Contemporary Operating Environment

The Battle of Marawi: Small Team Lessons Learned For the Close Fight.

By James Lewis November 26, 2018


 In May 2017, Islamist insurgents swarmed through the city of Marawi, taking the population of 200, 000 hostage and announcing it as a new ‘Capitol’ for Islamic State in South-East Asia. This wildly ambitious, unprecedented move triggered a State of Emergency, and from May to October 2017, fighting echelons of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFoP) deployed to Marawi in the Mindanao region of the Southern Philippines. The Southern Philippines has proven a haven for Islamist terrorists for many years[1], however, anecdotal evidence suggests the region has also seen a recent increase in activity due to an influx of foreign terrorist fighters from the Middle East.

Prior to Marawi, the AFoP had limited experience in urban combat, with their training historically focusing on jungle operations to suppress various Islamist groups and the National People’s Army (NPA), a rebel communist group. As a result, with almost no notice, the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen and women of the AFoP were required to adapt to this new environment extraordinarily quickly[2].

The lessons learned by the AFoP from grinding combat in a large, broken, crowded city are important. The Australian Army has leading training for combat operations in the urban environment, but it must learn everything it can from the AFoP’s vicious Marawi experience to ensure it is best prepared to operate, fight and win in similar urban conflicts.

The aim of this paper is to describe the key tactical lessons the Australian Army can learn from the AFoP’s urban siege of Marawi City. Consideration of these lessons may inform and improve the Australian Army’s current approach to the force generation of close combat, combined-arms capabilities. It will identify the key tactical lessons learned by the AFoP fighting an intelligent, determined, disciplined and well-equipped terrorist threat in the extraordinarily difficult, intense and complicated terrain.

These lessons are drawn from a wide range of sources, including reporting from Australian and US observers, as well as the Philippines Joint Special Operations Group (JSOG), Light Reaction Regiment (LRR) and Marine Special Operations Group (MARSOG).

Marawi: a vicious urban siege

On 23 May 2017, security forces from the Philippines conducted a raid in the city of Marawi to capture an insurgent named Isnilon Hapilon—the former leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and self-proclaimed Emir of Islamic State in East Asia. The forces who conducted the raid reported much tougher resistance than expected. The insurgents were rapidly reinforced and quickly revealed extensive defensive preparations throughout the city—well constructed defensive positions, concealed routes, hidden ammunition and arms caches, and an almost doctrinal urban defensive plan. The raid was repulsed, and by the end of the day the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines (IS-P) had triggered their long-laid plans to dominate the city.

Martial law was declared by President Rodrigo Duterte and a five month urban siege to regain the city commenced. The battle was pitched against a well-resourced, sophisticated enemy who had the ‘home ground advantage’. Extensive preparations had been conducted throughout the city and an intense, protracted and close-quarters battle - the likes of which has not been seen in the region in decades - became the only way to destroy the enemy and recapture the City[3]. On 23 October, following 153 days of war, this gruelling mission was achieved.

The costs of the Battle of Marawi were high. Opinions on infrastructure damage vary but aerial imagery indicates that huge swathes of the city have been devastated by the fighting - the mass destruction flattening entire city blocks. The World Bank estimates it may take two decades to restore Marawi to its original condition. However, the true price of the battle is that paid by the people of Marawi and the lives of those fighting in it. 165 members of the AFoP were killed in action, with over 1000 injured. Some reports indicate over 1000 insurgents were killed in the siege, which also took the lives of 47 civilians. The fighting drove over 400, 000 people from their homes.

Tactical lessons learned: Modern urban warfare against a tenacious terrorist threat in an indo-pacific city

CLOSE COMBAT - THE FUNDAMENTALS

Observation: Fundamentally, the Battle of Marawi was a battle by individuals and small teams. While the AFoP had access to overwhelming offensive support, armoured fighting vehicles, unmanned aerial surveillance and close air support platforms, the city was not free of terrorists until every building had been deliberately cleared by ‘the man [and teams] on the scene with a gun’.[4] Despite the significant destruction wrought by close air support and indirect fires, this battle demonstrated that intense close combat remains the only way to achieve decisive victory.

