Why Urban Warfare Studies Still Matter

To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in urban warfare, but urban warfare is interested in you. At the turn of the millennium, the literature surrounding urban warfare was an expanding sub-field of strategic studies. But today it is almost non-existent. Why the loss of interest? Ultimately, urban warfares rise and fall has always reflected America’s and the West’s more broadly pressing military insecurities and her geopolitical situation.

Michael Desch identified three separate causes for the rise of the urban warfare literature. First, world demographic trends indicate the world is becoming increasingly urban. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in a city in excess of one million inhabitants; by 2008, this had reached 50 percent; by 2050, it is projected that three-quarters of the world’s population will be city dwellers. One quite obvious conclusion which arises from this is that war is a human phenomenon, and so it will follow the world’s population into cities. Another more insightful conclusion, however, is that urbanisation will strain municipal infrastructure, creating divisions in society and a more fertile ground for conflict.

Second, conflicts in the 1990s made a modern military’s soft-spots all too clear. This was first done through the First Battle of Mogadishu (1993) – more popularly known as the Black Hawk Down incident. In this, American forces suffered 18 deaths and many more casualties in the streets of Mogadishu when attempting to capture leading lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, directly leading to the end of the US mission in Somalia. These insecurities were compounded by Russian military actions in Chechnya in between 1994 and 2000. In particular, the two Russian offensives in the Chechen capital (1994-5 and 1999-2000), Grozny, were of particular scrutiny due to the heavy casualties and hellish conditions endured by the Russian military. Questions were raised of whether a similar lengthy and costly urban battle could befall America.

Third, America faced a completely different international and domestic security environment with the end of the Cold War in 1991. The likelihood of conventional warfare had decreased dramatically following the Gulf War and the establishment of America as the unrivalled global hegemon – especially militarily (in 1991, American military spending amounted to roughly 40% of global military spending). As such, America was left in a relative strategic vacuum in that no state could feasibly mount a conventional military challenge to America; ideas of large-scale tank battles in German forests were a thing of the past.

Despite intense urban warfare in Iraq in the years following urban warfares renaissance, the literature had all but cut-off by 2005.

These three causes led Desch to describe urban warfare literature to be in a renaissance period in 2000. It began most notably through USMC General Charles Krulak’s warning  of the ‘three block war’ in 1996. In this, Krulak envisioned that one moment American forces (in the heyday of new world order optimism) could be feeding and clothing individuals in a humanitarian mission, the next they could be keeping two warring clans apart and after that they could be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle – all in sprawling urban metropolises in which America had proven herself vulnerable to. As Commandant of the Marine Corps, Krulak ensured that such a prospect was taken seriously, with the Marine Corps being the pioneering force for attempting to understand the complexities of the urban environment, releasing a new urban warfare field manual in 1998, MCWP 3-35.3, and undertaking numerous research projects, such as Operation Urban Warrior.

In the other services, however, the prospect of urban warfare did not go unrecognised. The Army and, to a lesser extent, Air Force were also very interested in its practicalities. To look at the publications of their respective war colleges, it is more than evident of their interest in the topic. The Commandant of the US Army War College between 1997 and 2000, Robert H. Scales, was  very concerned with the prospect of urban warfare. Arguing for an indirect approach through disrupting the defender’s equilibrium by controlling the battle and striking selectively and decisively, he wrote that as urban areas continue to expand, they will increasingly encompass regions of vital interest to the United States. Representing geo-strategic centers of gravity, these urban areas will contain all the vital functions of government, commerce, communication, and transportation activity.


Avoiding Another Mogadishu

RAND – often in conjunction with branches of the American military – produced a cornucopia of reports on this topic. Possibly the most prolific writer in this respect was Russell W. Glenn. He made the apt conclusion in his first major publication on this topic in 1996, Combat in Hell, that America’s military can succeed in urban terrain, despite the tactical constraints imposed by the physical environment; American forces will only fail in their mission if they lose public support and are forced to either withdraw, as in Mogadishu, or operate under suffocating rules of engagement, as Russian forces operated under for much of the First Battle of Grozny. Outside of RAND (and even America), there was concern for the practicalities and implications of urban warfare, notably by British academic Alice Hills. In her seminal 2003 textFuture War in Cities, Hills outlined how whilst technology may be an enabler, this hallmark of the American Way of War cannot win urban battles in and of itself; instead, this environment is primarily a highly attritional infantry battlespace.

