Metropolis Now

We shall not seek from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

                   —T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

groznyMuch of the Old City of Aleppo, a place that many archaeologists believe was the birthplace of urban warfare in the ancient world five millennia ago, is today again in ruins—a casualty of the bitter civil war raging between Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime and its Sunni opponents. Since 2012, the urban character of the Syrian civil war has led to the indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians by the use of some of military technology’s most deadly weapons systems such as thermobaric bombs and rockets and cluster munitions. The human tragedy of Syria is a grim reminder of the high costs involved in modern urban warfare, and highlights the reality that one of the greatest weaknesses in contemporary Western military thought generally, and in Western strategic studies in particular, is the paucity of serious research on the future role of the city in armed conflict.

This is not a novel situation. In the 1990s when the Revolution in Military Affairs was the research area du jour, the urban dimension of warfare was overshadowed by notions of networked warfare in open terrain. After 2001 the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, urban military research was quickly absorbed, or eclipsed, by an avalanche of material on “population-centric” counterinsurgency and hybrid warfare. In the second decade of the new millennium, little has changed. As we move away from an era dominated by Near East land wars into an Asia-Pacific century, it seems likely that “offset strategies” such as naval and aerospace power projection and long-range precision strike—all of which play to the West’s high-technology military strengths—may become the main future warfare priorities for liberal democracies such as the United States, Britain and Australia. A good example of this trend is the United States Third Offset Strategy (the first and second were the 1950s New Look nuclear weapons program and the 1970s precision munitions revolution) unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in late 2014. The new offset strategy aims at creating a US Global Surveillance and Strike (GSS) system based on exploiting five key American military technological advantages: unmanned operations and automation; extended range air operations; low observable (stealthy) air operations; undersea warfare; and mastery of complex systems engineering. The aerospace and naval imperatives of the Third Offset Strategy are likely to come at the expense of US Army and Marine Corps ground force modernisation, with future budgetary cuts likely in the size and capability of both of these services.

Despite the global revolution in urbanisation that is now under way, many Western strategists and military specialists remain cautious about embracing urban warfare as a central mission in the future. They have good reasons for such caution. In the Western military canon, all the tenets of modern theory and practice run counter to engaging in war in cities except as a last resort. Western generals like to quote Sun Tzu’s famous observation in The Art of War—“the worst policy is to attack cities; attack cities only when there is no alternative”.

Operations in cities usually present armies with difficult built-up environments full of non-combatants. Streets and buildings fragment efficient combined arms combat, degrade both technological superiority and systems of military command and control, and impose psychological and physical strain on the large number of soldiers required for effective control of a city. In an era of economic austerity stemming from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis—when many Western armies have been forced to reduce numbers and personnel costs—the suggestion that urban warfare in far-flung countries will be a future military priority involving large numbers of soldiers and expensive equipment is hardly welcome news to war-weary democratic electorates or their political representatives.

Nevertheless, the world is urbanising, and by 2050 more than two-thirds of the human race is likely to live in cities. We are faced, then, with a clear disparity between the geopolitical phenomenon of mass urbanisation and the apparent unwillingness of many Western countries to prepare their armies for the likelihood of increased urban operations across the spectrum of armed conflict from humanitarian relief through stabilisation missions to major conventional warfare.

What then is to be done? This article argues that a first step must be to understand the breadth of the urban challenge. Much greater conceptual clarity than exists at present is required to guide strategy, policy and operations for urban contingencies in the future. A rigorous intellectual framework must be developed, aimed at understanding the process of urbanisation and determining what it may or may not mean for international security and the use of military force in the years ahead.

To this end, two areas are examined. First, the process of global urbanisation is summarised with an emphasis on its variety and complexity. It is argued that there is no such phenomenon as a single urban future and, as a result, there can be no specific security solution and still less any single urban military posture.