Expertise in combat shooting, battlefield fitness and small team tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) were the driving factors for the AFoP’s eventual success. Furthermore, the Battle of Marawi demonstrated that it takes a high standard of C3[5], combat trauma management and interoperability with supporting arms, such as joint fires and engineers to fight and win in the urban environment.

The observations made by the Operation AUGURY Land Mentoring and Training Team (MTT-L) support this. The most regular feedback received after the combat shooting, urban tactics, joint fires, counter Improvised Explosive Device (CIED), urban breaching and combat trauma management training, was that these skills would have allowed the AFoP to win more rapidly and with fewer casualties.[6]

Lessons Learned: While the AFoP had access to enabling technologies and supporting arms such as indirect fire, close air support and armoured fighting vehicles, the battle was ultimately won by room-to-room, house-to-house fighting. No amount of firepower can substitute this intimate, discriminate, and precise application of force.

Combat shooting, battlefield fitness, small team TTPs and battle craft are more important than any other skill, and must be prioritised. Above all else, the Australian Army must have the ability to deliver small combined arms teams to the fight who are capable of shooting faster and more accurately than their enemy out to 200 metres by day and by night; who can dominate and control complex spaces more rapidly and with fewer casualties; and who can operate seamlessly with other small teams or supporting elements in joint and coalition environments.

The Marawi experience suggests that such small teams, operating seamlessly alongside engineers, artillery and armour—as well as combat medics and military police—fighting as combined-arms sections, platoons, combat teams and battlegroups, are essential

Owning the Night

Observation: Both the AFoP and the insurgents had very limited access to night fighting equipment (NFE); indeed, the only forces well equipped with NFE were those from SOCOMD and MARSOG. This meant the majority of forces were static at night, and would occupy urban defensive positions until dawn. Early warning devices would be improvised, by placing tins and cans on lines of string, or by shattering fluorescent globes on likely enemy approaches—the clanging of the tins, or the crunch of the broken glass, would compromise any would-be attacker.

However, Filipino special forces with access to NFE were extremely effective when operating at night. They were able to cross obstacles considered risky during daylight and could conduct assaults on enemy positions to take advantage of the overwhelming overmatch in night fighting ability. They could then pathfind for conventional forces, who had little to no NFE, to secure new battle positions.

Lesson Learned: The Australian Army should seek to leverage its significant advantages in night fighting equipment and ability. All elements of the combined arms team must seek complete fluency in all skillsets between day and night, and become comfortable with operating primarily in the dark. In a context similar to Marawi, the ability to dominate the enemy by day and night and to strike him when he’s most vulnerable could prove decisive. This requires agile and stealthy forces who are comfortable in conditions of significant fatigue. Non-verbal communication by night should be second nature, but its a skill that takes time and practice to master; basic skills such as small team room entry drills or corner-and-partition drills become significantly more complex once combatants can’t rely on peripheral vision.

Reverse-cycle operations can and should be the norm, and combined arms units should seek to train in these conditions as often as practicable. This will require a shake-up of ‘traditional’ training and barracks training approaches, and will require commanders to adopt much more flexibility around start and finish times during the working day.

Reverse cycle training can be resource neutral and employed in a standard barracks working week. Training can be in a purpose built facility or even in the facilities around barracks. The only requirements are clear targeted training outcomes (not just training for the sake of being there) and committed, creative leaders.

Use of Armour

Observation: Marawi highlighted the vital importance of having armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) fight alongside the infantry and engineers in the urban environment. The Marawi experience suggests that in such a contested, formidable and lethal environment, armour saves lives. Wherever possible, infantry platoons would advance with armour in intimate support; bounding forward to clear the way and allowing the AFV to move forward to a support by fire (SBF) position. Engineers would breach with armour in close support wherever possible, and the AFVs were also used to support casualty extraction.

Despite the obvious advantage of the mobility, firepower and protection that AFVs afforded the AFoP, their mobility limitations became clear: even in undamaged areas, the narrow, labyrinthine streets found in most indo-pacific cities will pose significant limitations for AFV employment. Particularly given the overwhelming destruction in Marawi, there was limited option to employ AFV in many areas until bulldozers could clear corridors and fire positions for them. This was typically conducted using a ‘leapfrog’ technique, which is described below.

