This article aims to provide a basic introduction to urban combat – or urban warfare -, the historical perspective on the problem and its evolution. It also aims to outline some of the different solutions that various countries, organisations, practitioners, or academics have offered to the specific problems they have encountered. All of this is done by sharing a series of sources of information with which to delve deeper into the subject and enter into the debates that are taking place today. An effort has been made to include a bibliography so that the reader can look more deeply into the different issues and debates related to urban warfare. If the reader so desires, this article could also be called a State of the Art of Urban Warfare.
Introduction to the urban warfare problem
“Operating in a rural area, if you will, is like having three coloured balls on a pool table and you got the one cue ball, and you strike the cue ball. The chances are that it may never touch anything else. Operating in a city, again, with your density is like having seven racks of the coloured balls on the table and you strike the cue ball and you have no idea of what the ultimate consequences are gonna be when they all start to impact to each other’s.”Dr. Russell Glenn (1)
This article is not going to start by saying that the world is becoming more urban and that cities are getting bigger. We already know that. Urban combat is a reality, it never went away. We are suffering more and more from it, the scale of the problem is increasing and its solutions are becoming ever more complex. For Spain, perhaps the problem is only potential: the siege of Tenochtitlan (and especially the assault on the district of Tlatelolco) (1521), the operational campaign of siege and capture of the cities of Flanders during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) of the House of Austria or the slow and agonising battle for Madrid (1936-39) attest that Spain has some experience in the matter, albeit historical. Urban warfare to a greater or lesser degree has also accompanied us throughout our history, we just had not paid much attention to it.
The biggest problem we encounter when talking about urban warfare is that it is not discussed in sufficient depth. Understanding what the problem is and why it is important to grasp its scope, is crucial in order to be prepared. Fortunately for us, there are people who have encountered these situations throughout history and these problems have been described and discussed extensively by various authors in different languages. In general, there are plenty of books and articles that describe them quite well, although most of the time in a very fragmented way. It is not easy to make a compendium or summary so that the reader unfamiliar with the subject can be clear about some basic concepts, although unfortunately some of them do not have a definition that we can all agree on.
Accordingly, this article aims to provide a basic introduction to Urban Warfare, the historical perspective on the problem and how it has evolved. It also aims to outline some of the different solutions that various countries, organisations, practitioners, or academics have offered to the specific problems they have encountered. All of this is done by sharing a series of sources of information with which to delve deeper into the subject and enter into the debates that are taking place today. An effort has been made to include a bibliography so that the reader can look more deeply into the different issues and debates related to urban warfare. If the reader so desires, this article could also be called a State of the Art of Urban Warfare.
Historical perspective and evolution of urban warfare
Throughout history, the theoretical concept of what urban warfare or urban combat meant has evolved. It is important to be aware of the historical and cultural framework on which certain literature is based. Certain concepts, such as ‘siege warfare’, are commonly used and widely known. However, warfare or combat generally took place around cities and rarely within them.
Siege warfare was important because of the way in which it was fought, and when an enemy was considered to have penetrated inside the wall, and thus the city, resistance generally ended. The Renaissance gave way to the art of fortress construction and the refinement of perimeter defence, with Vauban being a case in point. However, in the Modern Age, gunpowder and artillery would lead to mastery in the destruction of the perimeter. Resistance, however, was increasingly projected into the inner cities. Not surprisingly, authors such as Gerhard von Scharnhorst already gave some indications in his “Military Field Pocket Book” (1806) on how to prepare for fighting inside the cities once the city walls had been overrun by enemy forces. Nevertheless, even then, it was common that once the walls had fallen and the troops had entered the strongholds, the resistance inside quickly deteriorated into looting.
Along with the industrial revolution and the growth of cities, the urban perimeter became blurred, making the city’s frontier disappear. With the advent of railways, roads and industrial lines of communication, cities went from being fortresses full of human and material resources to nodal elements on which to logistically base their strategies for deploying troops and supplies. And this remained even throughout the First World War, where, while cities were fought around, they were not (or very rarely) fought inside, but relied on as defensive and logistical elements. By capturing cities, the aim was to gain access to the nodal element of the enemy logistical network in order to bring in our resources more quickly and make the enemy take longer. Clear examples of this are Liège (1914), Ypres (1914), the Marne (1914) (for Paris) or Gallipoli (1915-16) (for Constantinople) (2).
It was not until the late 1930s and early 1940s that the term “Street Fighting” came into use. It appears as such, in a multitude of pamphlets and guidebooks that were published throughout 1942, mainly for the Home Guard. If the Wehrmacht succeeded in crossing the Channel, resistance would have to move to the English towns. “The defence of villages & small towns”, “Defence of Houses” or “House to House fighting”, all works by Colonel G.A. Wade are clear examples. These experiences were mainly drawn from the ad hoc training schools, mostly made up of veterans of the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, around Osterley Park (London) and Aldershot in 1940.
During the Second World War, fighting already began to take place inside cities on a regular and intensive basis. It thus became a tool to compensate for the weakness of the disadvantaged side, even if cities alone had an inherent political value. The intense fighting for Shanghai (1937), Sevastopol (1941-42), Ortona (1943), Budapest (1944-45) or Breslau (1945), to mention a few lesser-known ones, goes without saying. However, after many battles, it became clear that street fighting did not take place in the streets, but inside buildings or in their ruins. This is clear from historical accounts, such as that of Vasily Chuikov during the battle of Stalingrad (1942-43):
“It would be wrong to imagine that city fighting is the same as street fighting. When the enemy has established himself strongly in the city, it is houses, buildings, blocks that are being fought for. The fighting takes place… in rooms, in attics, in cellars, in ruins – and least of all in streets and squares.”Vasili I. Chuikov “The Battle for Stalingrad” (3)
Or that of Walter M. Robertson, during the Battle of Brest (1944):
“The term ‘street fighting’ is a misnomer, for the street was the one place we could not go. Streets were completely covered by pillboxes and rapid-fire 40mm guns, with each street corner swept by at least four pillboxes. Our procedure was to go from house to house blasting holes through the walls with satchel charges”.Major General Walter M. Robertson, commander of the Second Infantry Division. (4)
After the important lessons learned in the inner cities during the Second World War, the Cold War came to the fore. In general, very little thought was given to inner-city combat during this period. It was accepted that cities would be surrounded, isolated and subdued through manoeuvre combat. All these ideas would continue to be optimistically maintained well into the 1970s on the Western side (Hue 1968) and well into the 1990s on the Soviet side (Grozny 1994-95).
