Humankind has been engaging in warfare since the dawn of civilisation. The birth of the infantry can be dated back to 600-350 BC when the success of sophisticated, intense, irrigated forms of agriculture sweeping across the plains of Egypt and the Near East meant that a sizeable group of men could divert their attention towards moulding metals into weapons and raising horses to draw chariots. However, it was not just the metals and horses that resulted in the inauguration of the infantry. Rather, it was the complex socio-economic way of life evolving around these settlements that resulted in the need for an infantry ; to defend the town these settlers were a part of or to annex other lands. This was evident for Rome during the third century BC, when it began to expand its territory, against the Greeks and Macedonians towards the east and against the Carthage towards the west and south. Moreover, the three Punic Wars proved that the Roman military infrastructure was well organised and superior to the point that even the relatively smaller infantries could win wars if these wars took place in or around Italy . Essentially, the cities of Italy were paramount to the infantry and its success. Thus, towns and cities have always been crucial plots in warfare.Show Less
The Challenges for Urban Warfare in the 21st Century?
Piyush Plabon Das
Humankind has been engaging in warfare since the dawn of civilisation. The birth of the infantry can be dated back to 600-350 BC when the success of sophisticated, intense, irrigated forms of agriculture sweeping across the plains of Egypt and the Near East meant that a sizeable group of men could divert their attention towards moulding metals into weapons and raising horses to draw chariots. However, it was not just the metals and horses that resulted in the inauguration of the infantry. Rather, it was the complex socio-economic way of life evolving around these settlements that resulted in the need for an infantry1; to defend the town these settlers were a part of or to annex other lands. This was evident for Rome during the third century BC, when it began to expand its territory, against the Greeks and Macedonians towards the east and against the Carthage towards the west and south. Moreover, the three Punic Wars proved that the Roman military infrastructure was well organised and superior to the point that even the relatively smaller infantries could win wars if these wars took place in or around Italy2. Essentially, the cities of Italy were paramount to the infantry and its success. Thus, towns and cities have always been crucial plots in warfare.
This article will discuss and analyse the major challenges faced by urban warfare in the 21st century. It will be divided into three sections. Section I will briefly discuss the history and evolution of warfare and the emergence of urban warfare in the modern era. This will be followed by Section II, which will point out and analyse the issues that make urban warfare a challenging affair in the 21st century. Finally, Section III will discuss the future of urban warfare and will contain some concluding remarks.
Section I: The Endless Saga
Warfare can generally be described as the act of systematically carrying out armed conflict between sovereign states. Although in recent times, wars can also be waged against non-state actors, for example, the “War on Terror”. These actors use their military might and war strategies until one of the actors comes out victorious, usually by defeating the other actor’s military or by forcing them to surrender. The history of warfare can be traced back to Mesopotamia circa 2700 BC3. With the evolution of humankind, warfare too has evolved extensively. From the use of simple metal tools to the use of gunpowder and most recently, weapons of mass destruction and drones, it is proving to be an endless saga. There are countless subcategories of warfare in the present scenario. Military operations, land warfare, guerrilla warfare, aerial warfare, chemical warfare, economic warfare, cyber-warfare to even space warfare, just to name a few. Some of these subcategories of warfare fall under unconventional warfare, which aims at winning not by using direct military force but rather, through a proxy force, such as resistance movement, insurgency, counter-insurgency, disruption etc4. In the 21st century, however, the conventional and unconventional practices in warfare have intertwined and resulted in the birth of hybrid warfare, an anomaly that has proved to be quite troublesome for many a strategist and analysts5. It can be argued that urban warfare falls under this category as it is not as simple as waging war on an open battlefield but rather, requires strict planning of strategies and the right blueprint to execute said strategies.
