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Corps cancels dense urban warfare experiment to focus on Marine littoral regiment

A planned, yearslong project to see how Marines would fight in cities has been canceled less than halfway to its completion as the Corps instead adjusts its warfighting focus to the littorals and the new Marine littoral regiment.

In 2019 the Marine Corps launched Metropolis II, a dense urban terrain-focused effort that would see which new technology and tactics it would take for Marines to win the fight in cities.

That came after years of top military leaders, including past Marine Corps commandants and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, exhorting leadership to face the reality of rising unrest and likely conflict in urban centers of the near future.

But as nearly everything in the Marine Corps has shifted since summer 2019 to deeper naval integration, the Pacific theater and Commandant Gen. David Berger’s planning guidance to enable the naval fight, Metropolis II has been shed ― as have tank battalions likely conventional artillery.

“The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is focusing on the ability to operate in a distributed posture and conduct combined-arms at a small unit level in complex environments,” Col. John Butler, director of the experiment division at Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, told Marine Corps Times in an email response.

That distributed posture will likely see its action within a new three-year experimentation effort with Hawaii-based Marines in the new Marine littoral regiment formation.

The new regiment will hold a combat team, a logistics element and an anti-air battalion. That’s due to projected threats in the Pacific and the perceived need for the Corps to operate on small atolls and islands to enable the Navy to fight such a war against China, should the need arise.

The colonel noted that the force still sees dense urban terrain as relevant, being one of the most complex environments that Marines will have operate within.

But the commandant’s planning guidance and Force Design 2030 have “adjusted the experimentation line to more specifically address the mandate to experiment against expeditionary advanced base operations and more specifically the Marine Littoral Regiment,” Butler wrote.

The colonel said that the refocus would allow the Marines to “build upon the tasks we were assessing in previous (Dense Urban Operations/Project Metropolis) experiments.”

“Now we are looking at how Marines are going to operate in the future of multiple domains, specifically looking at the capability, maturity and training and education of the small units,” Butler wrote.

The Metropolis effort focused on company and below experimentation.

Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s new effort primarily will be focused on the Marine littoral regiment ― a new formation likely to see its first tangible structure with units in the Pacific, according to recent Marine Corps leadership’s comments.

But that doesn’t necessarily leave squads out of planning and experimentation.

“In some aspects, all levels will be experimented against whether it will be as a collective unit or as a vertical slice up the chain of command to assess an aspect of the new construct, such as Command and Control, or sensing, etc. For example, current experimentation will constitute a portion of the MLR is taking a vertical look from the Fire Team up to the (Battalion Headquarters)…and in some cases Marine Expeditionary Unit Headquarters, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory said.

And the new effort at the littorals and force design drives, is expected to be a 10-year effort.

“The Marine Corps will be making investments in capabilities to include long range precision fires, advanced reconnaissance capabilities, unmanned systems, and resilient networks,” Butler said.

The idea is to take what’s learned and apply it to the new regimental formations and work out the expeditionary advanced base operations fighting concept through experimentation.

Metropolis I was a three-year effort that the Corps used two decades ago to revive and revamp urban fighting.

The effort had evolved from the late 1990s experimentation, conducted under then-Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak.

The Commandant directed leaders at MCWL and dedicated fleet Marine units to the Urban Warrior experimentation and also the Hunter Warrior program involving small units and new technologies and capabilities. This gave more junior Marines higher echelon firepower to draw on from the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

But more and more, urban fights such as the Battle of Mogadishu in the early 1990s and the Chechnyan-Russian fighting in the late 1990s seemed to predict brutal, nasty fighting that technology could help but not necessarily overcome.

What followed Metropolis I was early drone, microrobot and communications experiments. Marines tested rigid foams to seal entryways in buildings, and made changes to urban offense, defense, patrolling, marksmanship, sustainability, intra-squad radio and both squad and platoon-level combined arms tactics.

A few short years later Marines faced sustained urban combat in Fallujah, Iraq, early in the war.

In August 2019, one of the first major events of Metropolis II was training by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, at the U.S. Army National Guard’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.

The training used the new 12-Marine rifle squad configuration and did force on force and free-play battle in an urban setting against British Royal Marines assigned to 8 Troop Charlie Company, 40 Commando Royal Marines.

The looked at Marines' abilities to sense and locate a threat and observed their speed of decision-making and action in the urban terrain.

Reports showed that signal detection got some Marines “killed” in training scenarios, highlighting electronic signature management gaps.

Early objectives for Metropolis II included the following:

• Improving the situational awareness of small units operating in a dense urban environment.

• Improve of platoon and company level headquarters ability to quickly and accurately process information, issue direction and grant authorization.

• Expand the scope and depth of lethal engagement options available to the small units operating in a dense urban environment.

• Improve the ability of small units to operate in and dominate subterranean environments.

• Examine and assess developing technologies to improve the ability of landing forces to operate in a dense urban environment.

In response to a Marine Corps Times query, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab staff said that initial iterations of the refined experiments, while not specific to urban environments, may execute some of their tasks in urban terrain.

“Marines are by nature innovative and there is a strong likelihood the Marines will attempt to apply experimental concepts in any environment they have at their disposal,” Lyman wrote.

Marine leadership plans to transition what’s been learned so far from Metropolis II into the new experimentation effort and add them to new modeling and simulation and wargaming efforts at the lab.

“These efforts help ensure a holistic approach to warfighting modernization and will play a key role in development of our Marine littoral regiment units."

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