprising 19 officers, nine SNCO/WO, seven JNCO/soldiers and two civilians, schedules, resources and assures all collective training undertaken. The HQ also includes simulation SME, facility managers and a dedicated doctrine cell, which routinely updates urban doctrine and promulgates ‘lessons learned.’ The Instructor/OT sub-unit includes four officers, 47 SNCO/WO and 22 JNCO/soldiers drawn from all combat arms. Live fire activities are managed by a dedicated group of 11 SNCO/WO and 22 JNCO/soldiers. The ‘enemy’ sub-unit, equipped with uniforms representing the gamut of hybrid threats (peer enemy, militia, terrorists, unruly populations, others), as well as distinctive equipment (AFV, weaponry etc), includes four officers, 31 SNCO/WO and 123 soldiers.

Enriching CENZUB’s centre of gravity is the robust formative training undertaken to ensure its instructors/OT are veritable (and dedicated) urban experts. On posting, all instructors/OT participate in a two-week course on the urban environment and urban TTP, after which they ‘shadow’ an experienced instructor/OT during a rotation. Next, they are mentored as an instructor/OT during several rotations. CENZUB’s commanding officer will only certify an instructor/OT as a ‘competent’ urban SME after around five rotations. Aside from facilitating training at CENZUB, certified SME routinely advise ‘home station urban training’ as well as deploy in support of urban fighting capacity building efforts in Africa and the Middle East.

The combination of CENZUB’s infrastructure and people allow the delivery of leading urban training to both French and allied combined-arms teams. Annually, CENZUB trains up to 22,000 combatants – French, British and Belgian (and increasingly US). This training consists of both Combat Team, and increasingly Battlegroup, rotations, two and three weeks long, respectively. Week one focuses on urban environment and TTP instruction and demonstration (provided by the dedicated enemy force), rehearsals and LIS fit out.

Following a weekend of battle procedure, the training audience undertakes a 72-hour Combat Team exercise during the second week, with AAR throughout. Casting back to the centre’s motto, AARs focus on improving combined-arms integration. For the Battlegroup rotations, week three involves a 72-hour Battle Group exercise. Each rotation is provided a ‘take away’ AAR pack. Consistent with the French Chief’s strategic vision to ‘harden’ the French Army, the training undertaken at CENZUB, and indeed other training centres, increasingly incorporates emerging technologies and threats, including CBRN-D, drones, robots, electronic warfare and influence.

For the French Army, and increasingly their closest European allies, a dedicated urban conflict collective training facility, has enabled, and continues to enable, sufficient, or ‘enough,’ preparation for current and future land force requirements. Given its own foreboding future forecast, and mindful of its need to prioritise, the Australian Army could do ‘more’ to prepare its teams for coming urban conflict by emulating the CENZUB exemplar, or relevant aspects thereof. Let’s not forget that the Australian Army is well practiced in establishing collective training centres of excellence. The Jungle Training Wing at Tully and the more recent Combat Training Centre, ‘jewels in the Australian Army’s crown,’ show what Army can achieve when it matches prudent prognosis with tangible action (or ‘motion’…).

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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