Evans – Future war in cities: Urbanization’s challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century

This week we have another discussion on urban warfare. This week we are talking about ‘Future war in cities: Urbanization’s challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century‘ by Michael Evans. It’s available here.

The article covers a large number of issues related to urban conflict, and contains a call for the creation of a new section of urban studies drawing from macro-level and micro-level analysis, and from security studies.

Here’s what we thought:


Published in the ’International Review of the Red Cross’, this article very much reflects the publication is was printed in, avoiding for the most part any real military insight, focussing instead on its calls for the military to engage with the ‘broad field of urban studies’ (45).

My problem with this piece, I think, comes from the very general tone it takes, for it seems to serve more as an intellectual ‘call to arms’ (excuse the pun) than a specific offering to the field such that its title suggests. Yes, I am sure we all agree that if we are to be fighting more often in urban war zones that we should therefore treat urban warfare more seriously, and urban studies in itself as an area of insight, but first surely for this argument to hold true, urban studies needs to offer something significant to the field, and shouldn’t need the vocal ‘call to arms’ of an eminent professor.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I thought this article was really interesting to an outsider to urban studies. I enjoyed the overview of the key trends in urban studies, and what the applications are for security studies. It is a strong reminder to not rely on clichés and assumptions on what the future of cities will look like and realize how diverse future scenarios will be, and it highlights the importance of interdisciplinary work. It also stresses the positive elements of urbanization, something that is very often ignored in the literature.

The downside of the article was that it was very Western-centred. The author is explicit in its premises, but this means that the implications for military strategy are mostly directed at Western interventions in the Global South, which is limiting. First, the security implications will be substantially larger for the actual governments of the regions affected. Second, security in the Global North might be affected too, due to political unrest, disasters due to extreme weather events, or attacks by violent extremists. Furthermore, warfare as conducted by Israel is upheld as a likely future model for urban warfare, but it would have been worthwhile to at least acknowledge the human rights/IHL concerns associated with Israeli actions in the Gaza strip.

Because the purpose of the article was to show the importance of urban studies for military research, and the diversity of what the future will hold, the author could necessarily not go into very much depth. That is very understandable, but I would be very interested to read a more elaborate work on the concrete implications for security studies, including in-depth analysis of how urban developments will affect security.  However overall it was a strong article, and I hope it will resonate within the military research community.

Maaike Verburuggen


For me, the article raised a number of issues: the likely prevalence of naval power; the likely mix of low-intensity conflict and high-intensity policing; the size of the forces involved.

The Naval power aspect is interesting. It correlates to David Kilcullens thoughts that future mega cities are likely to cluster at coastal regions following migratory trend. However, we have recently seen speculation that the UK Royal Marines could lose its amphibious assault capability. Aside from the fact that this would arguably rob them of their specialist role and make them like any other infantry unit, this could also indicate that future combat operations do not see any likelihood of beach landings. If this is true, coastal cities held by non-state actors would be invulnerable to invasion and retaking by marine-borne combat troops. Airborne assault is also unlikely in an urban environment, leaving land-based assault the only avenue to retake cities. Perhaps it also indicates another trend, that man-power is to be replaced by machine-power. The UK Royal Navy, although several years behind the US, is starting to invest in unmanned systems (and show them off). Perhaps the use of unmanned systems really are in the process of replacing human beings in combat roles other than persistent air power.

The mix, or fine-line, between high-intensity policing with armed criminals, and low-intensity conflict with a violent non-state actor is likely to produce a really difficult set of rules of engagement. Both scenarios have separate legal rules for targeting of the enemy and enemy objects. Where the situation is unclear, not only would it mean that the deployment of forces would create difficulties, but also the different standards by which government forces can fire their weapons. When governed by human rights law (policing), lethal force can only be used to save lives of potential victims of an attacker; when governed by the law of armed conflict (war-scenarios), lethal force can be used against any enemy from an enemy state armed forces. The rules of targeting non-state actors are more difficult, and depend upon the interpretation of different states. Regardless of the specific interpretation, it is a lower standard that scenarios governed by human rights. This could lead to armed police being involved in a war which they are not trained or equipped for, or soldiers arbitrarily depriving people of their right to life. There is the potential for immensely messy situations, and rule will need to be decided before such operations happen.

Evans notes a quote from US Army General Robert Scales (ret.): “America’s treasure house of close-combat soldiers is only marginally larger than the New York City Police Department.” This, it seems is something that those who write on security studies do not think about. New York is a big city of 8.5 million people (2016), but it is not a mega city. There is still crime and although a very large police force, it cannot keep all people safe all of the time even when those who would cause harm are a disparate small minority. In an enemy held mega city, simply unifying armed criminal elements would create an enemy that a force the size of NYC police would struggle to fight against. This is before we consider that the types of enemies who will engage in taking over mega cities are likely to be heavily armed and probably more disciplined than an average criminal gang. It would appear that to combat such a threat, larger numbers of troops will be needed – unless of course, they are all replaced by robots!

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think.

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