This essay appears in the December edition of Quadrant.
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Second, if Western militaries are likely to face increasing operations in cities in coming years, then long-term research must be conducted to investigate realistic “economy of force” approaches in order to align policy requirements, technological capabilities and human resources for a wide array of potential missions. Western defence establishments must embrace a form of multi-disciplinary urban strategic studies to inform both their policy decisions and military doctrinal considerations. Focusing on visions of anarchy in “population-centric megacities” replete with Mad Max-style adversaries in four-wheel-drives and waving AK-47 rifles—as promoted by parts of the electronic media and popular culture—is a facile and misleading basis for serious research. What Western armed forces require are broad, not narrow research approaches; they need to invest in carefully integrated lines of inquiry which reflect the in-depth and lasting cross-disciplinary efforts required to develop a credible strategic agenda for the use of force in cities.

The process of global urbanisation

In 1950 the population of the world was two-thirds rural and one-third urban. By 2050 it is estimated that those proportions will have been reversed. In 2014, the United Nations publication World Urbanization Prospects calculated that 90 per cent of all urban growth is occurring in Asia and Africa: 70 million people annually are becoming residents of a city somewhere on those two continents. If research estimates are correct, then the world’s urban population will increase from 3.9 billion in 2014 to 6.3 billion in 2050.

This movement of people from countryside to city represents a revolution of historic magnitude. Not surprisingly, the transformation from rural to urban demographic predominance has spawned an intense debate on the implications for the world’s future economic structure and geopolitical stability. There are visions of both dystopia and utopia. For some security analysts, urban migration and city growth are seen as a prescription for growing anarchy, violent political breakdown and ecological decline throughout the developing world. Pessimists foresee a coming era of “feral cities” or of huge “population bombs” in which armed conflict will occur mainly in sprawling megalopolises from Karachi and Dhaka in Asia to Kinshasa and Lagos in Africa. In their book The Real Population Bomb: Global Security and the Map of the Future (2012), American writers P.H. Liotta and James F. Miskel argue that twenty-first-century megacities will be “overwhelmed, dangerous, ungovernable … unlike anything the earth has ever seen”. Another American writer, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, describes war in megacities as follows:

[We face] high-tech warfare at knife-point range … Imagine a megacity of 10 or 20 million, where the slums have more inhabitants than some countries, [a place] where suspicious locals post every US military movement on Twitter with digital photos and GPS-precise coordinates. Imagine roadside bombs that fly because the bad guys downloaded blueprints for a kamikaze mini-drone and built it with their 3-D printer.

While such a dystopian future is a possibility for some non-Western cities, much of the urban studies research tends to be far more positive, even utopian, in tone and outlook. In sharp contrast to dystopian security analysts, many urban specialists view the transition from a rural to an urban world as one of the twenty-first century’s most encouraging drivers of economic growth and social mobility. The demographic shift to city living may offer solutions to alleviating long-term poverty and political instability in diverse countries from Asia through Latin America to parts of the Middle East and Africa. Using a progressive lens, the global process of urbanisation is viewed by many urban scholars as a means of strengthening the three traditional pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, social stability and environmental protection. As the 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report notes:

Cities are important drivers of development and poverty reduction in both urban and rural areas, as they concentrate much of the national economic activity, government, commerce and transportation, and provide crucial links with rural areas, between cities, and across international borders. Urban living is often associated with higher levels of literacy and education, better health, greater access to social services, and enhanced opportunities for cultural and political participation.

In Africa and Asia, the two continents that will account for the swiftest pace in world urbanisation over the next three decades, just three countries, India, China and Nigeria, are expected to account for 37 per cent of the world’s metropolitan growth to 2050. Indeed, within the next fifteen years several Asian cities are likely to overtake American and European cities in prosperity. Based on current trends, by 2030 nine of the world’s wealthiest twenty-five cities will be located in Asia. Shanghai and Beijing are expected to outrank Los Angeles and Paris in wealth, while Delhi and Bangkok are likely to surpass Detroit and Barcelona as economic hubs. By the early 2030s some US$30 trillion or 65 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) will be generated by some 600 cities, over a third of which will be in the developing world.