War Is Around The Corner
Before dissecting the challenges posed by urban warfare, it is important to know what is meant by urban warfare and what is its history. However, it is also important to note that due to its evolving nature, there is no concrete definition yet. If we were to look at it in a general way, Urban Warfare is a form of warfare that uses urban areas such as towns, cities and currently megacities, as the battleground. It is a complex form of warfare as it needs specialists who can come up with war strategies while considering the complications concerning the presence of civilians, residential buildings, government buildings, places of worship, schools, monuments, and the complex, intricate nature of the urban terrain. Urban warfare may be carried out to possess or control a certain urban area because of its strategic or economic advantages or to defend an urban area and deny its possession to the enemy6. Different countries have used different terminologies for this form of combat; the United State military initially termed urban warfare as UO (Urban Operations)7 although currently, it is more common to use MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain)8. The British Armed Forces use the term OBUA (Operations in Built-Up Areas), FIBUA (Fighting In Built-Up Areas) or FISH and CHIPS (Fighting In Someone’s House and Causing Havoc In People’s Streets)9. The sieging of cities and towns via heavy artillery or using relatively modern buildings as vantage points can be traced back to World War II, The Battle of Stalingrad being a historic one while The Battles of Grozny, Battle of Mosul, Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir are more recent examples.
There exists a school of thought which argues that urban warfare can/should be treated as a conventional form of warfare, albeit being politically and tactically complex, and mere technological advancements will be enough to deal with urban operations as the fundamental nature of urban warfare has not changed when compared to the days of yore10. While this school of thought encourages the focus on technological advancements in weapons manufacturing, labelling current urban warfare as “nothing new” could prove to be extremely dangerous as the nature of urban warfare has evolved over the years and it is not just about the usage of brute force, state-of-the-art weapons and a gung-ho attitude. Urban military operations require a great deal of planning. Drawing up a suitable tactic is very important for the outcome of the operation. The moment the battlefield switches to that of the urban environment, various other actors come into play. For a comprehensive victory with minimal collateral damage, the armed forces need to work in conjunction with the police forces, local politicians and most importantly the civilians11. Let us now look at some of the major challenges that this form of warfare faces in the 21st century.
Section II: The Current Challenges
The previous section familiarised us with the concept of urban warfare and stressed that it is not a simple affair. This section will highlight some of the challenges that military operations may face in today’s environment, starting with the idea of simplicity.
ATTACK THE BLOCK!
The concept of the Three Block War was put forth by U.S. Marine Gen. Charles Krulak in the late 1990s to describe the future of warfare on modern battlefields, i.e. urban environment, and the multiple roles of the marines which may be that of carrying out military operations of mid-intensity level, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid, all within the confinements of three city blocks. Modern marines need to be trained in all three spheres and more independence and leadership training need to be given to those on the battlefield and those at the lowest levels so that they may make important decisions in hostile, urban, asymmetrical12 and high-stakes environments which they think is best suited for that particular situation resulting in the birth of the concept of “strategic corporals”. They need to be fully empowered and vigilant enough to be one step ahead of the enemy13. Brigadier Gen. Julian Alford took the concept a step further and came up with the concept of “The Fourth Floor War”, reducing the three-block battlefield to skyscrapers in megacities. While these concepts encourage military leadership and sharp decision-making education throughout the chain of command, there is a risk of oversimplifying urban military operations which could in return backfire on the operation and soldiers quickly. These concepts mesh different roles and expertise into one which could lead to a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” situation. Missions may be multidimensional, and the soldiers might be overburdened if they have to take care of every aspect. Some experts have noted that US operations in Iraq are not three but a “flour-block” war operation, bringing economic reconstruction and development into the mix14. This may lead to “block inflation” as other thinkers and strategists might find the need to add more aspects to the concept. This has resulted in ambiguous definitions of the ‘three blocks’ and the concept does not have a solid intellectual foundation. Moreover, there is a big difference between a tactical blueprint and the ground realities/strategic visions. Let us look at the Canadian military operations in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province as a case study. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier altered the metaphor to “high-intensity conflict, counterinsurgency and humanitarian aid”. This was redundant as carrying out humanitarian aid and city reconstruction while at the same time engaging in high-intensity clashes was impossible for the soldiers. This poorly defined strategy resulted in the Canadian military’s fatality rate being twice that of US or UK military forces in Afghanistan. On the humanitarian aid dimension, the cost of carrying out aid operations was significantly more and there was distrust in the air as ‘attack and aid’ by the same soldier did not exactly sit well with the locals15. If the Three-Block War is the future of urban warfare then the failure of the Canadian military should be used to study and refine this concept.