One of the most heated debates that took place between the 1960s and 1970s (especially on the Soviet side) was the tactical use of nuclear weapons also in cities and how this fitted in with urban combat during a Soviet general attack. Once the offensive had begun, there would be large concentrations of troops, population and resources mainly around the emerging and growing cities of the Federal Republic of Germany (5).
The use of nuclear weaponry by the Soviet Union to destroy these cities was seriously contemplated, but implied too high a risk of retaliation. These nuclear bombings would not only change the character of the assault as it was approached in the Soviet way. It would create such destruction inside the cities that their way of waging war in the cities, rapidly penetrating the interior long before a strong defence could be organised, would be largely nullified by the amount of debris, fires and pollution that would be generated as a result. Moreover, once the conquest had taken place, there would be little or nothing to dominate, as most urban centres would be impossible to reach. Another argument was that Western European society would not put up a fight inside the cities, as they would not risk their destruction merely to gain time. Indeed, these hypotheses were not far off the mark, since NATO’s almost invisible urban warfare doctrine (especially British and American) did not propose a defence in depth inside cities (except for Berlin, which was already surrounded). It was rather based on a full-scale defence around urban centres through counter-attacks as a way of destroying the spearheads of the Soviet attack around them in the style of manoeuvre warfare (5).
Yet, at the same time as this debate was taking place, there was also a period of decolonisation in which the armed forces of many Western countries had to deal with national liberation movements through counter-insurgency campaigns inside cities. The target was not the built-up terrain itself, but the people inside. Examples of this urban counter-insurgency include Aden (1963-67) and Algiers (1956-57).
It was in the mid-1970s that the British and Americans came up with a somewhat more accurate name for the problem. Different terms began to be coined which began to emerge especially from the second half of the 1970s until the end of the 1990s. On the British side, however, FIBUA (‘fighting in built-up areas’) or OBUA (‘operations in built-up areas’) began to be used. From the American side, other terms such as MOBA (‘Military operations in built-up areas’) or MOUT (‘Military operations in urban terrain’) began to appear. The important thing about these terms is to identify that most of them (MOUT would continue to be used to this day) really only identified the city as another terrain on which to wage war, in its purest doctrinal sense (and this is how it appears in doctrinal documents), regardless of other factors or peculiarities such as the presence of civilian population or urban infrastructure, to which a rather brief final section was dedicated. It was not really until the late 1990s, after the experiences of Mogadishu (1993) and Grozny (1994-95), that NATO would allocate sufficient resources to analysing this type of fighting to make a difference.
This coincided temporally with the popularisation of ‘Close Quarters Combat’ (CBC), which developed in the 1970s and was an eminent Special Forces phenomenon. Following the Munich Olympics crisis (1972) and the growth of international terrorism, Western governments would begin to develop a common methodology of assaulting buildings, aircraft and ships to counter the tactics and procedures shared by these terrorist groups. It was after the success of the Assault on the Iranian Embassy in London (1980) that it became popular, at the same time as expectations were set too high for this type of action, which was more police than military in nature. However, many of these tactics would be incorporated by today’s armies in the assault on buildings (both in Afghanistan and Iraq) and would take us a step closer to professionalism in this aspect, moving from “spraying and praying” to “five-step entry” (6).
Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the term ‘Urban Operations’ (UO) has displaced MOUT, moving from a purely territorial analysis of urban combat to a much more holistic perception of the problem, including above all the population and infrastructure. Nowadays, the preferred and most commonly used term is ‘Urban warfare’, which encompasses all of the aspects identified above and ranges from the tactical to the much more recent strategic level.
One of the problems with all these concepts is that there is really no general consensus on what many of them mean specifically, but rather as global definitions whose boundaries cover a lot of grey areas, which generates a lot of debate. Some of these definitions have been narrowed down more or less correctly through doctrinal documents, mainly American ones (1).
Basic concepts of urban warfare
“The Three Block War. This is the landscape upon which the 21st Century battle will be fought. It will be an asymmetrical battlefield. Much like the Germanic tribes, our enemies will not allow us to fight the Son of Desert Storm, but will try to draw us into the stepchild of Chechnya. In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees—providing humanitarian assistance. In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart—conducting peacekeeping operations— and, finally, they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle—all on the same day…all within three city blocks. It will be what we call the <three block war>.”General Charles C. Krulak Commandant, US Marine Corps 1999 (7)
Broadly speaking, cities have always been the centres of political, economic and demographic power. And in general, in the last century, they have also functioned as centres of communications and mass media influence. It is easy to understand why they have often been considered the main centres of gravity in different conflicts throughout history. If there is one definition that most scholars agree on today, it is that an urban environment consists of 3 elements: buildings, population and physical infrastructure. From here it gets a bit more complicated (8).
As we have already explained, there are concepts that, although easy to understand, do not create a general consensus on what they mean in concrete terms or when they apply. Russell Glenn, for example, has tried to narrow down some of these definitions, and defines:
1) “Urban area” (generally used to refer to “urban operations”) as “that geographical entity that when viewed at night would be illuminated when an aerial photograph is taken”;
2) “Dense urban terrain” (“dense urban terrain”), as those areas that are particularly crowded with urban population and man-made physical infrastructures, above and below ground, and;
3) “Megacities” as cities with more than 10 million inhabitants with high population numbers and physical infrastructure, high interconnectivity and which have a strong influence on the surrounding urban areas.
The latter definition is rather vague and has had to be refined by the author by adding to this category cities or areas of a city that have a population density of more than 2000 inhabitants/km2 (1).
