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Inexcusable not to prepare for urban warfare, expert tells RMAF

 | December 6, 2017

US-based National War College professor Zachary Abuza says Asean militaries need to train for a range of contingencies, including urban warfare.


PETALING JAYA: A defence expert has criticised the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) admitted unpreparedness for urban warfare, such as the recent conflict in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

The Philippine military, mostly trained in conventional warfare, was reported to have been inadequately prepared for the May attacks on the city.

It had to improvise and get help from the US and Australia before it could retake the city five months later.

One of the major problems faced by the Philippine military during the clashes with Islamic State (IS)-aligned groups in Marawi was friendly fire on ground troops by its own air force.

It was reported that the Philippine air force had not held any joint urban warfare exercise with its army counterpart before that.

During a recent press conference in Kota Belud, Sabah, FMT asked RMAF chief Gen Affendi Buang whether the air force had carried out a joint urban warfare training with the army.

Affendi responded by saying that urban warfare  was something new to RMAF but it would be introduced into its training doctrine next year.

“RMAF’s training is based on preparing to face traditional threats,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the Washington-based National War College, told FMT.

“RMAF’s birth was when fighting the MCP (Malayan Communist Party) in the jungles. It has never had to adjust its training.

“To me, this is understandable but reckless.

“Militaries need to train for a range of contingencies.”

Analysts and experts have said an invasion on the scale of Marawi is unlikely in the near future after the IS central group lost its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, including its de facto capital Raqqa.

Despite this, Abuza felt urban warfare preparedness and capability were still important.

“It’s not that the RMAF has to worry about an invasion, but what if a detachment of RMAF peacekeepers finds itself unexpectedly bogged down during an urban assault?”

The attacks on Marawi city by the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups came as a surprise to the Philippine security forces which had been battling insurgencies for decades, but mostly in a non-urban setting.

The battle for the city, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, lasted more than four times longer than the US-led campaign to liberate Manila from Japanese World War 2 occupation forces.

In the process, the military had to literally destroy Marawi to save it from pro-IS gunmen who it said were intent on carving out territory for a Southeast Asian caliphate.

Military officials said the militants, who numbered about 1,000, brought in a new style of urban warfare that initially flummoxed Filipino troops.

“These terrorists were using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East,” US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris told a security forum in Singapore in October.

It also marked the first time that IS-inspired forces had banded together to fight on such a big scale in the region, he added.

“As Malaysia wants to have a bigger international footprint, it needs to prepare,” added Abuza, who is an expert on Southeast Asian defence and security.

“That they do not do joint training in urban warfare with the army in this day and age is inexcusable.

“That is the hallmark of professional militaries.

“With the exception of Singapore, all militaries in Southeast Asia lack both joint urban warfare training and urban warfare fighting skills.”

Drones, albeit commercial ones, played a crucial role for both sides of the urban war in Marawi.

Need for more unmanned aerial vehicles

Recognising the need for a new training and fighting doctrine as well as equipment, Affendi had further said the RMAF had to change its air power approach in an urban warfare situation.

“This will involve our weaponry, surveillance capabilities and assets,” he said further during the press conference.

“For example, we currently have a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capability.

“We need to enhance this so that we can be fully prepared to face not just conventional threats but also threats of terrorism and violent extremism.”

According to Affendi, the addition of UAVs would boost the air force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“This UAV capability will strengthen us strategically, technically and operationally.

“It will allow us to monitor a situation on land and also as far as 200km out at sea, not just in the peninsula but also in Sarawak and Sabah.

“The South China Sea, Straits of Malacca and Sulu Sea (off Sabah’s east coast) are some of the hotspots that we can better monitor with improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“This is part of our blueprint until 2030 — to build an enhanced air force able to face threats from the whole spectrum, including terror threats.”

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