The growing cities of the developing world are, however, unlikely to follow any single pattern of growth, and we may be seeing a new analytical field, the “science of cities”. As the British government’s Office for Science notes in its report What Are Future Cities? (2014), “the science of cities is still emerging and has not yet generated global language norms. It is also an inter-disciplinary science, and this makes clarity of concepts harder to achieve.” Cities are simultaneously places of safety, resilience and opportunity and yet also of violence, inequality and squalor. Over the next quarter of a century, urban conglomerations are likely to reflect a bewildering and eclectic variety of sizes, shapes and spatial density alongside a plethora of differences in types of governance, demographic composition, economic growth and regional distribution. In the emerging science of cities, it seems as if hypothesis and heterogeneity will prevail over paradigm and homogeneity.

Future urban conurbations will embrace a range of forms including megacities, larger cities and middle-size and small city complexes—and each type will display different developmental and governance levels. Despite a focus by parts of the Western media and military on the dramatic phenomenon of a few megacities with populations of over ten million, most of the world’s urbanisation is more prosaic and is concentrated on medium-sized and small cities. For example, at present, half of all the world’s urbanites live in settlements of less than 500,000 people, with only one in eight persons inhabiting a megacity. In 2014, medium-size cities accounted for twenty-six of the world’s forty-three fastest-growing cities and their collective populations are likely to increase from 363 to 509 million people by 2030—accounting for around 10 per cent of urban residents.Similarly, smaller rather than larger cities are likely to proliferate in the developing world. “Cities with populations of less than half a million,” another 2014 British government report, The Future of Cities, notes, will be “home to almost half of the world’s urban population by 2030”.

In China and India, a wave of smaller high-technology “smart” cities are being constructed with the aim of creating urban systems that can act as catalysts and hubs for advanced urban infrastructure, transportation and economic services. For example, by 2025, it is estimated that, of 136 smaller cities throughout Asia, 100 of them will be located in a fast urbanising China. In his 2008 book on the huge scale of Chinese urbanisation, The Concrete Dragon, Thomas J. Campanella observes that, when it comes to the promotion of new cities, China’s energetic approach is akin to “a hundred Dubais, with a thousand times its ambition”. Even countries in Africa—a continent often associated by security analysts with poorly governed megacities such as Lagos and Kinshasa—are experimenting with smaller city conurbations. For example, in Kenya, Konza Techno City—dubbed the “Silicon Savannah”—and Tatu City, both located outside metropolitan Nairobi, represent newer, smaller and more decentralised complexes that are seen as models for urban development in the future.

The global pattern of migratory diversity from countryside to city runs counter to the notion advanced by some security analysts, especially in the United States Army, that megacities will be the dominant form of urban development and are the harbingers of a new form of international instability. Such a view is not supported by available evidence. As the American urban specialist Joel Kotkin argues, the pattern of urban migration in the developing world is not concentrated on megalopises but is diverse and multidirectional and involves a maze of different-sized cities. In 1990, there were ten megacities with 153 million people representing 7 per cent of the globe’s urban dwellers. In 2014 there were twenty-eight megacities, including Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai with 453 million people accounting for 12 per cent of urbanites. While megacities are expected to multiply from twenty-eight to forty-one by 2030 it seems unlikely that this particular urban form will predominate globally. Even if megacity populations double over the next fifteen years, they will still represent only a quarter of the global urban population. In 2011, in its report Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities, the McKinsey Global Institute, a leading authority on global urbanisation, cautioned:

Contrary to common perception, megacities have not been driving global growth for the past 15 years. In fact, many have not grown faster than their host economies and we expect this trend to continue. We estimate that today’s 23 megacities will contribute just over 10 per cent of global growth to 2025, below their 14 per cent share of global GDP today … Instead we see the 577 fast-growing middleweights … contributing half of global growth to 2025, gaining share from today’s megacities.