Lesson Learned: Armour supporting infantry is highly desirable in the urban environment, but their limitations must be considered and significant interoperability training must occur beforehand. The time it takes to refine TTPs and develop the trust and understanding required to fight in combined-arms teams means that infantry and armour should train together in this environment regularly.

Furthermore, AFV will be unable to access key areas in the urban environment without access to bulldozers or other mobility support. Urban mobility training for armour and engineers should also be prioritised

.

Command and Control

Observation: Due to difficulty in coordination and inexperience in orchestrating effects in the urban environment, command and control was highly centralised. Furthermore, because urban fighting was new to the AFoP, rapid operational tempo and simultaneous action were nearly impossible to achieve.

Lesson Learned: The most effective way to achieve tempo in this situation would be the orchestration of multiple effects simultaneously, rather than in sequence. For example, walking suppressive fire up, or across, a building in support of the break-in is much more effective than cutting fire completely. Training commanders to favour simultaneous action over linear effects planning will support achieving tempo at all levels. This can be accomplished by enabling shared understanding (using a common operating picture such as that provided by a Battlespace Management System – down to small team level) combined with clearly understood and thoroughly rehearsed control measures.

Furthermore, continued emphasis on junior leaders must be maintained. Having platoons and sections capable of conducting simultaneous activity without micro-management increases the higher commander’s ability to layer multiple effects and achieve decision superiority.

The Australian Army’s focus on small team leadership and developing tactical acumen is well spent and should continue to be a fundamental line of effort.

Targeting Withdrawal Routes

Observation: In Marawi the enemy used covered withdrawal routes, or ‘ratlines’ (holes dug through walls or floors, or concealed passageways through basements etc), to enable movement to and from battle positions, or to move to depth if a battle position was at risk of being overrun. When these were discovered, the AFoP would either have combat engineers collapse the tunnels on top of the enemy, or use tear gas to flush the lines out. If using smoke or tear gas, they would concurrently send a drone above the entrance, as they could often find the other end of the ratline by watching for the smoke escaping from the far end.

Lesson Learned: In this situation close combatants could adopt a similar tactic. CS or smoke grenades would be used to flush out any enemy tunnels discovered; concurrently, by deploying a unmanned aerial system (UAS) to observe the area and having an interdiction force ready, an infantry-led callsign could rapidly mark the exit to a ratline with the escaping smoke, identify it with UAS, and interdict any fleeing enemy combatants. This would need to be carefully coordinated, but this tactic would mitigate the high risk of methodical and time-consuming subterranean, or ‘tunnel rat,’ clearances. Such subterranean withdrawal routes could be readily rigged with IEDs or targeted by an ambush.

Ground-Up Innovation

Observation: In the Battle of Marawi, the Marines of the PMC had little to no access to smoke grenades. This posed a significant problem for mobility, primarily due to the sniper threat down firelanes (streets and alleys in particular). As a result, innovation was required to deny enemy observation and enable urban manoeuvre. To conduct crossings, the marines of MBLT10 would carry a long piece of fabric, the height of a marine. They attached one end of the fabric to one side of the obstacle, and had a runner sprint across the fire lane, trailing the sheet behind him. He would then tie it off, taught, to the other side of the obstacle. This then enabled the entire platoon team or combat team to cross with relative impunity, especially as the resource-poor enemy wouldn’t risk wasting ammunition by ‘drake-shooting[7]’ at the sheet.

Lesson Learned: The above vignette illustrates the value of innovation in combat. Due to the operational realities in Marawi (a resource-poor enemy, limited friendly resupply and a significant amount of enemy snipers), the ‘sheet method’ for conducting urban obstacle crossing was an expediency borne of necessity. The example highlighted above illustrates the value of allowing bottom-up innovation drive TTPs; finding localised solutions to localised problems, not necessarily aligned to doctrine, and giving front-line troops the latitude to be creative. The Australian Army has a rich tradition of such innovation in combat, harking back to the famous drip rifles of the Gallipoli Campaign[8].