Although most analyses agree that megacities are a reality, there is a debate as to whether urban warfare in a city is a matter of scale, density or quality. That is, at what size is a city considered to be such a differential fact that the rules that would generally apply to a common land would no longer apply to a city? Some authors such as Daniel Hendrex and John Spencer argue that not only do scale and density make combat in a populated built-up area different, but that the capabilities and training required to deal with the problem increase by an order of magnitude (9). Others, such as Michael Evans, in his “The Case against Megacities”, while arguing that the approach to the urban environment has certain peculiarities of its own (as an environment), do not believe that scale influences the nature of the problem, and do not consider megacities to be such a differentiating factor that different prescriptions need to be applied to other cities (15). To explore this debate it might be useful to visit some of the articles on the subject, such as ‘Ten Million is Not Enough: Coming to Grips with Megacities’ Challenges and Opportunities’: Coming to Grips with Megacities’ Challenges and Opportunities” by the aforementioned Russell Glenn (10).
However, behind these more or less aseptic definitions of what a city is, there are a number of authors who have tried to characterise and identify them through various attributes that would be more relevant than others. For Richard Norton, for example, the cities that could potentially become future battlegrounds would be ‘feral cities’, where governments would be unable to provide infrastructure (electricity, drinking water, sanitation or gas) and basic services (citizen security, social protection or waste collection), and which would become uncontrolled zones within large cities (11). This is very much in line with what Mike Davis would also advocate in his “Planet of Misery Cities”, albeit from a more sociological point of view (12). Likewise, David Kilcullen reinterpreted the city as a living organism (not a new concept at all) in which the city of the present would be characterised by a limited control of urban space (very much in line with Norton), a great interconnectivity that would go beyond the physical limits of the city itself thanks to the internet and a dense, complex and coastal environment (13).
But it is not only about the definition of the city itself; there is also a very interesting debate about what it means to fight within it. Some authors, such as Michael Evans in his “City without joy” (2007), already argued that there was no such thing as an operational-strategic approach in the doctrine of the time (in this case Australian) when military actions were carried out, which he called MOUP (‘Military Operations as Urban Planning’). And while he advocated this non-tactical approach (14), he would also reject the idea that size matters. Therefore, according to him, a megacity and a city could be approached on the basis of the same analysis and with the same tools (15). Although by that time, Anglo-Saxon doctrines (American, British and Australian) had already opted to treat combat in urban terrain as something unique (16), this debate did not stop there and in 2019 David Betz and Hugo Stanford-Tuck published “The City is Neutral: On Urban warfare in the 21st Century” (Texas National Security Review), in which they completely disassociated themselves from the idea that the city should be understood as something special and that urban warfare would only require special tactics, returning to the idea that the city is just another type of terrain in which to fight (17).
Clearly, Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s article would not go unanswered and a year later, John Spencer (director of the Urban Warfare Project at the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point) would respond with “The city not neutral: why urban warfare is so hard” (18), in which he would identify the flaws and counter-argue quite correctly most of the assertions of the Texas National Security Review article. Some of the conclusions were to be reflected a year later in another article, also by John Spencer, entitled ‘The eight rules or urban warfare and why we must work to change them’, in which he pointed out some of the challenges of urban warfare yet to be changed, such as: the defender’s advantage especially in urban environments, the reduced ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) advantage in cities, the defender’s advantage in concealment and attack, the fortified nature of cities, the use of explosives to penetrate buildings as a means of offence, restrictions on manoeuvre combat, the defender’s use of the underground as a means of cover, and the difficulty of concentrating forces in urban environments (19). Many of these challenges have been subject of discussion, which we will look at in the next section.
Some of these debates are relatively old and are usually repeated over and over again every few years in an attempt to study the issues in the light of different experiences. One of the problems is that many of these discussions are based on moral and cultural differences, which make it very difficult to reach a conclusion that everyone can be satisfied with.
From the 1970s onwards, urban warfare gained weight in the doctrines of many armies in an informal way through articles in military journals, and ad hoc exercises or training. The truth is that it was only after the traumatic American experience in Hue (1968), in which South Vietnamese and American soldiers found themselves facing an enemy that did not fight in their own language, with self-imposed Rules of Engagement (ROE) that did not favour them at all, without military doctrine, without specific training and with a decrease in their capabilities, that resources began to be allocated to its analysis. The use of M50 Ontos with their multiple 106mm recoilless guns to overcome the poor penetration of masonry walls in the old part of the city by US weapons is famous, but less well-known is the extensive use of tear gas, employed at the tactical level to dislodge buildings and aid their assault, combined with smoke screens to conceal troop movements. Both solutions were an ad hoc solution to a particular problem for which they did not have the right tool.
The doctrine on urban warfare
Probably the best catch-all is doctrine. Most of the experiences on which the studies of the 1970s on the Western side were based were the more immediate decolonisation conflicts in which they had been involved (Jerusalem 1948, Vietnam 1946-54, Algeria 1954-1962, Vietnam 1955-75 or Santo Domingo 1965). The still fresh experience of the Second World War was also used prolifically (Stalingrad 1942, Ortona 1943, Brest 1944, Manila 1945, to name but a few). There is an abundant bibliography on these conflicts and it is not too interesting to go into them in this brief introduction to the subject. What is interesting is to understand something that has already been discussed above. That is, the reluctance, almost unconsciously, of the various armies, both Western and Soviet, until the early 1970s to accept that urban warfare had become a reality and that their armies were likely to be involved in it.
Undoubtedly, the Red Army was the best placed because of its vast experience on the Eastern Front, both defensively in 1941-42 (20) and offensively in 1943-45 (21). The Soviets had developed a doctrine in which they would take on the cities they encountered along the way with four relatively simple basic recipes:
1) Bypass them and leave them behind;
2) Surround and besiege them until they fall for lack of resources;
3) Conduct a lightning assault to rob the enemy of the possibility of gaining a foothold inside them and smash any possible resistance and/or;
4) Systematically destroy the cities with the help of artillery and air power, and then storm them.
From the Soviet side, particular emphasis was placed on the third option, the lightning assault. Examples such as Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Kabul (1979) and Baku (1990) help to explain what happened later in Grozny (1994-95). This doctrine of assault was to gain many followers without there being any major detractors. On the Russian side, all of these ideas were not translated into any official doctrinal document, but were mostly made known through articles in military journals.