In 2012, in another important study, Urban World: Mapping the Rise of the Consuming Class, McKinsey identified an “Emerging 440” cities grouping that is projected to generate 47 per cent of global growth—US$17.7 trillion—to 2025 and beyond. Only twenty are categorised as megacities, the remainder being middleweight urban centres. Of these middleweights, over 200 are in China; fifty more are located in Latin America; while thirty-nine are in Africa and the Middle East. In many of these middleweight cities, growth is driven less by population density than by per capita GDP and by the number, rather than the demographic size, of individual households. In 2014, research conducted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs endorsed McKinsey’s findings, observing that by 2030 there might well be forty-one megacities, but “the fastest growing urban agglomerations are medium-sized cities and cities with less than 1 million inhabitants located in Asia and Africa”. As the social scientist Saskia J. Sassen observes, what really matters when analysing the anatomy of urban growth is less a city’s demographic density than its political and economic effectiveness.

The case for urban strategic studies

Despite the complex and varied pattern of urbanisation outlined above, recent Western military research on urban warfare is narrowly focused on operating in megacities. Many security analysts believe megacities pose the most dangerous and demanding urban environment for Western forces in the future. Good examples of this type of research include the US Army’s 2014 study, Megacities and the United States Army and the US Marine Corps’ 2015 Security Environment Forecast. The US Army report claims that in the twenty-first century megacities represent a “fundamentally new operating environment” that will increasingly defy the military’s ability to apply traditional methods of urban warfare as well as providing “the strategic key terrain in any future crisis that requires US military intervention”. In its section on urbanisation, Security Environment Forecast states:

If current patterns and trends continue [in urbanisation], the world will reorient centred on massive, multifaceted urban clusters. Three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities and there will be 41 megacities worldwide by 2030, making urbanized warfare unavoidable.

Such a situation means that conflicts in mega­cities will force adversaries to master not only the three-block war—simultaneous combat, stability and humanitarian operations—but to think vertically and adapt to “three-floor wars”. Moreover, urban littorals will become of particular importance in the future because coastlines or coastal deltas host some 136 port cities as well as eight of the world’s ten largest cities.

Much of the US Army and Marine Corps research tends to treat megacities as a novel phenomenon—an urban conurbation so different in form that it is disconnected from all previous modes of urban operations. Such a premise is both historically incorrect and misleading. Modern urban evolution has been occurring since the rise of the nineteenth-century industrial city of steel and coal in Britain and Europe. Armed forces have always sought to adapt older methods of city warfare to new metropolitan conditions of mass living, spatial expansion and industrial technologies. There is a pattern of tactical development in urban warfare that runs from the principles of controlling streets and buildings against armed insurrection—first outlined by Thomas Bugeaud in his 1847 primer La guerre des rues et des maisons—through the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and Second World War battles in cities such as Stalingrad, Manila and Gröningen to more recent encounters in Hue, Grozny, Fallujah, Mosul, Sadr City and Aleppo. While most conventional armies dislike urban warfare, once they are faced with the grim prospect of fighting in built-up areas they tend to adapt to the challenge with all the accompanying demands for large numbers of troops, decentralised tactics and the heavy expenditure in logistics and munitions.

While there are commonly understood methods for military operations conducted in cities involving fire and movement, it is a well-known and time-honoured reality that urban warfare involves an essential recognition of diversity. Confronted by an urban area, all militaries must confront what the American military geographer and strategist Colonel John Collins calls “an endless variety of structures and facilities the seizure or control of which demands esoteric plans, programs, and procedures, since no two cities are quite alike”. The modern Western military’s long-standing recognition of urban diversity has been influential in persuading operational planners to focus on the role performed by troops rather than the environment inhabited by them. Troops must be multifunctional and be able to fight across different forms of terrain—rural and urban. A military focus on one urban form—namely that of megacities as representing a completely novel phenomenon—runs contrary to the basic principles of modern urban military operations. It is no accident that those who have been most successful in cities from the mid-twentieth century onward have been well-trained military forces capable of innovation and adaptation—whether American marines in Manila and Fallujah, French paratroops in Algiers or British infantry in Belfast and Londonderry.