Clinging to orthodox solutions would have made the AFoP predictable and targetable. Building teams where members feel empowered to be involved in problem solving; where critical thinking is the norm; and where making honest mistakes in training is accepted and encouraged, is the first step in this process. This is easier said than done, and needs to be driven by leaders at all levels, but if correctly implemented will result in a force characterised by agility and innovation rather than tradition and predictability.

Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems

Observation: During the Battle of Marawi, both the AFoP and the enemy used drones extensively. Drones were employed down to platoon team/combat team level to observe both friendly troop movement as well as enemy infiltration and exfiltration routes, movement and locations.

Both forces employed inexpensive, off-the-shelf varieties, as each side would prioritise shooting down one-another’s aerial surveillance assets. The AFoP used a rudimentary marking system to identify friendly UAVs, to ensure they didn’t accidentally shoot down those from neighbouring callsigns.

Lesson Learned: This would suggest that at the tactical level, commercial drone technology can be extremely effective at complementing the in-service, encrypted UAS fleet. The consequences of losing a Black Wasp or Hornet in combat would be significantly greater than losing a $400 AUD off-the-shelf drone that is essentially disposable—the loss of a store-bought drone would not risk losing any controlled or encrypted technology. Any Operational Security issues would be mitigated by the fact that the information developed from these off-the-shelf drones is purely tactical and, at best, relevant for a very short period of time. Furthermore, it would likely allow front-line units to replace damaged or capture UAS far more quickly than unit requisition would be capable of. The other key lesson for the Australian Army is that close combat forces must be adept at using UAS, and that there is benefit from increasing exposure to, and understanding of, these technologies.

OFFENSIVE SUPPORT

Extraordinary firepower was employed to enable the seizure of Marawi City. One Company from the 2nd Infantry Division employed over 10,000 mortar rounds in three months. Offensive support came primarily in the form of Close Air Support, intimate support from mortars, and employing 105mm field guns in a direct fire role.

Close Air Support

Observation: The AFoP were very effective in employing Close Air Support (CAS) to enable house-to-house clearances. These strikes were highly effective on the first pass of the aircraft, when surprise could be maintained[9]. However, the enemy became aware of the CAS schedule – undermining its effectiveness. Once they identified a CAS platform in the air there was a marked decrease in enemy movement in the open, as they waited for the asset to retire and refuel. This limited the effectiveness of the aircraft in both a CAS and ISR role, and due to the limited number of aircraft and crews available to the Philippines Air Force (PAF), meant that once the air window was closed the insurgents could be confident in acting and/or attacking without concerning themselves with air attack for some time.

Lesson Learned: Planners should be alert to the enemy's tendency to monitor CAS flights, especially if continuous air cover is not available. The number of sorties available, the on-station time, and the time required to transit and rearm/refuel before returning to the area of operations should be considered Essential Elements of Friendly Information that need to be protected from the enemy.

Control Measures

Observation: Marker panels were found to be the most effective CAS Forward line of own troops (FLOT) marker. However, the enemy were extremely active in employing deception to confuse aircraft and degrade the effectiveness of CAS. They employed dummy marker panels, smoke, and likely had the benefit of being able to monitor the air-to-ground communication being conducted over un-encrypted Motorola radios. This made identifying friend or foe extremely difficult and greatly increased the time taken for CAS aircraft to provide support.

Lesson Learned: FLOT-marking techniques for aircraft need to be understood by all soldiers, as qualified Joint Fire Observers/Joint Terminal Attack Controllers may not be in a position to conduct the mark themselves. These marks need to be unmistakable as to their origin and easily verified by the aircraft (detail and clarify are critical; "marker panels" isn't sufficient - "yellow marker panels, in an arrow, pointing north," is much better).

Clear, common doctrine for the employment of joint fires, as well as a thorough understanding of necessary control measures are critical. Close combatants need to routinely train with their joint fires enablers, and rehearsals of such measures need to regularly occur at the tactical level.