Such an assertion was part of a substantial debate within the literature surrounding what airpower could achieve in an urban environment. As Peter C. Hunt noted  of this debate in 2001, One approach emphasizes the role of infantry, whereas the second approach seeks ways to achieve operational and strategic objectives without large numbers of ground forces. This alternative approach relies on aerospace power. Numerous papers from the USAF’s Air University placed differing levels of faith in airpower. One such paper, by Major Timothy L. Saffold, held that airpower is the key instrument of force in urban warfare which should play the primary role in America’s prosecution of such warfare. Another, by Lieutenant Colonel Todd G. Kemper, writing in the aftermath of the friendly fire incident at the Battle of An Nasiriyah from an A-10 Warthog, emphasized that today’s aviation urban operations require a dedicated, systematic, joint approach to doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities.

In conjunction with the USAF, RAND published a report by Alan J. Vick, et al. entitled Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments in 2000. Vick established urban operations as inherently joint operations, noting how technological developments – especially surrounding precision – are increasingly improving the ability of airpower to play a role in urban operations. A subsequent RAND report – International Law and the Politics of Urban Air Operations – by Matthew Waxman agreed that improving weapons guidance technology will increase the importance of airpower in urban warfare, but made the thoroughly Clausewitzian point that war is not static; enemies will find ways around this new technology, whilst populations at home may become more demanding in their calls for as minimal collateral damage as possible.

Despite these developments and debates, as well as some intense urban warfare in Iraq in the years following the renaissance, the literature had all but cut-off by 2005. Indeed, work concerning the battles of Fallujah in 2004 was something of a last hurrah for urban warfare literature. Whilst this author can only make an educated assumption of what changed, it would be that efforts to understand urban warfare were replaced (or subsumed) in favour of counterinsurgency (COIN). The need to understand the increasingly powerful Iraqi insurgency and the 2006 escalation of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan ensured that whilst the American military was still fighting in urban environments, notably in Fallujah, Najaf in 2004 and Sadr City in 2008, broader themes of COIN were studied in academic and military circles.


Renewed Interest?

The literature on urban warfare has not completely collapsed. Indeed, the US Army updated its urban warfare field manual, FM 3-06, in 2006, whilst the Joint Chiefs updated their urban warfare field manual, Joint Publication 3-06, in 2009. However, RAND reports and military colleges have largely ceased – jumping on the COIN bandwagon. To take one example, whilst Vick, et al. may have reported for RAND on airpower in urban operations in 2000, by 2006 their attentions had turned to Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era.

In David Kilcullen’s 2013 book, Out of the Mountains, the author states that COIN theory cannot account for the complexities of operating in an urban environment – a deeper understanding must be reached of this crucial sub-field of strategic studies. To be clear, the debates and problems surrounding urban warfare which have been covered by this article were not settled or resolved during the renaissance period; they are as they were a decade ago. With the Iraq War and massive technological development over the past decade, however, so much more may now be said for what is possible in modern urban warfare. What academics and members of the military must do is make a concerted effort to pick up the literature from the renaissance, sweep away the dust and perform a critical analysis of where America and the West more broadly stands in relation to operating in an urban environment.

While urban warfare may not appear as an immediately pressing issue to Western states and militaries, it is almost inevitable that another determined and desperate enemy will sacrifice its urban landscape in order to pursue its political objectives against the West as it has done in the past. Although America and the West do not have the interventionist optimism of the 1990s which led to Krulak’s formulation of the three block war, their militaries will still face urban opponents. When this happens – and it will – America’s military (and other militaries) must be prepared to meet this old threat in modern circumstances.


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