Twenty-first-century militaries must avoid narrow research focused on megacities and move to engage with the broad field of urban studies. Contrary to recent American military claims about megacities, the relationships between instances of rapid urban growth and outbreaks of armed violence are not clear-cut. In understanding the anatomy of armed violence in diverse urban conglomerations, correlation and causation must be carefully distinguished and separated. For example, the vast majority of cross-disciplinary studies by urban analysts suggest that city fragility and organised violence in the developing world are less a function of metropolitan size and demographic density than of the existence of effective governance. If there is a correlation between the process of urbanisation and the incidence of violence in large cities, it has more to do with a linkage between weak state institutions and fragile cities. As the urban studies specialist Robert Muggah observes in Researching the Urban Dilemma: Urbanization, Poverty and Violence (2012), most evidence indicates that “legacies of armed conflict, political authoritarianism and repressive policing are tightly correlated with the onset and persistence of urban violence”.

The capacity of a state’s institutions is often intimately connected to the strength or weakness of metropolitan governance and this factor plays a major role in determining the outbreak of armed violence in cities. Armed violence may, of course, be exacerbated by metropolitan size and by population numbers but is seldom caused by these factors. Rather, weaknesses in governance ranging from political maladministration through to corrupt militaries and ineffective policing are often major causative factors in the breakdown of urban society. While megacities may generate a range of negative consequences for their urban underclass, including crime, disease and squalor, organised violence by armed groups is not always one of these. It is important to note that fast-growing Asian megacities such as Beijing and Calcutta are amongst the world’s most stable urban conglomerations. Likewise, massive cities such as Bogota or Sao Paulo in Latin America have both experienced not only spikes, but also instances of decline, in outbreaks of armed violence. Robert Muggah writes:

Although in absolute terms more people may face poverty and insecurity in large and mega-cities, it is in fact medium- and small-sized cities in the developing world which are even more at risk [from violent breakdown]. This is because they are generally less well-resourced in terms of professional capacity, governance and finance. Their vulnerability is also greater because of more limited investment in infrastructure and urban services … In addition, there is less experience of working with humanitarian and development actors and other international agencies.

In short, nothing is certain or inevitable about armed violence in cities in general or in megacities in particular. From a security perspective, military researchers must learn to distinguish between the global city of influence, the megacity of sprawl and the emerging middleweight city, and between smaller peri-urban, semi-urban and inner-urban forms of human habitation. When it comes to assessing insecurity in a diverse range of cities, generalisations are misleading; good research will adopt a strictly evidence-based approach.

The different conclusions that military professionals and urban specialists have reached about armed violence and megacities are evidence of misunderstanding and a lack of communication. In considering future urban military operations, there is little common ground between policy-makers and security specialists on the one hand and urban development, aid and humanitarian agencies on the other. As Muggah notes, “the growing preoccupation with the urban dilemma amongst diplomats, development and defense sectors is not … matched with commensurate investment in research”.

Three distinct schools of thought on research into cities can be identified. The first are quantitative macro-level researchers who focus mainly on collecting statistical data and whose ranks include criminologists, epidemiologists, economists and social scientists. A second school is that of qualitative micro-level researchers, which tends to be more concerned with field research and case studies, and includes historians, urban geographers, political scientists and sociologists. Finally, there is a security-oriented research school, a category that embraces military professionals, defence analysts and an array of affiliated social scientists.

The security-oriented school of urban research tends to be focused on narrow operational and technological issues rather than broader strategic considerations. Operational research and analysis embrace the refinement of combined arms operations for a non-linear city environment; mastering close-quarter battle methods and the better use of protected mobility in built-up areas. Similarly, technological research involves areas such as the employment of thermobaric weapons and precision munitions; the future role of robotics, drones and unmanned vehicles in cities; the exploitation of fibre-optics, laser range finders, and counter-sniping devices in urban micro-environments; and the potential for non-lethal weapons usage in heavily populated urban areas.

In contrast to these operational and technological efforts, urban security specialists have made few attempts to synthesise relevant strands of urban research into a form of strategic studies that might inform the judgments of both policy-makers and military practitioners. Lacking intellectual grounding in any form of urban studies, many military researchers often fall prey to a fascination with Blade Runner-style visions of “barbarian megalopolises” or to assorted postmodernist ideas about the rise of a “new military urbanism”—in which the masses of the developing world are pitted against the silicon soldiers of the developed West. Such dystopian scenarios seem to owe more to the science fiction cinema of World War Z with its zombie hordes than to mainstream notions of military art. Much recent American military research on megacities contains unmistakable echoes of the dystopian world of Judge Dredd—in which megacities replace nations as the world’s dominant political units—and high-technology Street Judges battle low-technology urban gangs for supremacy.