Direct Fires

Observation: The Filipino Gunners used their 105mm guns in a direct fire role to penetrate the thick concrete walls prevalent in Marawi. This was generally considered an effective alternative to using Squad Anti-Armour weapons, and the technique was employed on multiple occasions, with the infantry platoon commander involved directly liaising with the gun crew rather than 'calling for fire'.

Lesson Learned: Whilst direct fire would be difficult for Royal Australian Artillery (RAA) 155mm M777’s due to their size and weight, direct fire remains part of Royal Australian Artillery Doctrine. An understanding of how to apply light and medium guns used in this role may prove useful for future urban conflict.

Furthermore, the utility of shoulder fired weaponry, with munitions optimised for the urban environment, including breaching rounds, cannot be overstated. The AFOP did not have these for the majority of the five months. They instead used their limited shoulder-fired weaponry with unsuited munitions (AT/HEAT munitions are not suited for breaching a hole in reinforced concrete), or used HMG .50 cal to ‘bore’ a point of entry (discussed below). Dynamic breaching skills need to be decentralised, to assault pioneers and breachers in infantry platoons.

MOBILITY AND SURVIVABILITY

Explosive Breaching

Observation: During Marawi there was an extraordinary requirement for explosive breaching to support infantry platoon movement. IEDs were incorporated into rubble obstacles along AFoP Avenues of Approach (AoA) and covered with sniper fire in order to deny access without sustaining casualties. The AFoP response was to generate new AoAs through buildings which enabled cover from sniper fire and bypass of IEDS. Initially, mechanical breaching and breaching by fire were both attempted by manoeuvre elements with mixed results. Infantry platoons also used HMG .50 cal to bore a point of entry in some buildings when engineers were unavailable. However, many of the buildings within the city were constructed of thick, heavily reinforced concrete. As such, breaches were often required to be conducted in two stages; the first stage was an explosive breach to strip away concrete, leaving thick reinforcement bars to be reduced in a second stage. Hydraulic cutters were then used to mechanically reduce the reinforcement before assaulting forces moved in.

In Marawi, structural integrity varied greatly from building to building. Where in one building a given charge type would produce a mouse hole, in another it could cause significant damage or completely level the structure. Charge selection was described as a dark art due to the unpredictable nature of the structures, and structural assessment skills were identified as a shortfall. Safety distances were refined through trial and error and balanced against the tactical scenario. Combat engineers (CEs) were often only able to move a room or building to the rear; in the classic ‘hugging the belt’ technique used by many insurgents, the enemy continually pushed forward to remain within friendly artillery safety distances.

Lesson Learned: There will be the same requirement for significant amounts of explosive breaching in future urban conflict. There will never be enough engineers to support simultaneous manoeuvre; a priority should be placed on light urban breaching skills to enable the infantry to carry and employ their own demolitions.

Rubble and Obstacle Clearance

Observation: The enemy placed obstacles, such as parked cars, to delay or deny likely friendly AoA. However, as the battle ensued, the damage caused by CAS and artillery fire created major obstacles to mounted movement and disrupted dismounted manoeuvre. CEs adopted a mounted clearance technique where an M113 would move to the FLOT and occupy an SBF position. An up-armoured bulldozer and guide would then move up and clear a bound of 10 – 50 metres dependant on terrain. The bulldozer would then reverse out and allow the M113 to move forward into the newly cleared area and adopt SBF from that position, in order to provided security for the next bound; this method was described as leap frogging. Due to the sniper threat using dismounted guides was impossible. Instead, guides would use a UAV in conjunction with radio communications in order to remain within cover.

Lesson Learned: Interoperability training between infantry, engineers and armour is essential to ensure the trust and TTPs required are established.

Collapsed Structure Rescue

Observation: Some AFoP CEs had received critical training in collapsed structure rescue. This was found to be an invaluable skill set and was recommended to be trained to all CEs as part of lead up training for any future conflicts in the urban environment. Whilst it is possible to use the skill to rescue friendly forces trapped within collapsed structures, this was not required during Marawi. The skills were used primarily in a Battlefield Clearance Team (BCT) role to retrieve intelligence and biometrics from enemy corpses within collapsed buildings.

Lesson Learned: Similar training may be a valuable inclusion in engineer training in preparation for future urban warfare.

