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!

Shunk – Mega Cities, Ungoverned Areas, and the Challenge of Army Urban Combat Operations in 2030-2040

Continuing our intellectual journey into the city, this week we are looking at megacities (those with more than 10 million residents) and possible conflicts within them. We are considering David Shunk’s article ‘Mega Cities, Ungoverned Areas, and the Challenge of Army Urban Combat Operations in 2030-2040’ from Small Wars Journal. Available here.

Shunk discusses a number of aspects of urban warfare, and how they might apply to megacities in the future. The article is quite short and well worth a read.

Here are our thoughts:

The direction of this article comes as no surprise, though it does include far more detail than the other similar article we have read this month on military operations in an urban setting. However instead of focussing on any one of the quite clear-cut issues raised in the article itself, I’d like to raise a few of the other issues raised both in the comments section under the article, and in my own thoughts as a I engaged with the piece:

  • Force size – how big is the enemy force? Is it ever knowable in an urban setting?
    • If the enemy force size is unknowable, how can you commit sufficient forces to win the war, while keeping losses to a minimum? Is there also a danger then that you ‘under-commit’?
  • Logistics – how do we keep our forces supplied in a ‘hostile’ environment?
  • Politics – do we have the political ‘will’ for a protracted urban conflict? Are we prepared to deal with the consequences of what will at times be quite ruthless operations?
  • Is any urban war ‘winnable’? – If the only way to neutralise all threats is to clear each and every building individually, then why even bother going in on the ground at all? Is it ever possible to win a war and keep the infrastructure (generally) intact without say, bombing the city to the ground?
  • Will we see the use of ‘pacifying’ chemicals and/or some form of cybernetic warfare used as the most ‘humane’ way to minimise actual bodily deaths?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

Due to the format as a blog-post this article necessary could not provide very in-depth analysis. However, reading this read in conjunction with Michael Evans’ article on future war in cities turns it into an excellent illustration of Evans’ point. Evans warns his readers for a too narrow focus on mega-cities, as most urbanization takes place in small and medium-sized cities. Schunk on the other hand only focuses on megacities, and bases his message of only a few sources, which all stem from a strategic studies background. Kilcullen for instance gets a key role, which Evans had described as a work with a “dystopian view”. Schunk also leaves little room for multiple interpretations on the future of mega-cities, and his view is overwhelmingly negative. “Life in megacities will deteriorate as populations surge beyond their capacity” is a very bold claim, with little material to back up such a claim.

The analysis is rather descriptive, with little time spent on what causes the phenomena we will encounter in mega-studies, how they are connected, and wat the concrete effects will be on urban warfare. Everyone is aware of the fact that rapid urban growth might create environmental or infrastructural problems, but how does this specifically affect urban warfare?  He does not really go into depth on that – which makes sense due to the format, but which ensures the article has little substance. I do appreciate his list of “basic characteristics of combat in urban terrain”, but again, I wish this was connected with the phenomena of urbanization.

Shunk also makes some strong statements which border on colonialist and orientalist thinking, especially in his descriptions of cities in the Global South as completely outside control. Saying that the rule of law in Lagos almost does not exist anymore is a gross exaggeration. It presents the Global South as an urban jungle left into the darkness, without growth, development or technology, which is a highly colonial view, and left a bad taste in my mouth after reading this article.

Maaike Verbruggen, SPIRI

It would seem that the danger when considering urban warfare following on from the major city conflicts that this article refers to, Stalingrad, Mogadishu, Grozny and Nablus, that a decisive victory in a mega city could be impossible. Indeed, repeating Mogadishu and the temporary US withdrawal from international interventions would be catastrophic for power projection and the actual securing of a mega city. This leads us to posit that states cannot really afford to lose urban conflicts where potentially major strategic positions could be taken by non-state actors.

Non-state actors have held territory, Islamic State being a prime example. But, Syria only provides a case study of where it is mostly difficult to regain territory in terms of the political situation in the area. A non-state actor in control of a mega city also presents a case study where it is militarily difficult to remove the enemy.

Perhaps such potential of non-state actors shows that the concept of the state as the primary movers in warfare is slipping, along with their monopoly on violence. A city so dominated by a non-state actor that it becomes an ‘ungoverned space’, much in the same way that rural Yemen and Somalia have been seen could result in major changes to the way in which warfare takes place. We see drone strikes against terrorist suspects in these rural areas because they are controlled by the terrorist groups, and not by the territorial state. Drone strikes in a city centre do not fit with the general conception that voyeuristic operators wait to strike targets out in open countryside. However, we do see city-based drone strikes in the fights against IS.

Conceptually, there is no difference between a state losing control over rural areas, and over urban areas. This should mean that there is also no conceptual difference between striking targets in open countryside and urban areas. Yet, the higher concentration of civilians means that such strikes are less-likely to take place. At least, this would be the case if munitions remain the same. Striking single enemy target in and amongst civilians may require robotic systems to be equipped with bullets, rather than explosive munitions.

This perhaps leads us to a possible ‘solution’ to the difficulties of urban warfare, more increased use of robotics. Potentially, this enables force to be exerted in enemy urban areas, without risking lives. Yet, use of Terminator-like machines is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Indeed, a high-loss rate is likely, so quickly made machines using 3D printing will probably be more common. Use of such systems may be able to provide infantry with an equal reduction in risk that the drones we use today have given to air forces. Other than an increased use of machines, the other option that springs to mind for reasserting some government control in a mega city dominated by non-state actors is Judge Dredd.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!