A Tactical Nightmare
Urban operations need not always be confined to three blocks or four floors of a skyscraper. In a worst-case scenario, it could also encompass a large portion of the city. In situations like these many tacticians feel that the defenders are in a better position than the aggressors. Not only are the defenders more well-versed with the layout of the city but the aggressors also need to consider all possible dimensions of the operation and need to expend more manpower to overcome and secure a whole range of buildings16. Skyscrapers can be excellent for sniping posts and demolished streets laid out with rubble can be ideal for laying booby traps making the aggressors vulnerable to such attacks, essentially turning the urban environment into a guerrilla warfare situation. But that does not mean that the aggressors cannot overcome these challenges. They need to constantly think of new and different tactics as each city would need a fresh new approach. Let us look at a few case studies. In the ‘Battle for Monterrey, Mexico (1846)’, the US forces led by Zachary Taylor were ambushed by the Mexican defenders from the rooftops resulting in many casualties and thus had to fall back and come up with a different strategy. They followed the “mouse-hole” tactic and pick-axed their way from one building to another to reach the defenders for close-quarters or hand-to-hand combat. This new technique tipped the favour of the US side17. In the ‘Battle in Berlin (1945)’, German forces adopted a similar tactic of stationing their forces on rooftops as they were aware that Soviet tanks could not elevate and aim that high. Moreover, they stationed combatants armed with a single-shot high-explosive anti-tank warhead known as “panzerfausts” in cellar windows to fire at the advancing tanks which proved to be very effective and the advancing Soviet forces needed to come up with a new strategy.
In response, the Soviets sent two groups, one adopted the mouse-hole tactic, by blowing holes through the walls with their heavy firepower, while the others engaged in the rooftop assault18. In the ‘First Battle of Grozny (1994-95)’, the Russians initially faced a setback while facing the Chechen snipers and machine-gunners from atop but later on began a tedious systematic advance into the city, setting up their ambush points for Chechen combatants19.
As we can see from these cases, from 1846 to 1995, the aggressors can overcome the defender’s strategies, but it is usually after suffering heavy casualties and more often, in their second or third attempt. Moreover, these tactics have often led to widespread destruction of buildings and civilian casualties, especially in the case of Berlin20. This takes us to the next challenge, that of accountability.
War! What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing!
Ever since the Vietnam War became the first to be televised, public opinion has greatly influenced American policy. The horrors of the Vietnam War were out there for all to see for the very first time and the images of blood, death and bombs disgusted the American viewers21.
Since then, more and more wars have been televised, some like the Lebanon War have been dubbed as the “Most Televised War in History”22. With this, the idea that war is an undesirable act has resonated with a lot of people, especially the youth. Even children, as young as seven years old, are highly affected by the nature of televised war which has made its way into classroom discussions, filling them with various emotions; from sadness to guilt to fear23. Now that media has become even more saturated and easy to access by everyone, the failure to evacuate citizens and their resultant deaths will not go unnoticed and unpunished. Coincidently, it is more difficult to carry out covert operations due to the very same reason. The denial of the Russian presence in the Central African region of Bangui seemed futile as pictures of Russian armoured personnel carriers were circulating the internet24.