PRECISION FIRES

One of the major threats to friendly forces was enemy snipers. The majority of these were not the highly trained and well equipped snipers common to many armies, but instead closer to what might be better termed ‘marksmen’ or ‘sharpshooters’ engaging at short- to medium-ranges. Regardless, they exacted a heavy toll on friendly forces and often imposed significant delay on manoeuvre.

Enemy Snipers

Observation: Although optic sights were found on a limited number of rifles, most of the enemy sniper weapons utilised iron sights. The vast majority of the insurgent snipers were local to the city or region and therefore had an in-depth knowledge of the city layout. Most of their hides and firing positions were well thought and planned prior to the Islamic state inspired insurgents seizing Marawi City, often using tall buildings to dominate all approaches. The insurgents would also utilize hostages as human shields to restrict any opportunities that the AFoP had to return fire in their hide location.

Enemy snipers utilized loophole shooting (often called ‘murder holes’) to a deadly effect. They would position hides overlooking choke points, bridges and obvious avenues of approach with excellent fields of fire, or onto killing zone where AFoP would traverse or dwell. They would then knock a medium size hole in a wall and then, if possible, knock a smaller hole in the adjacent room. From the adjacent room they would often set up their hide, allowing them to engage from depth with relatively good cover from fire and concealment.

This tactic was also utilised in stairwells. Knowing the AFoP would have to make entry to clear the building, the enemy snipers would cut a hole through the stair well and sit off some distance. Once the AFoP made entry the enemy sniper would have a clear line of sight of the door way and stairwell entry allowing him to score a centre of mass hit. The Insurgent snipers also made use of dummy hides to draw out or bait the PMC scout snipers to engage. Quite often the PMC scout snipers would enter counter-sniping battles with the insurgent snipers across roads, city blocks and bridges with the average engagement distance being 150 to 200m.

Lesson Learned: The enemy is extremely cunning, and will adapt his tactics to best target Australian Soldiers. Continuous analysis of enemy TTPs and dissemination of this information across the force is important in undermining the enemy’s lethality and survivability. Friendly forces, particularly those most likely to be targeted by enemy snipers, should receive up-to-date information about enemy sniper TTPs and the best way to increase their survivability.

Counter-Sniping

Observation: The AFoP snipers quickly adapted to enemy tactics, and began using loop holes and dummy hides as well. Often one team would act as a ‘tethered goat’ to draw enemy sniper fire, whilst a separate team waited in a concealed hide waiting to engage.  The PMC normally work as pairs with mutual support from a regular infantry platoon, however at Marawi they deployed as a sniper platoon to support major clearance tasks conducted by the dismounted ground forces.

One challenge facing the AFoP snipers was the enemy’s use of UAS. Enemy snipers regularly flew UAS around the battlespace to likely counter-sniper locations, in order to identify the AFoP hides. They also faced the challenge of fleeting opportunity—exposure time of enemy targets was typically very short, and at short to medium ranges of unknown distance. The AFoP snipers had to learn techniques to enable rapid, accurate engagement of threats at uncertain distances.

Finally, insurgents often spent much of the night taking drugs such as ‘shabu’ (methamphetamine). The PMC scout snipers took advantage of this, as well as the limited enemy night fighting equipment, to move into and occupy sniper hides under the cover of darkness.

Lesson Learned: Improving hide construction is the most effective way to undermine the enemy’s use of UAS to compromise hide sites. Deliberate training for fleeting engagements of enemy targets at uncertain ranges is critical in preparation for urban counter-sniping. Observing enemy habits surrounding drug use should be included in planning. Heavy drug use has been a feature in many conflicts the Australian Army has been involved in, including Somalia (Khat) and Afghanistan (Opioids). Understanding the type, effect, and routine of enemy drug use may identify key enemy vulnerabilities, or periods of heightened risk.

Counter-Sniping—Psychological

Observation: One of the major challenges faced by the AFoP was the severe psychological toll paid by their snipers. This was a widespread phenomenon, experienced across multiple units of snipers and sharpshooters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individuals personally killed dozens of insurgents, to the point where some were unfit to continue fighting.