From the Western point of view, the evolution of urban warfare doctrine was reflected in various official documents, mostly from the US Army. Although there were some other armies with ad hoc urban doctrine, such as the British Army, we will not dwell on them in order not to lengthen the article. One of the first documents to contain references to urban combat was Field Manual FM 100-5 ‘Field Service Regularions: Operations’ (originally published in May 1941 and updated in 1944), which was based on the experiences of the Spanish Civil War and the early campaigns of World War II. This was the first manual used in urban warfare by the US Army. Given the prospect of the attack on the Atlantic Wall and the invasion of Italy, FM 31-50 ‘Attack on a Fortified Position and Combat in Towns’ (January 1944) was also published, which considered fighting in the city, something similar to combat in fortified positions (not without some reason) and with a clear focus on tactical combat. In the following decades, various updates of existing manuals would be published, updating their content (including that of other US Army field manuals). It was not until 1979 when FM 90-10 ‘Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT)’ was published, and later in May 1993 FM 90-10-1, ‘An Infantryman’s Guide to Combat in Built-Up Areas’ (although it would be updated in 1995) (22) which also mainly covered the tactical aspects of urban combat and which would be replaced by FM 3-06.11 ‘Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain’ (update of FM 90-10-1) from 2002 and FM 3-06 ‘Urban Operations’ in 2003. Later, other manuals were published that went beyond this, such as Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (ATTP) 3-06.11 ‘Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain’ (2011, a later version of FM 3-06.11 of 2002) oriented at the brigade level. It was not until the US Army’s emphasis on the operational level with ‘Large Scale Combat Operations’ (LSCO) in the last two decades that Joint Publication (JP) 3-06 ‘Joint Urban Operations’ (2013) was published, sealing some of the operational-level holes in US urban warfare doctrine. This document would also initiate the study of megacities as probable sites of urban combat in the not-too-distant future, and Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-06 (MCTP 12-10B for the Marine Corps), ‘Urban Operations’ (2017), also oriented from a tactical point of view, would be published (23). As we can see, there was a slow rise from the tactical level, to the strategic level, to the operational level (the later one) and this huge number of publications would be a good fertiliser for a huge number of articles and debates to flourish on the doctrinal aspect of urban combat in the US Army and the US Marine Corps.
Manoeuvre versus Siege
However, man does not live by doctrine alone, and the reality is that there is also another debate surrounding the question of what kind of warfare the US Army should wage in urban environments. This debate, as we have already explained, is heavily influenced not only by the size of cities, but also by the forces present in the conflict. Thus, there is a great discussion around siege (or attrition) warfare, as opposed to manoeuvre (or movement) warfare, which the US Army had been cultivating for several decades (24) (25) and which concentrates among its productions the heavyweights of urban combat thinking.
There has been a heated debate as to whether or not this type of warfare that is so widely practised by the US military has a future in urban environments. Some renowned authors such as Russell W. Glenn (one of the pioneers of the study of urban combat in the 1990s) as early as 2017, analysing the subject in the light of the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq and incorporating the new concept of Multi-Domain Battle, warned that the concept of manoeuvre as it was known in the US Army had to change and adapt to the new environments. According to this author, manoeuvre warfare is losing ground in contrast to attrition warfare, which is much more static than what the US Army has been practising until now (26). We have also seen how other authors, such as Alec Wahlman, focused on doctrinal failures at the operational level and raised certain unanswered questions to fill these gaps (27).
The discussion seems to have become encrusted in a black and white debate in which authors such as Anthony King openly speak of a possible death of manoeuvre warfare. Understanding the latter as a need for a new conceptual revolution in the way war is waged, and the reinterpretation of the Air-Ground Battle Doctrine due to the encounter with the city, as the combined arms doctrine would be too difficult and unsuitable due to the creation of technical and moral dilemmas (28).
These statements were soon discussed by Paul Barnes (British Army officer and Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point), who questioned some of the arguments to which King referred. He highlighted the importance of manoeuvre in the US Army’s various urban warfare experiences (from the intervention in Panama [1989-90] to the Invasion of Afghanistan  and the Battle of Sadr City ), to explain that manoeuvre warfare does not necessarily have to focus on the enemy’s physical forces, but that their logistical, electromagnetic or psychological weaknesses can also be exploited through this style of combat (29).
Perhaps to find a middle ground between the two arguments, reference should be made to a final article by John Spencer (also of the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point, but this time of the Urban Warfare Project). While not disproving either King’s or Barnes’ assertions, Spencer called for an understanding of positional warfare as an element (or stage) of manoeuvre warfare, so that one cannot be understood without the other. It was also pointed out that the core of the issue, almost as in all these debates, is the fact that there is no single, clear and shared definition of manoeuvre warfare. And that the latter can be understood from different approaches, but always making it clear that there is still a long way to go, both in terms of planning and in terms of equipment and capabilities in relation to urban combat (30). This point will be developed further below.
Although the US Army focuses on manoeuvre warfare, there is clear evidence that attrition and siege warfare is gaining ground in conflicts with a markedly urban character, such as those in the Donbas (Ilovaisk , Second Battle of Donetsk Airport  and Debal’tseve ), Second Battle of Donetsk Airport  or Debal’tseve ) or more clearly in the campaigns in Iraq and Syria (Aleppo [2012-16], Raqqa [2016-17], Kobani [2014-17], Deir ez-Zor [2014-17], Mosul [2016-17] or Ghouta [2013-18]). (31)
Protection of Civilians and Rules of Engagement (ROE)
Precisely because of its political value, much of the debate concerning urban warfare has focused on the role of the civilian population trapped in cities while a conflict is taking place. Particularly during the various sieges we have seen in recent years. Quite a few articles have been written on the subject, and while some have been framed from a clearly accusatory point of view towards the conduct of Western armies, the reality is that deliberate starvation of civilians as an act of war is prohibited by Additional Protocol I (API) to the Geneva Convention (1949), whoever practices it. However, although in most cases the most obvious targets of these actions are the military forces, it is the civilian population who are most harmed by their defenceless situation. It is therefore that some authors have raised doubts about the legality of siege warfare where civilians are on the ground. This contrasts sharply with the fact that today, even when generous tools have been used to remove civilians from a theatre of operations, in many cases civilians have decided to stay for a variety of reasons, complicating the situation even further. Of course, these authors also propose little or no solutions for conflicts in which civilians are taken hostage by the defending forces to avoid their complete destruction (32).
