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.

How could technology overcome the challenges of urban warfare in the future?

Continuing our City and Urban Warfare theme, we are doing a bit of future-gazing and considering technological methods of overcoming the challenges of urban warfare we’ve thought about in previous weeks.


Here are our thoughts:

Urban warfare has long been seen as the great ‘leveller’ in conflict: the home of the rebel; the resistance fighter; Schmitt’s partisan.

One of the reasons for this ‘levelling’ quality is the fact that it counters many of the advantages offered by technology in conflict. Tanks for example struggle in urban warfare without sufficient infantry support, and the multi-level, uneven terrain makes war-fighting far more difficult for even the most well-trained soldier. Not only that, but the very nature of the battlefield means it can be the site for unexpected attack from any direction and from any attacker, who may or may not be marked as a legitimate military target.

While drones are certainly an option, an aerial presence isn’t quite the same as ‘feet on the ground’. For this reason I suggest small scale soldier-portable drones will be one advance in urban warfare, allowing for localised scouting, plus an additional, portable means of attack. As technology progresses, we may even reach the stage of ‘hunter-killer’ robots or at least remotely-controlled urban soldiers to replace troops on the ground; who will be able to exercise cool judgement while under fire and who will be fairly resistant to small arms fire and lesser IEDs.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

My first thought relating to a technology overcoming urban warfare challenges was robotics. But, that is obvious. So I wanted to mention three issues that come to mind: AI-based surveillance; increased armour capabilities; burrowing underground.

AI-based surveillance, particularly persistent surveillance can offer a force the ability to know where all people are at all times and where they have come from. We see similar capabilities attached to some drones currently. Such capabilities can tag and track all moving people in an area. This could be used to identify people who have visited a known terrorist safe-house, or bomb factory, but also to follow them and their interactions and conversations with other people. As we know, modern non-state actors are formed into networks, rather than traditional military hierarchies. This gives the ability to know possibly everyone in and connected to the network who could be targeted simultaneously. An AI system could also recognise a particular concentration of known terrorists in one place to signify a potential attack, or position to be heavily-defended. As we know from the fighting in Grozny, non-state actors holding temporary strong-holds is more effective than static ones in urban contexts. So, knowing where such people are before they can set up a temporary stronghold would remove this advantage from the enemy.

Increased armour on individual soldiers goes contrary to a principle of urban warfare: mobility. But, using advanced body and vehicle armour could allow military forces to set up their own temporary strongholds, from which they can fight the enemy in their territory. This perhaps seems strange, but we have seen operations in Afghanistan whereby troops in remote Fire Bases were essentially used as ‘bait’ to draw out the Taliban from their homes into a more traditional battlefield environment where ISAF forces had superiority. These types of temporary strongholds enable military force to determine the position and type of engagements they wish to have, rather than respond to attacks by the enemy.

Burrowing underground is simply a different option to going over ground with air forces, or going through walls as the Israelis did in Nablus in 2002. I admit, this idea comes from Xbox game ‘Gears of War’. Emerging from underground at points unknown to the enemy means that battles are fought on military, not non-state actor terms. It also gives the option to collapse buildings where enemy strongholds (temporary or permanent) are. This perhaps seems an unusual, if not ridiculous suggestion, but the First World War had a large number of burrowing troops digging under no-man’s land to plant explosives under enemy trenches. The modern city base of concrete foundations, underground railway and vast systems of underground piping would make this difficult. Or perhaps more destructive if major utility pipes were destroyed. Perhaps, the biggest difficulty would simply be the machinery requirements; tunnel-boring machines used to create underground railway lines are so big and unwieldy that it is cheaper for them to be dug into the end of their tunnels, rather than removed. If a more flexible tunnelling machine could be created, burrowing might be a possibility, this is future-gazing after all.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!