Lesson Learned: The Australian Army must prepare snipers for the mental pressure of constant killing at short range. Having world class infantry and snipers who are able to perform to the highest standards in training is one thing. However, all close combatants, but especially snipers and marksmen, must be psychologically prepared for near-constant killing.

LOGISTICS

Combat Trauma

Observation: The AFoP platoons had not conducted extensive training in combat trauma management, and their Role 2 and Role 3 equivalent medical facilities were not accustomed to the very high volume of casualties which can be expected during urban fighting—a significant number of which were non-battle injuries.

Lesson Learned: Medical planners should expect higher rates of casualties than usual when fighting in the urban environment. Furthermore, combat trauma management skills must be trained down to the individual level. Such skills save lives – and instil morale. The battle also highlighted the sheer number of non-battle injuries in the urban environment, and the importance of using protective equipment such as helmets, ballistic eye protection, gloves and body armour. The true value of this equipment was found in protecting combatants from secondary fragmentation, falling debris, hitting their heads while moving, and preventing the cuts and scrapes which rapidly become infected in this environment.

Combat Resupply

Observation: Ammunition consumption became an issue at the Battle of Marawi, both in terms of quantities available at 4th line (bulk ammunition depots), and also in terms of delivery of ammunition and stores to the forward deployed platoons and companies.

Lesson Learned: The ‘fight light’[10] concept dictates that fighting echelons need to be enabled by an agile, responsive A and B echelon. All echelons need to work together, learn from each other and trust each other if they are to achieve and maintain an edge over such an adversary.

The Australian Army should focus on delivering realistic training for close logistic support in a contested urban battlespace. Delivery of rations, water, fuel and ammo are essential, but training for forward delivery of key urban stores often doesn’t happen. Who will fill sand bags, and with what? How will defensive stores be moved through streets blocked by rubble? It is important to ensure that the Australian Army fully exercise all components of CSS. Training should be realistic for every component of the fight, especially in the urban environment where logistics enablers will have to get much closer to the enemy than they will in rural fighting.

Equipment

Observation: Much of the equipment used by the AFoP at Marawi was optimised for jungle operations. As a result, they lacked some of the equipment required to operate effectively in an urban environment. For the AFoP, the most valuable equipment—other than the platforms used by the combined arms team and joint fires—were related to individual fighting equipment (body armour, load carriage equipment etc), personal protective equipment (helmets, ballistic eye protection and fire retardant clothing etc) and lethality (night fighting equipment, weapon ancillaries such as thermal sights and enhanced optics). Furthermore, access to direct fire support weapons, particularly shoulder fired high explosive weaponry with multiple munition options was also considered a priority.

Lesson Learned: The Australian Army has addressed many of the equipment issues required to fight and win in the urban environment with recent acquisitions. However, the Australian Army must pursue constant improvement of its equipment to ensure close combatants can rely on both a skills and equipment advantage.

CONCLUSION

The lessons learned by the AFoP in the Battle of Marawi, fighting a determined, ruthless enemy, are invaluable to the Australian Army. This article highlights the key tactical observations of the combat experienced by the AFoP fighting in Marawi, and suggested the lessons that the Australian Army can draw from these experiences. Consideration of these lessons may inform, and improve, current approaches to the force generation and modernisation of close combat, combined-arms capabilities.

The experiences of the AFoP have broad relevance to the Australian Army across a number of corps and disciplines, including close combat, offensive support, mobility and survivability, urban sniping and counter-sniping, and logistics. We must become a force that is expert at urban fighting. Urbanisation trends—as well as the existential reality of conflict amongst people, where they live—compels us to be expert at this most difficult of environments.

Continued emphasis must be placed on the importance of the individual and small team skillset. For the infantry, combat shooting, small team TTPs, battlecraft and battlefield fitness are the four factors that ultimately mean the difference between victory and defeat in this environment. Above all else, the Australian Army must have the ability to deliver small teams to the fight who are capable of shooting faster and more accurately than their enemy; who can dominate and control complex spaces more rapidly and with fewer casualties; and who can operate seamlessly with other small teams or supporting elements. For armour, engineers and artillery, these factors will be different; however, the requirement for small teams and individuals who can master their respective trades and integrate seamlessly in small combined arms teams is universal.