Some authors such as Pede and Hayden have argued that the US Army has a flaw in its warfighting capabilities that has not yet been recognised. This is the use of force based on ROE that were designed in the last twenty years for Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Counterterrorism (CT) conflicts and are hardly adaptable to combat in highly densified environments or large-scale combat (Large Scale Combat Operations or LSCO), having perverted the chain of command and the use of laws during a conflict. These authors call for greater room for manoeuvre in the legal sphere, as they consider that certain ROE based on moral and political approaches far removed from military practice (in general, by NGOs, according to these authors, based on idealising and uninformed academic approaches to war) have “perverted” ROE for urban combat, accustomed to abnormal war situations (secure communications, relatively safe transport and supplies, etc.) and against irregular adversaries or adversaries far removed from “peer-to-peer combat”. According to them, an inertia of misinformation has been produced internally within the military itself by losing sight of the real laws of conflict, not clarifying how they are applied and putting the mission and the military on the ground at serious risk by creating a mental situation in the military themselves in which they believe they cannot fight under the real rules of war. What is proposed, therefore, is a reinterpretation of the laws of war based on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to reach a new agreement as a society on what is and is not acceptable in the event of a conflict in cities or large-scale operations (33).
Obviously, this type of article would not go unchallenged, and soon after an article was published in ‘War on the Rocks’ entitled “Counter-Terrorism hangover or legal obligation? The requirement to protect civilians in war” (“Counter-Terrorism hangover or legal obligation? The requirement to protect civilians in war” by Muhammedally. In this article, it would be noted that the aim of the claims about the character of war made by NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), of which Pede and Hayden were highly critical, would not be to reinterpret how the universal laws of war are understood, but to ensure that when certain decisions are made about what ammunition or tools are used in what circumstances (specifically inside cities, where the majority of casualties are civilians), they are based on good practices that help both sides adhere to the same rules of war and minimise harm and danger to all parties as much as possible. Using the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality of the use of force in relation to the threat to limit civilian suffering (34). It should be noted that such recommendations made by CIVIC, ICRC or even NATO (35) are generally based on case studies in which the use of force was outside legal limits, and therefore can be improved to a certain degree.
We cannot forget that the protection of civilian life and property is a fundamental obligation of the military during a conflict and not a luxury, always understood within these aforementioned principles (precaution, distinction and proportionality). Ultimately, what is sought is an understanding of the consequences for the military who have sufficient power to make decisions that will affect the lives of civilians and their conditions in the future, through the destruction of urban infrastructure and the city itself, without forgetting that the military also put their lives on the line.
Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting books that can be found on the reflection and study of urban warfare, the protection of civilians and the evolution of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) from the point of view of Western armies can be found in Alice Hills’ “Future War in cities. Rethinking a Liberal dilemma” (2004) by Alice Hills. Among other issues, this book explores the intrinsic problems of trying to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’, that is, conducting military campaigns inside cities, trying to eliminate different threats while avoiding harm to civilians and with minimal collateral damage from the perspective of our liberal democracies. To this end, it discusses, among other things, issues as varied as: the different strategies throughout history, the use of different weapons (from flamethrowers, thermobaric weapons, cluster bombs, chemical weapons or anti-personnel mines), trying to propose alternatives to them (36). As well as the documentation generated by ICRC, CIVIC or NATO, particularly in relation to practices and policies to protect civilians during combat in urban areas, precisely from a practical perspective, without losing sight of the different points of view present in a conflict within cities (37).
Minimising accidental harm and analysing, from a proportionality point of view, the acceptable harm that can be caused to the civilian population in a theatre of operations is always a very complex issue that escalates rapidly to the political level and impacts military operations in both directions (from the bottom or tactical level, upwards or strategic level and vice versa). When civilians are informed and aware that combat is about to begin and are actually aware of the damage and danger they face is a complex issue. This is linked to civilian-oriented information management in the area of operations and around military planning prior to conducting an operation (38). How all of this impacts the decisions that the civilian population makes in these situations requires a slow and in-depth study that is far beyond the scope of this article.
Information management is another key aspect of urban warfare where there is an interesting ongoing discussion. This is an aspect that became popular with the Donbas, but which was already evident in an uncontrolled manner in battles such as Mogadishu (1993) or the First Battle of Fallujah (April-May 2004), where the entire offensive had to be paralysed due to the excessive number of civilian casualties that were shown by the press on a daily basis. The control of information, especially in Western societies, where press freedom is much greater than elsewhere, is difficult, although it is beginning to be managed in one way or another. Thus, we have already seen some successes of information control, such as the Second Battle of Fallujah (November-December 2004). Although it has gone unnoticed and relatively unknown, information control played a crucial role in the early stages of the Battle for Marawi (2017) and not only managed to mitigate the spread of the uprisings in the early days, but such information control by the Philippine government and military also made it possible for civilians (mostly Muslims) to leave the city and reduce the impact of the “city grab” by Hapilon/DAESH forces (39) (40). Therefore constituting a very useful tool to minimise the suffering of civilians in or around urban battlefields and ensure the success of operations or campaigns.
Balance of power
One of the debates on which there seems to be a relative consensus is that of force superiority as a multiplier in attempting to succeed when it comes to inner-city combat. If, for example, as early as World War II, the Soviets had established this ratio at around 5:1 for the attacker in cities, this proved insufficient in the unsuccessful and ill-considered assault on Grozny (1994-95) (41). More current examples would establish a superiority (not only of human resources, but also of means) of between 7:1 and 10:1 (up to 20:1 in some sectors), as for example in the battle for Mosul (2016-17). To this must be added the fact that some authors, such as Arnold and Friore, consider that today’s cities (let alone mega-cities) are practically impossible to surround (42). It is not surprising, then, that authors such as Margarita Konaev refer to combat in cities as “(Mega) cities that swallow armies”, referring not only to this evolution in the attacker/defender ratio required, but also to the scale of the problem in comparison with the human (43) and material resources available to the different governments (44).
