How can civilians be provided greater protection in urban battlespaces?

Following on from our discussions of super-soldiers and human-enhancement, this month we are discussing ‘The City and Urban Warfare’. We are going to cover two questions, two articles and a book.


First, and possibly most importantly, we will discuss the question of: How can civilians be provided greater protection in urban battlespaces?

Here’s what we thought:

Distinguishing between civilian and military targets is, and will remain to be, one of the greatest difficulties in war. This is in part because many groups today use the blurred distinction to their advantage in order to undermine an often superior attacking force, striking from the shadows, and using legitimate citizens as a shield to keep them safe from harm. It therefore becomes very problematic to protect civilians, when often the enemy themselves pose as citizens and there is no clear marker to distinguish between the two.

While better profiling and surveillance technology will undoubtedly aid the military in fighting an ‘unknowable’ foe in a difficult environment, it is only really with robot technology that we will be able to strike back against the hidden foe. When robots (or remote-controlled soldiers) are at a level in which they can enter the battlefield on foot, so we might be able to send our ‘soldiers’ in to battlespaces where previously we might not have risked them, giving us the ability to withstand small arms fire from unexpected sources, and allowing us to make value judgements on the legitimacy of targets without the added stress and clouding-of-judgement an urban environment brings.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

For a while, I have been thinking about something which Prof. Dapo Akande and a few other academics have said, in that as drones offer the ability for military personnel to watch a potential target, and take time to verify their identity, in addition to being able to wait until civilians are not in the vicinity of the target, they offer the ability to not only increase the distinction ability of military forces, but also to reduce potential collateral damage. Obviously, the US drone programme, particularly in Pakistan, has been dogged by claims that it kills civilians indiscriminately, either through mistaken identity or a ‘cowboy’ approach to collateral damage. This is not indicative of the efficacy of drones in themselves, however. It rather shows that the capabilities of drones have not been used to the extent which they could have. Perhaps this is due to a desire to ‘take out’ targets as soon as possible before they can put plots for terror attacks into play, or perhaps it is as mundane as poor leadership. Regardless, drones and other capabilities which mix surveillance and kinetic force do offer greater civilians protection when used properly.

Added to this are increasing accuracy of munitions. Highly-accurate missiles can carry smaller charges to create the same effect as a large, less accurate, missile as there is a greater likelihood of the target will be caught in the blast radius. Thus, less collateral damage is also caused. Bringing together the concepts of increasing accuracy and smaller munitions to reduce potential civilian casualties could result in military systems traditionally equipped with missiles being equipped with bullets. For example, a drone could be equipped with something similar to a sniper rifle. Then, potential collateral damage would only be caused to civilians stood directly behind the target, rather than all around and in nearby buildings which may collapse. This, of course, assumes that a sniper rifle-like system could be fitted to a drone and be used accurately. It could be an engineering nightmare creating a stable platform that flies, takes recoil into account and is not ridiculously hampered by the wind.

In sum, greater surveillance capabilities can provide military forces with greater ability to distinguish targets. More accurate and smaller munitions can reduce collateral damage and civilian harm. Together, they can create greater civilian protections. This is particularly relevant to urban battlespaces, because of the higher concentration of civilians who could be harmed by kinetic force. A decrease in the actual force imparted around the target (rather than directly at it), is likely to create a large decrease in collateral damage particularly in urban areas of higher civilian concentration.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “How can civilians be provided greater protection in urban battlespaces?

  1. Good afternoon, I will post a more detailed response to the articles but wanted to add a brief comment of agreement. I concur with Joshua that drones can offer enhanced surveillance and improved ability to identify targets compared to other weapons platforms. Yet, the way drones have been utilised, in particular the poor intelligence used to identify targets (eg phone signal) has resulted in them being used inaccurately. Nonetheless, this should not detract from the capabilities of drones because the inaccuracies are often a result of poor decision making by humans that designate targets based on insufficient or vague intelligence.

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  2. I agree with Josh about drones and their persistent surveillance capabilities, and also agree with Mike that the best way to distinguish civilian from combatant is to send machines into areas that may be too risky for ground troops. Two current DARPA projects are worth mentioning in this regard. They contribute towards the capabilities that Mike mentions, but don’t go quite as far.
    Firstly, OFFSET (Offensive Swarm Enabled Tactics) is developing new ISR and scouting capabilities for swarms of up to 250 drones, specifically to shadow the ground troops in urban warfare. I expect this is mainly to survey buildings where insurgents may be hiding, so troops can figure out more accurately which ones are purely civilian dwellings, and which ones are worth storming.
    Also, a complementary DARPA project called ‘Fast Lightweight Autonomy’ is developing micro-drone manoeuvrability for indoor environments, again for ISR and scouting. I expect the autonomous units will detect insurgents, chase them (at up to 20 metres per second, even indoors!) and enable ground troops outdoors to figure out in which part of the building the insurgents are hiding. The ability to pull off nimble manoeuvres should massively increase the drones’ scouting capabilities, and enable them to also detect IEDs and booby-traps (assuming an explosive detection device can also be fitted).
    Presently, neither of these projects are intended to be applied to lethal drones. Both are to enable human soldiers to gather better and more time-sensitive intelligence, and also to conduct risk assessments on buildings that they’re thinking of storming. Not sure if the main motivation is force protection, military effectiveness, or civilian protection, but clearly all three will be served with better and more timely intelligence gathered from previously inaccessible areas.


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