The Western military’s underdeveloped research capacity in urban studies means that the profession of arms is increasingly ill-equipped to understand different typologies of armed metropolitan violence. Issues of legal obligation and rules of engagement as applied to stabilisation operations and humanitarian relief; civil-military relationships in command and control functions in cities; the roles of policing and community elites and the nexus between national and metropolitan governance—all key areas of knowledge—continue to remain under-researched.

If we are to better understand the city as an armed conflict zone, an urban-oriented strand of strategic studies needs to be developed by security scholars working in close conjunction with the macro- and micro-level schools identified earlier. Achieving such an inter-disciplinary effort may prove to be challenging for some scholars in academe who harbour sensitivities towards the employment of military force in populated cities. We should not forget the hostile reaction of many anthropologists and other social scientists towards the development of human-terrain mapping in counterinsurgency after 2004. Yet, if urban studies scholars mimic anthropologists and refuse to engage with security officials on the challenge of controlling and ameliorating armed violence in cities, they are likely to contribute by default to increased, not decreased, numbers of civilian casualties.

Given the requirements of operating in cities with civilian populations under the ever-present eye of the global electronic media, Western militaries will require assistance from urban specialists in order to formulate the kind of operational methods appropriate for a range of cities—methods that conform to the law of armed conflict—and which reflect credible rules of engagement respecting the lives of non-combatants. One useful area in which city specialists in law enforcement and community development can assist military professionals is in what might be styled the fluidity nexus between “high-end” policing and “low-end” military responses in cities. A comprehensive understanding of a particular urban environment will be important in determining how a crisis situation can be better conceptualised by security professionals to meet conditions where neither a purely military nor a traditional policing approach seems immediately obvious.

In all cases, the integration of urban studies into strategic requirements needs to be conducted with intellectual care and humane discrimination. An understanding of different typologies of violence is critical. Security analysts and military professionals need to be able to distinguish between high-intensity crime by urban gangs and syndicates concerned with profit, and forms of low-intensity warfare by armed urban activists driven by politics. They also need to be able to differentiate between mass-casualty terrorist acts by networked Islamist cadres on the Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris and Brussels models and well-organised and prolonged campaigns of urban warfare by large non-state militias on the Hamas or Hizbollah models.

There are clear differences between recent Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and the capability of a militia force like Hamas to engage the powerful Israeli military in a semi-conventional struggle as it did in the 2014 Gaza War. Unlike the IS cells that struck against civilian targets in Paris and Brussels with AK-47 assault rifles and suicide belts, Hamas represents a formidable non-state organisation with an armed militia wing (the Qassam Brigades) equipped with an arsenal of rockets, anti-tank guided munitions and anti-air missiles that gives it a capacity for protracted operations in heavily populated urban environments. In 2014, the siting of a Hamas base amidst the Gaza population forced the Israelis to adopt a restricted targeting methodology for air strikes using both low-yield precision munitions and non-lethal explosives to reduce non-combatant casualties, facilitate civilian evacuation and comply with international legal conventions. Hamas successfully employed an underground assault tunnel network stretching for seventy kilometres in order to nullify Israel’s aerial reconnaissance superiority and to conceal movement of its fighters, munitions and rocket attack sites. Air strikes could not neutralise this tunnel network, forcing the Israelis to deploy ground forces. As the Israeli Army prosecuted operations to destroy over thirty Hamas tunnels, fierce fighting for the Shejaiya stronghold in Gaza City occurred during which sixteen Israeli soldiers were killed and fifty wounded.