Underground warfare and tunnel warfare
When the Carlton Citadel Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, was blown up on 8 May 2014, the spectre of tunnel warfare in urban environments was raised. The attack by the Islamic Front (Islamic Front [Syria]) on government troops besieged around the Aleppo citadel killed between 14 and 50 people. It was carried out through the construction of an underground tunnel through the crowded front lines and under the buildings in the style of the First World War. More than 20 tonnes (mostly fertiliser material) were piled into the tunnel (between 100 and 400 metres long), and after more than 30 days of work they were blown up in unison, creating an impressive pile of rubble (45).
With the expansion and densification of cities and the exponential growth of infrastructure, it was inevitable that many of them would be built underground and their use became a resource for both sides. However, this aspect is nothing new, from the Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) by Roman troops, to the tunnels of Gibraltar (18th century), to the multiple tunnel complexes outside settlements (World War I, Vietnam, Iraq or Syria) or in mountainous terrain (Afghanistan or Turkish Kurdistan), tunnel warfare has been a constant feature of war.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing interest in tunnel warfare under cities. This type of combat requires not only special equipment (from special ammunition, to the use of animals, to auxiliary breathing apparatus for oxygen-depleted environments, as fires or thermobaric explosions could quickly eliminate oxygen in small tunnel complexes), but also special training and psychological preparation. One only has to listen to interviews with some of the specialists who have been working inside such tunnels to realise the challenges posed by the lack of orientation, communication, oxygen or sound (46) (47). Without going into the problems and difficulties of detecting and neutralising (but not only destroying) existing tunnels in urban environments where the density of underground infrastructure is enormous, the effect that such devices could have on overhead constructions and urban supply networks is relevant (48). Moreover, the proliferation of tunnels by some state (Iran, North Korea or China) and non-state actors (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Hamas, Daesh, the Mexican Cartels or even some environmental movements ) is not likely to reverse this trend, quite the contrary.
From an academic point of view, the most comprehensive book written to date is undoubtedly Daphné Richemond-Barak’s “Underground Warfare” (2017). The book not only provides a historical overview of the use of tunnels (in urban and non-urban environments), but also addresses the use of tunnels in recent decades by mostly non-state actors, with a particular focus on the Middle East. There is also a very intensive legislative analysis (policies, sovereignty, legislation, strategies and methods) with a focus on current law. Special mention should be made of the last chapter of the book, which focuses on underground warfare in urban areas and the protection of the civilian population (50). From a tactical point of view, much information can be found in some of the recommended reading lists on the subject (51).
Furthermore, increasing emphasis has been placed on training in such environments in recent years. For example, not only did the Royal Gibraltar Regiment (British Army), in October 2020, conduct Macaque Malice exercises inside the tunnels of Gibraltar (52), but the 43 Commando Royal Marines would follow in November (2020) with additional training combining underground, amphibious and vertical assault combat in a mixed mountain and urban environment as part of the Future Commando Force programme.
From the point of view of the Army, the ‘Rey Alfonso XIII’ Brigade of the Legion received the mission to form experimental units in 2014 (53) and has been training and preparing for this type of underground combat for some time. So much so that, although there were already some facilities prepared for combat inside tunnels, in November 2020 it was announced that the new urban training camp project in Renedo Cabezón (next to the El Empecinado military base) would include a network of underground tunnels in urban environments of up to 1,500 metres (54).
It is precisely for the destruction of underground complexes and bunkers, also known as penetrator bombs, that various specialised munitions have been developed. They have also been used against civilian buildings, since the multiple layers of reinforced concrete that often make up the different floors of buildings are often used as protection by the forces entrenched in them. This topic would involve a more in-depth discussion of the use of explosive ordnance inside cities, which we will do in the next section.
Explosives, bombs and artillery
Another of the most controversial debates is the use of artillery in cities. Artillery has been used against them since ancient times, but this does not mean that its use is always justified. It is in this rationale that lies at the heart of the issue, which is the proportional use of force in relation to the elimination of a given threat. Where the limits lie, what evidence needs to be gathered (in the form of a ‘Battle Damage Assessment’) and to what extent we can hold the military accountable for such use of force, are the questions to be answered. Finding a general consensus on what is acceptable is too difficult in a society where everyone wants to have their say, usually based on opinions with clear political orientations already established.
In the past, intensive use of explosive ordnance has been made inside cities both from the air and from the ground, and there are different case studies from which some lessons can be drawn (Hawijah 2015, Mosul 2016-17 or Raqqa 2017) (55). Nevertheless, experts in the field, both academics and active military, have pointed to tense-fire artillery as one of the most useful tools in urban combat for threat elimination. For example, some studies indicate that the use of indirect-fire artillery would cause a military-to-civilian casualty ratio of 90% for the former, and therefore the recommendation of direct-use artillery seems almost obvious as the least bad option (56). Over the last decades, the use of precision-guided munitions (usually laser-guided) has gained popularity in order to reduce civilian casualties.
However, there are some arguments against the use of such munitions. First, precision-guided munitions are expensive (although it would open the discussion as to what is the price to pay for the death of innocent civilians in relation to the cost of the campaign). And secondly, precision munitions are only as good as the intelligence they rely on in their use. Not to mention that the performance of most precision-guided munitions is not the same as conventional artillery, as their payload tends not to be powerful enough against stone or reinforced concrete buildings. Neither, obviously, are their effects on the surrounding areas, which is an advantage. Yet, there is an interesting discussion around a phenomenon that has been called by Amos Fox the “Precision Paradox”. According to this author, during the Battle of Mosul (2016-17), the problem of using precision munitions presented a fallacy, because while the collateral damage of such strikes is reduced and they hit with very high precision, it also decreases the level of neutralisation of the threats they are intended to destroy. So when we step back and look at the cumulative effect of these weapons over the course of the battle we can see that the level of destruction that occurs in the city is very high. This has to do with the fact that it was observed that, in many cases, the enemy (in this case, ISIS fighters), survived and were able to flee through the buildings or move to the next building and continue the fight from inside. Due to the nature of modern buildings, many of which are constructed of reinforced concrete, the effect of such munitions was only very partial. Thus the combatants, who were the real target, were often not neutralised and continued the fighting elsewhere, creating a loop of destruction and thus creating new risks for the civilians present, also increasing the reconstruction bill. According to the author, this paradox created a methodical routine as Iraqi forces simply pursued their enemies with accurate but relatively ineffective munitions throughout the city, also jeopardising the logistical supply of those munitions (57) (58).