Moreover, due to the controlled nature of media, both social and televised, it is often difficult for the consumer to comprehensively grasp the reality of the situation. A sanitized or altered finished product could easily shift the balance and change the outcome of an operation. If enough footage of their country’s soldiers’ plight/death is shown then the previously pro-war public opinion can quickly shift to that of anti-war; for example, when CNN went against the Pentagon’s recommendation to not televise the bodies of Prisoners-Of-Wars or US soldiers25. One important feature of modern urban warfare, especially that of counterinsurgencies, is that the military forces conduct these operations in a “permissive environment”. Citizens carry on with their everyday life while the military accumulates intelligence and tries to separate and pin-point the insurgents from the population and then carry out strikes to kill or capture them. Supplementary operations to maintain socio-political and economic conditions are carried out as well26. It is extremely hard to carry out these actions while the civilians remain blissfully unaware. Moreover, the very presence of civilians adds a whole new element to warfare. It is not just about their safety, but civilians, both those abroad watching the news about urban operations and especially those who are present in the city which has become the base of such operations, can limit, accentuate, support or disrupt crucial urban operations making the concrete jungles highly unattractive for military forces.
Aim, Fire and DON’T KILL CIVILIANS!
With the evolution of technology in the military field it can be tempting to comment that these technological advancements have made urban military operations easy. While it has certainly been a step in the right direction as it has reduced soldier casualties, especially from the attacker’s point-of-view, it has far from made urban operations simple and easy. For example, let us look at drone strikes. Drone strikes are aerial strikes carried out by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) or weaponised commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) either by dropping bombs, firing a missile or simply crashing the drone into a target. The overall nature of drone strikes is simple; pinpoint the enemy, send out a drone and take out the target. However, when the urban environment is brought into the mix, it suddenly becomes a highly complex affair. The ethical nature of using drones for military or humanitarian purposes has been deeply debated. The thought that drones are an ethical way of killing people has deep bio-political roots. While trying to maintain stability in a war-torn nation/area, “risk-profiling”, the identification of groups that can be potentially risky/threatening and thereby need to be under constant surveillance, is furthered. While “personality strikes” have a known target, “signature strikes” constitute unknown targets, the risks are based on an algorithm which studies their daily activities27. This is much more dangerous as the algorithm may simply target civilian-based biased data. The US is no longer the sole user of drones; China, Israel, India, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and a few other nations have acquired drones and are ready for or have already practiced targeted killing28. This proliferation has actually increased conflict sites and the legal rationale of its usage has become a by-product rather than a requisite29. The “Uruzgan Incident” in Afghanistan, where a drone strike on an alleged group of insurgents who turned out to be civilians, left a lot to be questioned about the ethics and legality of drone strikes. The chain of command tried to accumulate as much evidence as possible before initiating the strike and thus the attack could not be deemed as an unsanctioned attack. They were criticised but the damage had already been done. The “preventive” nature of drones should not shield them from the image of aggression. The average civilian casualties are as high as 25%. US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen alone have resulted in as many as 2,200 civilian casualties, of which 283-454 are children30. Israel’s strikes in Gaza had a 60% casualty rate31. These are territories with asymmetrical regimes and predominant terrorist groups. Conducting drone strikes in cities with a symmetrical political regime makes it even more difficult32.
If drones with the risk-profiling algorithm are launched in New York or London there will be complete pandemonium. The death toll would be astronomical and the public outcry would be deafening if the drone missed the target and hit a skyscraper full of public offices or if the intelligence was flawed and the targeted building was occupied by civilians. This adds yet another dimension to urban operations, that of the ethical usage of weapons in an urban environment.