The 2014 Gaza War demonstrates an array of issues that may dominate future Western interventions in cities. These include the need to nullify subterranean networks; the requirement for an effective information campaign; and the challenge of engaging an adversary who, while weaker militarily, is adept in employing the instruments of social media to win international support. Western armies that enter urban areas in future operations clearly need to be prepared to control the narrative of events by employing new technologies for the information domain, including not only social media tools but wide-area, full-motion battlefield video surveillance systems that permit veracity. In an ominous development, Hamas also experimented with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during the Gaza War. In the years to come this form of stand-off technology can only evolve and proliferate, raising the spectre of armed terrorist drones being employed in urban areas. Over time, non-state groups such as Hezbollah, IS and Al Qaeda will surely acquire small armed drones as the poor man’s precision weapons system. Western militaries will need to consider developing counter-UAV networks—perhaps using laser technology—to deal with this new threat.

In the future, given limited troop numbers, advanced militaries are unlikely to engage in direct frontal assaults in urban areas except under the most favourable circumstances. As the American soldier-scholar Major-General Robert Scales cautioned in 2005, policy-makers need to be constantly aware of one uncomfortable truth when considering the insertion of troops into cities: “America’s treasure house of close-combat soldiers is only marginally larger than the New York City Police Department.” When it comes to available infantry and combined arms assets, other Western armies such as those of Britain, France and Australia face a similar situation to that of the United States and this reality places a premium on economy of force operations. Technology and superior military training and organisation must be therefore exploited as far as possible—with robotics, high-altitude UAVs, precision strike, protected vehicle mobility and special operations forces.

There are many diverse kinds of urban contingencies to consider in a wide range of localities: from all-out combat operations through humanitarian relief and the creation of protected enclaves and evacuation corridors for refugees and non-combatants to over-the-horizon littoral missions. The Western requirement is for a discriminate range of direct and indirect urban strategies that are based on the political interests involved and judged case by case. A discriminate strategy might embrace a siege-like containment of volatile cities; urban humanitarian evacuation and relief of threatened population groups by joint, inter-agency and multinational elements; the exploitation of high-technology assets for selective strikes; and the seizure of decisive points and nodes using joint military forces.


Because cities represent crucibles of civilisation it is uncomfortable to regard them as arenas for armed conflict. From the Athens of Pericles, through the Florence of the Medici and the Paris of Picasso to the Berlin of Brecht, cities have always sought to celebrate the splendour of human culture and to avoid the squalor of human conflict. This situation is now challenged by the global revolution in urban demography. While urban military operations of diverse types are likely to increase in future years, the broader security implications of the globe’s urban revolution are far from clear. This is especially so in terms of identifying causation and correlation between urban development and the incidence of armed violence.

Despite the recent Western military fashion for concentrating on megacities as a worst-case security environment, what is striking for the learned strategist is the fluidity, variety, diversity and unpredictability involved in the process of global urbanisation. As we come to grips with the notion of a world population that by 2050 will have changed in the space of a century from being predominantly rural to being overwhelmingly urban, we will discover that there is no simple or singular template available to understand the anatomy of urban conflict. Neither the art of war nor the science of cities offers an independent guide to urban studies specialists and security professionals when exploring the future battle-space of the metropolis. In order to achieve greater clarity of thought, the best way forward into the future is for more holistic and interdependent analysis to occur through alliances between the different fields of urban studies and war studies in universities, think-tanks, security research departments and military establishments.

Those concerned with urban conflict need to acquire a balanced and nuanced understanding of the ecology of the developing world’s cities. Military practitioners and urban studies scholars must come to view each other in the spirit of T.S. Eliot’s poetic quest for an exploration that improves mutual understanding; both camps must seek to avoid trading in a language that evokes either spectres of dystopia or visions of utopia. Many cities are unique in levels of governance, population composition and architectural design, and no single disciplinary perspective can capture the inherent complexities of using military force in urban areas. Methods evolved for the use of military force in cities must be constantly refined to meet an infinite variety of changeable contexts. In cities plagued by armed conflict, the particular and the heterogeneous are likely to be more illuminating than the general and the homogenous.