Such small teams, operating seamlessly alongside engineers, artillery and armour—as well as combat medics and military police—fighting as combined-arms sections, platoons, combat teams and battlegroups, are nearly unbeatable.

The AFoP’s small teams of close combatants were faced with a number of viciously complex problems, and showed remarkable adaptability and innovation in solving these under fire. It is highly likely that in a similar situation, close combatants would encounter the same complex problems—Islamic terrorists and violent extremists within the indo-pacific region will be studying the Marawi Siege closely, as it is an example of just how brutally effective a relatively small group can be in causing chaos in a city. The Australian Army should identify the key lessons learned from Marawi and implement them within training and modernisation to maximise its ability to operate, fight and win in the urban environment.

End Notes:

[1] These include, most notably, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Jemaah Islamiyah’s Mantiqi 3 (where a significant amount of the training and preparation for the October 2002 Bali Bombings took place), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Maute Group, and now the Islamic State of the Philippines (IS-P).

[2]Fealy, G. (2017). ‘The Battle for Marawi and ISIS in South East Asia’. ASPI Strategist, last accessed 23 Aug 18

[3] Footage of the sheer intensity of the fighting

 [4]Rear Admiral C Wylie, US Navy, World War II

[5] Command, control and communications

[6]Department of Defence (2017). ‘JTF629 Graduates First Class in the Philippines’. Department of Defence, Australia. Last accessed 23 Aug 18

[7] Firing at likely (but not confirmed) enemy locations.

[8] Drip rifles were self-firing rifles used at Gallipoli to deceive the Turks during the evacuation of December 1915.

[9] Surprise was regularly achieved by jet aircraft, however rotary wing aircraft were unable to achieve the same effect. Furthermore, many structures were found to be impervious to many munitions, up to 2000 lb bombs. As a result, the AFoP began targeting the sides of buildings seeking to cause them to collapse.

[10] ‘Fight Light’ is a concept which focuses on minimising the Soldier’s load to maximise warfighting capacity. It ‘gets weight off the Soldier’s back.’ ‘Fight Light’ seeks the optimal balance between Soldier Lethality, Mobility, Survivability, Sustainability and Situational Awareness.


Portrait

Biography

James Lewis

James Lewis is an officer from the First Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. He led an Urban Close Combat (UCC) Mentoring and Training Team (MTT) on Operation AUGURY – Philippines. The observations and lessons included above have been drawn from a number of sources, including key AFoP personnel, the initial Commander – Joint Task Group 629, and the initial Commander – JTG629 (Land). Observations have also been drawn from other previous MTT commanders from UCC, Joint Fires, Combat Engineering (Urban Search and Breaching), and Sniping and Counter-Sniping.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

A great article which truly emphasises the point that success, no matter where, is attributed to the synchronised actions of the small / platoon team. From my perspective the need for the junior leader to be versed in the coordination of combined arms effects is critical in enabling success on a battlefield where confusion and chaos reigns supreme.
Training our leaders in combined arms goes well beyond being able to just call in organic offensive support, therefore we should take every opportunity to integrate other supporting arms into our day to day training. Why wait for the next operation or collective training activity?
As we rapidly advance our TTPs and technologies in order to outweigh those of our potential adversaries we should never lose sight of the need for grass roots training in the fundamental elements of soldiering.

In training for advise, assist and accompany operations I found the following three points to be beneficial for success:

1. Gain as much knowledge as you can on the specifics of the contemporary operating environment you will be working in. The Defence Library Service can assist you in conducting detailed research through access to unique databases.

2. A complete understanding of the mission and tasks. My CO and I would quiz each member on our role, mission and tasks until they could regurgitate them verbatim. This is critical if you want mission command to work. Giving orders is one thing, but how do you validate comprehension of the detail?

3. Visualise failure and have contingencies. This will allow you to rapidly realign and regain maintain momentum and initiative when things don’t go according to plan. Look for the risks in your plan and ask yourself and others, what if…?