The (Not So) Subtle Art of Deception
Gathering sound intelligence is paramount for the success of an operation. It is a vital aspect of all types of warfare. One key tool often used is deception, which is to provide flawed intelligence to the adversary to falter their decision-making and thereby carry out a surprise attack and complete the operation successfully with minimum property damages and casualties, both military and civilian33. Deception can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be a powerful tool for the attackers to launch a surprise strike by feeding their enemy with fake intel and subsequently infiltrating the concrete labyrinth. But when used by the defenders in an urban environment, it can be a real hindrance to urban operation. One of the key features of this art is to encourage the adversary to make hasty decisions which blind the tactician from being able to look beyond the veil of deception34. Decades ago the IRA deployed simple acts of deception via doctored images and altered radio broadcasts against the British forces to their advantage35. The technology available today can create even more realistic doctored photos and videos to spread misinformation. This can be extremely dangerous in an environment where insurgents are hiding amongst civilians. The defenders can also coerce civilians to act as decoys, thus using them as “background noise”, and making it even tougher to judge who is a combatant and who is a non-combatant, especially in large, densely populated cities, taking us to the final challenge.
The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall
Megacities have witnessed a sharp increase in numbers across the globe. They are usually defined as very large urban settlements with a population of more than 10 million36. As of 2020, there are between 33-37 megacities, based on varying reports, and these cities have become a conglomerate of culture, economic activities and all other aspects of human life. Various reports suggest that population growth in the next two decades will centre around urban settlements. While these stats paint a glorious futuristic picture and may sway contemporary urbanists to ignore the unchecked and hasty nature of a megacity’s growth, it will ultimately prove to be an extremely unattractive environment for urban military operations37. A vast majority of these megacities are situated in still developing nations. The crowded nature of these cities has resulted in unsanitary conditions and slums, thus adding a paradoxical nature to megacities. As the boundaries of megacities widen further, top business tycoons, slum workers, honest artisans, criminal gangs etc. will all be functioning from within the same city. This could lead to the birth of “feral cities”, as coined by Richard J. Norton, where the living conditions are poor, social services are non-existent, crime is rampant and security is a luxury and yet, society itself has not crumbled as various factors such as criminal gangs, armed resistance groups or even neighbourhood associations will exercise varying degrees of control over the vast population with the cities even engaging in economic activities38. The lines between armed gangs and paramilitary groups are vanishing and thereby the very concept of crime and warfare are already meshing together in some of these megacities39. These unstable, problematic cities can become targets for military operations to restore some order. Tall skyscrapers are notorious for blocking signals so military sensors or radars functioning may be adequate, at best40. It will be virtually impossible to evacuate civilians in the case of an unavoidable aggressive military strike. Even if the military forces overcome these challenges, the restoration will not be a cakewalk either, it would be rather grim. There may be a need for aggressive surveillance and reorganisation of the city, installation of checkpoints and security zones and the use of military policing41. This will ultimately lead to curbing the democratic values that most of these cities represent and thus these megacities might end up being a dystopian image of pollution, decay and misery with buildings aiming for the heavens42.
Section III: An Uncertain Future
As we have noticed throughout this essay, the urban environment is not a very suitable terrain for military operations even though urban warfare has been an ongoing affair throughout history. In the 21st century urban operation are even more challenging than before. Cities, and now megacities, have been evolving alongside humankind. Every new century has resulted in the development or rather re-development of new features of a city. Future operations will most likely continue to burden the future soldier with physical and moral challenges. The “Rules of Engagement” (ROE) will play a major role and will likely be influenced by the then notions of ethical practices in warfare. The attempts at proliferating the downtrodden from social, political and economic constraints and furthering their human rights capabilities in disaster zones will be a tough line to walk. While it is practically impossible to correctly predict the future of urban operations, for the time being, it is perhaps best to look at the issue from a wise old sensei’s point-of-view and turn some of the weaknesses of urban warfare into strengths, starting with foundations and tactics. The definitions and foundations of urban warfare need to be strengthened and more refined. Constantly adding new blocks to a pre-existing Thee-Block War will only confuse and burden the soldier. Also, military tacticians will need to shift away from traditional approaches and adopt new approaches to these operations. One such approach can be the “Manoeuvrist Approach” which is a tactic to completely shatter the adversary’s cohesion and their will to retaliate. It is a pivotal doctrine for the British land forces and it encourages planning, strategizing and learning of the adversary’s vulnerabilities43 and relies more on the psychological aspect of warfare rather than charging head-on with all guns blazing. This approach can result in less collateral damage and casualties. Also, a sound strategy is paramount for the success of an operation. The relationship between tactics and strategy needs to be a complementary one. Without a sound strategy, a strong tactic has no value. One can hope that technology will evolve to such an extent that military operations will be a breezy task in the future, although that will be being overly optimistic. But technological advancements in military weapons can smoothen these operations. However, it needs significant improvements rather than superficial ones. For example, simply painting a drone in vibrant colours and sending them out for humanitarian aid will not help civilians who have been traumatized by military drones. Better algorithms to detect suspicious activities, less reliance on targeted killings, avoidance of mission creep and more focus on the human aspect of drone usage all need to be furthered in this field44. Finally, the ‘human’ element needs to be acknowledged; not just of the civilians present in these megacities but also of the psychological health of soldiers carrying out these speedy operations under extreme pressure.