From a security perspective, then, the true novelty involved in militaries operating in twenty-first-century urban areas lies less in developing operational methodologies for megacities, than in the task of evolving and integrating doctrine and concepts for the varied and multi-disciplinary field of Western urban strategic studies. These studies must seek to highlight realistic policy choices on armed intervention in cities and to offer rules of engagement and operational solutions aimed at reducing violence and restricting casualties across a range of urban contingencies. Investment in a metropolitan form of strategic studies holds out the promise that, as a science of cities emerges and unfolds, Western militaries will become better prepared to confront the challenges of future conflict in an urban-dominated world.

Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College in Canberra and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University in Melbourne. He was Head of the Australian Army’s think-tank, the Land Warfare Studies Centre at the Royal Military College of Australia, Duntroon, from 2002 to 2006


5 thoughts on “Metropolis Now

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    A very frightening scenario painted above.
    Sun Tzu shows the way, he ordered that any of his generals who actually fought would be dismissed/executed. Today they term this approach psychological operations (psy-ops), asymetrical warfare, hybrid warfare, third generation warfare, cyber warfare etc, and one technique is human terrain mapping another is economic sanctions. That is the way to go if you want war. The aim, always, in smart warfare, is to scare the opposition into surrender. Bigger and nastier ‘boom-booms’, is for losers.

    Good old, hard working military strategy of courageous men, ‘boots on the ground’ was at work in Aleppo. Aleppo fell because the victorious forces (Russia, Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah) had a clear war goal, the Syrians were fighting for sovereignty in their own country and were saved from direct sabotage from NATO,Turkey, Saudis by a Russian aircraft carrier parked nearby.
    The USA, on the other hand, after eight years of Obama/Clinton had no war goal except war and could not be trusted in the Middle-East having supported just about every side, at various times in most ME wars. The USA persisted in dividing the death squad foreigners, nonsensically, into ‘moderates’ and extremists. They created Al Quada and other forces, and it has blown back in their faces.
    This is the eighth war(???), the USA could not bring to a climax. The USA is now excluded from the current peace conference over Syria. I hope Trump/Tillersen are true to DJT’s promise and ‘drains the swamp’ of all those State Department neo-con defeatists/ losers. He will start by cancelling all those expensive military procurement rorts.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    We in the west fight wars with compassion and avoid all out war. The only possible result – withdrawal and invariably the abandoning of those we went to war to protect.

    The past always re appears in the future.

    When all the chitter and chatter of the educated elites is done and the reality of the prospect of urban warfare will mean unacceptable costs a ‘ ‘ ‘doer’ like Truman will emerge. Like it or not that’s the future.

    Sun Tzu did not know of weapons that could devastate complete cities in a split second. Nor did he deal with a migrant terrorism and enclaves within cities. Nor did he know of the radical Islamic terrorism. Nor did he know of the cancer of moderate Islam.

    Truman showed how to end conflict to used within traditional urban cultures.
    Bashar, the Shites and the Russians at Aleppo showed the way to deal with enclaves within cities.

    Tzu’s practicality would have suggested first a warning, then a deterrent, followed by an example and finally a punishment.
    Truman missed a few steps. Bashar et el a are about to embark on the final phase.

    Tzu would never have adopted the Western approach of compassion towards a defeated enemy. That is uniquely Weetern.

    Tzu would pose the question; Why would you go to war if everything you valued, including your religion, your religious cities, would be utterly obliterated along with the culture spread from them?

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    Land use regulations captive workforces, trapped.

  • says:

    Besides battle ground tactics, responsibility for harm to civilians and human shields were aspects of urban territory warfare canvassed during the Gaza events – who is responsible for harm to voluntary or conscripted human shields. It’s not as simple as warfare conventions related to non-combatants in a combat zone. The Geneva Convention lays the relevant foundations.
    A Red Cross website –
    And another –

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Not everyone fights according to the Geneva conventions. It only knows of conventional wars and old technologies.

    Two points; I

    think today a revision would understand many so called ‘ non combatants’, support and assist, covertly, combatants.

    In past wars it was ok to intern those who could possibly give assistance to our enemies.

    We don’t do that today. We appease them and make excuses for them. Take the likes of Walid Ali. In conventional wars he’d be interred. Today his broadcasts undermine our understanding of the threat of both extreme and moderate Islam and how they are so at odds with our fundamental beliefs and cultures.

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