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Immediate Lessons from the Battle of Mosul

Immediate Lessons from the Battle of Mosul

The largest conventional land battle since the capture of Baghdad in 2003 has been ongoing since October 2016. The purpose of this article is to provide Army a first-look on lessons identified from the advisors engaged in supporting our Iraqi partners to excise the Da’esh malignancy from Iraq. This list is raw and provided to stimulate thought.

Armed Airborne Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR): The king of the urban battlefield. The most effective weapon on the current battlefield is a joint and interagency enabled combined arms ground team with an Armed ISR platform flying above. Armed ISR allows persistent stare to identify fleeting targets who use complex terrain to mask their movements. When a target is identified the Joint Terminal Attack Controller and Ground Force Commander can then rapidly transition to strike the target with an organic low collateral weapon, coordinate another fires capability such as a jet, gun or rocket artillery to strike, or guide a ground assault (usually in the space of minutes). An Army without organic airborne Armed ISR will be at a severe disadvantage on a contemporary urban battlefield.

The combined arms team for urban warfare. An Armed ISR platform, Tank, Bulldozer, Anti Tank Missile, Sniper, and Rifle Squad operating as a micro team, provides the organic abilities to Identify, Neutralise, Suppress, Obscure, Secure, Reduce and Assault (SOSRA) in a complex urban environment. When multiple micro teams are orchestrated to advance on mutually supporting axes we consistently observed positive results.   

Mission Command. Our enemy knows how to move, shoot and communicate below our targeting threshold. He uses physical cover, knowledge of our adherence to the Laws of Armed Conflict and a consequent ability to hide in plain sight to protect himself. The enemy presents for short windows to avoid being targeted. They avoid providing us an opportunity to strike. At this stage in the campaign, combat Darwinism is in effect - ie it is not the strongest that survive …but the most adaptable. The enemy personnel who did not adapt to survive on the battlefield, are dead. The most effective response to this paradigm is delegating authorities as low as possible within a mission command system, founded upon developing mutual trust, a shared understanding, of the environment and the commander’s intent, disciplined initiative and accepting prudent risk. This allows junior commanders deployed forward on the battlefield to see an opportunity and exploit it, rather than waiting for direction that will probably be too late.

The Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) and the Quadcopter Team. For the last two years the enemy has been using VBIEDs, guided to their target by a quadcopter operator on a radio. Unlike a missile, this weapon system can be launched from inside a building large enough to hold a car (ie pretty much anywhere). It can stop, go, turn corners and do a u-turn on command. Using any kind of car with some rudimentary armour, the weapon can drop off other fighters on route then accelerate to over 100km/h and smash into a friendly force troop concentration or other high pay off target. The quadcopter imagery can be loaded near instantaneously onto the web and used for propaganda purposes. Maintenance of all round security, flank protection and rapid reorganisation from offensive operations to defensive operations, and the use of hasty obstacles is the most effective counter to this technique. 

The laptop and the Kalashnikov: Armed Information Operations. Da’esh operatives use the internet to spread fear and to recruit to their cause. Information technology means they can mass broadcast their message to local and global audiences near instantaneously. The ability for a message to be rapidly amplified is significant. The counter is having the authorities and capability to take control of the narrative and ensure coalition information dominance. We should perhaps consider delegating authorities to operate in the information environment to the lowest level.

Shattering the enemy system. Targeting enemy critical enablers such as command and control (C2) and logistics nodes, orchestrated with ground manoeuvre produces an effects synergy that the enemy finds hard to address. Intelligence led targeting, fused with counter leadership operations, and agile ground manoeuvre elements exploiting a confused and leaderless adversary has repeatedly produced an immediate tactical dividend.   

Every urban movement is a Breaching Operation. The battle for Mosul has highlighted our doctrine is sound, particularly the use of SOSRA. This technique was used effectively during the breach of the Khosar River, which broke the enemy line and contributed to the collapse of the Da’esh central defence in East Mosul. Commanders should continue to think about any urban movement as a breaching operation. Whether crossing open ground (ie an enemy engagement area) or conducting a deliberate assault river crossing, the principles remain the same. Observe the area and conduct your IPB. Suppress known or suspected enemy battle positions and identified threats using kinetic and non-kinetic means, avoiding collateral damage. Obscure likely enemy observer locations. Secure a bridgehead position that pushes the enemy outside effective weapons range from the crossing point. Reduce the gap, creating enough lanes to quickly bring up your depth, rear and combat service support elements. Assault into the enemy depth to give you room to bring up the rest of your force and keep the enemy from interfering in further crossing operations. This technique can be applied at fire team to corps level.

Tactics. The old maxims remain applicable on this battlefield, with some new technology and local adaptations. These include: discipline, all round security / secure flanks, rapid transition from offence to defence and back to offense again, operations security (OPSEC), avoiding patterns, surprise, massing sensors and fires in support of a clearly designated main effort, combined arms teams, pushing logistics, commanders being forward enough to affect the battle, employment of a reserve, close and effective medical support, planning to sustain tempo with adequate rest and refit periods, rapid forward repair, and effective equipment maintenance.

In this fight, like many before, and the many that will unfortunately follow, we are learning new lessons and reaffirming the old. The key to Army’s success on our next battlefield will be ensuring we pay adequate attention now, and applying enough resources to institutionalise these lessons so we don’t have to learn the hard way. 

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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