The proliferation of new materials and construction techniques such as reinforced concrete has meant that artillery calibres around 152mm and 155mm with high explosive ammunition have emerged as the most optimal and balanced solutions between the level of collateral destruction and threat neutralisation. Besides, they offer a high level of penetration for reinforced concrete walls, also in the case of their use for breaching buildings for the introduction of infantry (59). While these calibres can be closely followed by the 120mm and 125mm guns of modern battle tanks, which are regularly used as highly protected direct fire platforms, the new ‘loitering munitions’ (‘suicide drone’ or ‘kamizake drone’), armed with different systems and types of explosives (albeit with a much wider use), have been used in a number of different ways. The new ‘loitering munitions’ (‘suicide drone’ or ‘kamizake drone’), armed with different systems and types of explosives (albeit with a much more specialised use given their low payload) will undoubtedly add a new dimension to this debate (60).
In no case is the use of artillery in urban combat in question, the only thing that remains to be resolved is the extent to which it is used. Many practitioners ask the same question: Why should the military destroy a city to save it? The problem in answering this question is that, really, as in any conflict, context is everything. To my knowledge, there is to date no doctrinal document (not even in the United States, where the bibliography is very extensive as we have seen above), nor any specific guide, which explains how to recover a city occupied by the enemy without destroying it. It is explained how to surround it, how to attack it, how to suppress targets or how to manoeuvre inside it, but unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find a non-politically agreed solution for its conquest. This fact exposes the political dimension of war. Unfortunately, and based on known historical examples, it seems that restrictions on the use of force within cities have only led to further destruction in the city, as we have already explained (61). This is why in order to find potential solutions to the problem, new approaches, new tools and studies from totally different, sometimes even illogical, points of view are needed, so as not to have to resort to the destruction of the city as the only possible solution to save it.
Urban warfare: Pollution and environment
Finally, although it may seem a truism, conflicts, particularly within large cities, also produce an enormous amount of environmental pollution, not only within, but also in and by the areas surrounding them. Examples of this are the major oil spill catastrophes or the large-scale deforestation near urban centres that Wim Zwijnenburg regularly reports in places like Iraq or Syria during and after conflict. To this must be added the remains of contamination from munitions that were never recovered (depleted uranium) in places such as Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia or Kosovo (62). Or those produced by polluting products used in the past in construction (such as asbestos or lead) that are disseminated throughout urban areas due to explosions, chemical contamination due to the dumping and burning of products stored in cities or used during their construction and which later generally end up in surface and underground watercourses. Not to mention, of course, the unexploded ordnance (63).
Urban warfare: tools and capabilities
Often the discussion also focuses on the capabilities and tools that different militaries have to deal with urban warfare. In most cases, it is generally accepted that the only two countries that have real capabilities for urban warfare are Israel and Russia, usually due to a hodgepodge of materiel, experience, training and their version of the rules of engagement. I would venture to add the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom to this list of countries, which, while not at the same level as the first group, would be capable of reaching fully acceptable levels.
However, from a military point of view, there have been calls for a variety of tools to address the different problems that urban warfare requires. For instance, the podcast published on 25 December 2020 “All I want for Christmas is an Urban warfare capability set” (a clear nod to Mariah Carey’s mythical song “All I want for Christmas is you”) (64)(65). Nevertheless, the reality is that we are a long way from getting there. In this section we will mention some of them and why they are of interest to professionals.
Some of the tools that are essential for urban warfare have already been discussed earlier in this article. For example, 152/155mm self-propelled artillery (such as the 2S1 Gvozdika, widely used in the conflicts in Chechnya) (66), the importance of a specific and simple doctrine that equips combatants with the necessary Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) when facing certain enemies (67) or weapons with explosive capabilities sufficient to penetrate reinforced concrete walls.
It would also be redundant to explain why urban combat is a combined arms fight, why tanks are central to it (68) and the suitability of their different munitions, from the M908 MPAT-OR, the M830A1 MPAT 120 to the HEAT-MP-T (69). The preference for non-lethal weaponry (M84 Stun, flash/flashbang, or sound grenades) during assaults, the immense value of snipers (70), or combat engineers (71). All of these are essential tools for fighting almost any adversary in a major engagement in urban terrain.
It is also counter-intuitive to understand why some tools are so useful in urban settings. In general, these are tools that are the only ones that provide a specific solution to a specific problem if used correctly and are not necessarily banned, but have been removed from the inventory of many countries for “humanitarian reasons”. An example of this is the flamethrower, which is active in many non-Western armies and whose use is indispensable for attacking underground complexes, fortresses and highly fortified points for which conventional explosives are rarely useful. This sort of weapon is still present in Russian (in the form of the RPO-A Shmel/Bumblebee, which replaced the RPO-74 Rys/Lynx flamethrower and previously the LPO-50) and Chinese armies (Type 74, a version of the LPO-50, the PF-97, a licensed version of the RPO Shmel, or the FHJ-84). And there are recent experiences of their use that support this theory, such as those of the Chinese PLA during the attack on the Aksu coal mines, Xinjiang (2015) against enemies entrenched inside the mining complexes (72)(73).
Another tool that has given rise to much debate is the use of smoke inside cities. While there are some ways to create smoke screens using smoke grenades such as the AN-M8 Smoke HC (white) or the AN-M18 (coloured), these grenades can take between 2 and 3 minutes to create a smoke screen. In situations where the immediacy of a smoke screen or the need to blind an enemy without causing destruction is immediate, smoke grenades that are capable of creating such an effect instantly become necessary. In this case, we are talking about white phosphorus. This is where we enter into a marshy area. Although the aforementioned grenades (AN-M8 and AN-M18) contain white phosphorous in small quantities and the risk of causing fires is relatively low, smoke grenades or ammunition with high white phosphorous content, generally fired by direct and indirect fire artillery (and for which there is no equivalent at infantry level), not only do they have a high risk of causing fires but their exposure, inhalation or oral ingestion can cause serious damage and can even be lethal. This is why it has been tried to be outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) without success. Yet, to this day, there are no alternatives on the table, and white phosphorus continues to be used, as for example in the battle for Mosul (2017), where M825A1 enhanced white phosphorus ammunition was used to great effect and helped to protect and rescue civilians in the combat zone, in which they were trapped and acted as human shields for Daesh troops (74).
