Urban Operations in the Future Operating Environment


Underpinning DCDC’s Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045 is the idea that the future operating environment will be Congested, Cluttered, Contested, Connected, and Constrained (the so-called Five C’s). Implicit in this assumption is that military forces will be increasingly called upon to fight in the urban domain. Indeed, global trends in human geography suggest that the importance of cities to human populations will not only remain, but will increase significantly. At the dawn of the twentieth century, one in ten of the Earth’s 1.8 billion people lived in cities. By 1950 the global population rose to 2.3 billion, 500 million of whom lived in cities. By 2007 half the world’s 6.7 billion people could be classed as city-dwellers. So, as we move into what has been called the ‘urban century’ current evaluations predict that by 2050, 75% of the world’s estimated 9.2 billion people will most likely be living in cities. The implications for future military operations are clear: to speak with Trotsky, ‘you may not be interested in urban warfare, but urban warfare is interested in you’.

Urban warfare is as old as the cities in which it takes place. Ever since the great land campaigns of the ancient world, military forces have sought to control and dominate the urban environment. While the character of conflict has evolved significantly, the enduring strategic significance of cities to armed forces has remained the same. Now, as in the ancient world, cities are cultural, social, and political hubs; they are where laws are passed and leadership resides. Cities are also the focal point for much of the capital wealth and human resources of the modern nation state. For these reasons, attacking the urban political centre of an opponent has often, but not always, been decisive. Militarily, the capture of urban centres might be an operational necessity because of their strategic location, the control of which facilitates future operations or increases military capabilities, or simply that the destruction of enemy forces located within a city is a centre of gravity in itself.

Trends in urban warfare demonstrate that it can adopt a number of different guises. On one end of the conflict spectrum, is the high-intensity urban battle characteristic of conventional global war. The decisive battles of Stalingrad and Aachen during the Second World War represent this type of unrestricted, and extremely bloody, urban combat. Similar decisive urban combat has also revealed itself in smaller-scale regional wars such as the battles of Hue, during the Vietnam War, and Seoul, during the Korean War. At the opposite end of the spectrum, from global and regional conventional war, is urban combat conducted by modern armies operating in an internal security role. In this context, fighting against terrorists and revolutionaries is more reminiscent of police work than conventional urban combat. The French experience in Algiers and the British experiences in Belfast and Londonderry reflects this type of low-intensity, politically sensitive urban combat. Located between these two extremes is the hybrid type of urban combat common in the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Israeli combat missions against Palestinian insurgents and the US urban combat experience in Iraq are both examples of this type of hybrid urban warfare.

Fighting in cities is militarily challenging, and out of all the environments in which the military operate, the urban environment is perhaps the most complex because of the physical terrain, the impact that congested spaces have on force structures, the presence of non-combatants, and the lowering of the technological threshold. The preponderance of sophisticated intelligence gathering and target acquisition systems in Western militaries do offer a relative advantage. However, these capabilities alone will not prove decisive in the future operating environment. Asymmetric forces have become adept at employing low-technology in the form of IED’s and small-arms fire to inflict significant causalities on technologically superior forces. This reinforces the notion that, at its core, urban combat remains a bitter struggle that relies on fierce and prolonged close quarter combat, and civilian leaders will be forced to make careful judgments when considering whether or not to commit military forces to the urban battle.

In a networked age where global media outlets provide the public with near instantaneous access to information, leaders need to be cognisant of the inherently costly and manpower-intensive character of urban warfare when influencing perceptions at home and abroad through a clear strategic narrative and unambiguous political signalling. This will be no mean feat in the urban battle of the future. On the one hand, commanders might employ overwhelming firepower using powerful weapon systems and armoured vehicles to overcome the complexity of fighting in urban terrain. While this might result in an increase in tactical effectiveness, it risks the operation becoming undermined politically because of the subsequent collateral damage to infrastructure and to the civilian population. On the other hand, commanders may constrain the kinetic use of military force by limiting its use of armour and heavy weapon systems, but this might result in a longer, drawn out campaign while exposing itself to heavier and heavier casualties. Finding the correct balance to be struck between the liberal and conservative use of kinetic military force in urban environments will perhaps be the greatest dilemma with which leaders will have to confront in the future operating environment.

Image: World population growth by country; 2013 CIA estimates. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. This is an interesting topic and one that the British military may wish to consider in far more depth. Basrah was a recent example where for a number of years British control and consent of the people ebbed and flowed in a complex urban environment that ultimately has been seen as a strategic failure. Unfortunately there seem to be few efforts to learn from this period as the UK became immersed in Afghanistan almost at the same time. As the article’s first paragraph hints, this is where wars will be fought and yet attempts to capture the lessons are debateable due to the political sensitivities that continue to this day.


  2. Urban warfare might be the future, but with the heavy proliferation of the IED, the problems of firepower, armour nd air power in a built up environment, most commanders would most likely be inclined to bypass or isolate a built up area than actually have to fight through it.

    An interesting perspective on the future of urban warfare might be the favelas of Rio, where well armed non state actors contest the space with state forces, with a resident population that ranges from neutral to hostile.


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