The future could be either of the following two paintings; a rosy one where perhaps a well-planned and controlled growth of a city with economic, political and social upliftment has resulted in megacities with a symmetrical political regime, essentially eliminating the need for military operations or it could be a rather Kafkaesque one where there is constant drone surveillance, “feral cities” and never-ending cycles of urban warfare; we can only wait and anticipate which of the two will come to fruition.
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Cover page Image 1 - https://mwi.usma.edu/city-not-neutral-urban-warfare-hard/
Battle of Grozny- https://e-ducation.datapeak.net/history.htm
Battle for Stalingrad- https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Stalingrad
Anti-War protests during Vietnam War- https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/03/13/dc-built-for-protests-visual-timeline/
Parker, Geoffery and Hanson, Victor Davis “The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare”, (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Chapter 1.↩︎
Parker, Geoffery and Hanson, Victor Davis, “The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare”, (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Chapter 2.↩︎
Joshua J Mark, Warfare, (https://www.worldhistory.org/warfare/ 2009)↩︎
Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide, (2016)↩︎
Murray, Williamson and Masoor, Peter R, “Hybrid Warfare: fighting complex opponents from the ancient world to the present”, (Cambridge University Press, 2012)↩︎
Pike, John, “Military Operations on Urban Terrain [MOUT]”, (GlobalSecurity.org, 2002)↩︎
Wahlman, Alec, “Storming the City: US Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam”, (University of North Texas Press, 2015)↩︎
Bowyer, Richard, “Dictionary of Military Terms”, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004)↩︎
Hunter, Chris, “Eight Lives Down: The Most Dangerous Job in the World in the Most Dangerous Place in the World”, (Random House publishers, 2009)↩︎
Betz, David and Stanford-Tuck, Hugo, “The City Is Neutral: On Urban Warfare in the 21st Century”, (Texas National Security Review, 2019)↩︎
DiMarco, Louis, “Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq (Military History)”, (Osprey Publishing, 2017)↩︎
Charles Krulak, “The three block war: Fighting in urban areas,” Vital Speeches of the Day 64, no. 5 (15 December 1997): 139-41↩︎
Annis, Franklin,”Krulak Revisited: the Three Block War, Strategic Corporals, and The Future Battlefield”, (https://mwi.usma.edu/krulak-revisited-three-block-war-strategic-corporals-future-battlefield/), 2020↩︎
Rudd, David, Bayley, Deborah and Petruczynik, Ewa K., “Beyond the Three Block War” Toronto: Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 2006)↩︎
Staten, C.L., ”Urban Warfare Considerations; Understanding and Combating Irregular and Guerrilla Forces During A “Conventional War” in Iraq”. (Emergency Response & Research Institute, Chicago, 2003)↩︎
Dishman, C., “A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico”, (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010)↩︎
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