A similar debate arises when it comes to tear gas, which is not allowed because it is toxic due to its chemical composition. The reason why tear gas is so controversial in the debate is because some professionals see it as a contradiction to restrict its military use, while allowing its use by the police (precisely against civilians) inside cities as an anti-riot weapon. Even more so, bearing in mind that although dangerous and toxic, it is a weapon that is not necessarily lethal and has been used on numerous occasions in a highly satisfactory manner, for example in Manila (1945) or Hue (1968) (75).
The importance of camouflage
Although it may be surprising, there is a whole panoply of techniques specifically designed for camouflage in urban environments, with varying degrees of success (76). They usually go unnoticed, but we have seen some good examples recently:
Camouflage in urban environments is welcome and highly desirable, but the debate arises when civilian symbols such as the image of civilian vehicles are used as camouflage. This opens the door to unconditional targeting of civilians, under the pretext that any civilian truck could in fact be a lawful military target for attack. This has given rise to some uncomfortable questions about this kind of camouflage, for example in the case of Taiwan or Russia.
‘Breaching walls’ and ‘Ramming’
Probably the least secure place to access a building in the midst of urban warfare is the door. Gaining access to the inside of buildings and breaking down their inner and outer walls to move through the city has been used for more than a century during different conflicts (Monterrey , Easter Rising , Jaffa  or Jenin ). To this end, different ways have been developed to create such holes through which to enter. In general, this has been done with explosives, rocket launchers or grenade launchers, through direct fire artillery or tanks. However, the generalisation of stronger construction materials presents a further challenge to infantrymen, who must not only carry their equipment, but also specialised tools to perform such tasks that would normally be carried out by combat engineers or sappers, but which they are now forced to do.
In relation to the creation of holes in buildings, some armies have fitted some of their vehicles with metal battering rams on the front of the vehicle (in the case of Israeli Centurion tanks), railway rails (to the Bradleys in Baghdad by the US Army) or bulldozers (Challenger 2 Street Fighter) in order to create holes for infantry to penetrate through. In the past, this technique was also used to directly demolish buildings or parts of them. This technique is called ‘ramming’, that is, the use of vehicles as battering rams to create holes in the walls of buildings or demolish parts of the city through which to pass, making it easier to manoeuvre within the urban terrain, both inside and through buildings. While this capability has not been lost voluntarily, it has been a consequence of combat vehicles having high-tech equipment on their exteriors that is relatively incapable of withstanding the impact of a collapsing wall without damage or disruption. This tactic is undoubtedly dangerous to carry out and requires prior reconnaissance to avoid falling into basements or pits created by suspended wooden floors. However, in areas of the city where buildings are relatively light (e.g. shanty towns) or low-rise (one or two storeys), it is very useful.
Some of the new solutions proposed from different countries have come in the form of combat vehicles, such as the Namer (‘ Armoured Personal Carrier’ or APC), the Machbet (a development of the M163 VADS, an M113 with a 20mm M168 gatling gun with incendiary ammunition and 4 Stinger launchers with a fire control kit) or the Israeli Carmel or the Russian BMPT “Terminator”, which we already talked about in this excellent article (https://www. revistaejercitos.com/2018/10/13/bmpt-terminator/) or its Chinese equivalent, the QN-506, the copy of the Russian BMPT Terminator (https://twitter.com/Political_Room/status/1195343814933852160). In addition, progress is also being made on unmanned platforms, such as the Uran-9. There are some platforms that, while not originally designed for urban combat, could provide very similar performance in such terrain, such as the Stryker A1 (IM-SHORAD). Very much along the lines of what the Soviets did first in Afghanistan and the Russians later in Chechnya with their ZSU-23-4 Shilka anti-aircraft systems.
What is clear is that extreme necessity has given free rein to the imagination and created inventive solutions. For example, during the Battle of Marawi (2017), to alleviate the lack of smoke screen capabilities to protect the passage of troops through the streets, tactics were widely used in which runners crossed the streets. They then lifted huge, thick cloth curtains that allowed troops to cross with visual cover. In addition, in the absence of properly protected vehicles (as the Philippines had no tanks in 2017) to protect street advances, ‘leapfrogging’ tactics were developed in which improvised protected bulldozers coordinated with Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), usually upgraded M113s, to make way and protect each other (77).
Sadr City (2008), Aleppo (2012-16), the Siege of Deir-ez-Zor (2014-17), Ilovaisk (2014), Kobani (2014-15), Debal’tseve (2015), Ramadi (2015-16), Third Battle of Fallujah (2016), Mosul (2016-17), Raqqa (2016-17), the Deir ez-Zor campaign (2017-19), Marawi (2017), Tal Afar (2017), Sana’a (2017), Al Hudaydah/Hodeidah (2018), Ghouta (2018) or Tripoli (2018) show that fighting for cities is the order of the day and takes a multitude of different forms. Unfortunately, many people in the Spanish-speaking community are still anchored in historical examples such as Stalingrad (1942), Manila (1945), Hue (1968) or Grozny (1994-95). These experiences, while useful in identifying patterns and learning lessons, are not only totally unrealistic today, but the lessons to be learned are increasingly alien to us.
Although we often forget (and however improbable this scenario may seem), Ceuta and Melilla are eminently urban enclaves, and it would be well worth being prepared for the challenge they present if at some point it comes to defending them by highlighting their special character as cities. Perhaps it is time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room and prepare ourselves, if not for all possible cases, since the US Army’s requirements are far from those of the Spanish Army, then for the potential scenarios we might face. I am aware that some steps have already been taken in this direction, but there is still a need to build a community around the subject in Spanish, where debates on the same level as those seen above can take place.
The world does not stand still because we choose to ignore some issues, and urban environments will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Warfare in them will become more and more frequent. Some countries outside the Western orbit, such as Russia and China, are already seriously working on this and there are already known attempts to integrate different tools and platforms such as Artificial Intelligence, warfare drones, electronic warfare and information technology to create synergies with which to dispute the control of urban environments when the time comes. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about what our plan is and discuss it, because not having a plan is also a plan, but it is probably one of the worst plans of all.
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