Mosul has been wrested from the three-year-old grasp of ISIS. In Raqqa, the cityscape is one of ruin and devastation as efforts to dislodge the group continue apace there, as well. However, a fundamental question remains. Each city has thus far survived the ISIS-related ills that have plagued it, but will they survive and recover from the massively destructive efforts to expel the group?
The honest answer is that we simply don’t know, largely because we don’t fully understand the cities themselves—their strengths, their vulnerabilities, the characteristics they share with other urban settings and those that are unique to them. But equally troubling is that we—the US military—don’t have the means or a method of dealing with urban security challenges that would have been any less destructive than those of the Iraqi forces in Mosul or the anti-ISIS forces fighting street by street in Raqqa. We, too, would have had little recourse other than essentially destroying the cities in order to save them.
Both of these problems stem from a common cause—the lack of a framework that helps us both to conceptualize cities and to map the effects on those cities of military operations in them. Among those that have been put forward, one in particular has gained some traction but deserves much more: understanding cities as dynamic living organisms.
Authors like Abel Wolman, Joel Tarr, David Kilcullen, and a recent cohort of the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group have argued that cities can be understood by looking at their “metabolic flows.” Like living organisms, these authors have shown how cities rely on material (food, air, water, electrical power, fuel), economic, and information inflows while also creating waste outflows, both vital to keeping the city alive. Building on this analogy can help not only to further understand cities, but also to know better how to treat them when they suffer any of a range of ills.
The analogy is useful first and most obviously as a sort of anatomical (or geographic) one. As the body has its core and appendages, a city has a core and peripheries; cells flows through a complex system of vessels just as people, resources, and information flow through a similarly complex infrastructure network; both the human body and the city are complex and adaptive, and both have dependence patterns between their constituent parts that can range from completely obvious to almost entirely hidden to anything but the most expert observer.
But unpacked further, the analogy offers an opportunity for the US military to develop an understanding specifically of cities as operating environments that it has heretofore lacked, as evidenced by a string of military undertakings that have been met with varying degrees of—and yet, in retrospect, arguably inevitable—failure to accomplish strategic (and sometimes even operation or tactical) objectives.
The chief problem is that because we don’t understand cities nearly as well as we could and have demonstrated that we know even less about how to optimize military actions in them, we are like medieval doctors, lobotomizing patients and letting their blood without improving their health and too often causing death or such life-long damage that the patient survives as only a dysfunctional shadow of itself. We cause incredible disruption and even destruction, but without any research-based evidence that these efforts will save the city.
But just as the medical field has progressed by learning its way toward better health solutions and organizing professionally in a way that optimizes patient outcomes, the US military can do the same with respect to its ability to operate effectively in cities when called upon to do so.
As a practical example, consider the treatment a cancer patient receives. The cancer may have been detected first during an appointment with a general practitioner scheduled after the patient began developing symptoms of illness. When tests discover a cancerous mass, the doctor refers the patient to a specialist—in this case an oncologist. This isn’t because the general practitioner serves no purpose; on the contrary, by handing off to another professional, trained to expert standard in a narrow subset of medicine, he can return to the much larger number of cases where his general medical education serves the greatest value. The oncologist manages a very specific challenge while the general practitioner cures a wide range of ailments, makes further referrals as needed, and saves lives in the emergency room.
Similarly, one of the US military’s greatest strengths is the high degree of professionalism and competence across a range of tasks of its conventional forces. But what happens when a challenge is encountered on the urban battlefield? Unfortunately, nothing. A tool is selected from the existing, limited suite of options and wielded by a generalist with no urban-specific expertise—no doubt a competent military professional, but a generalist nonetheless. There’s a better way.
Need to excise a cancer like ISIS without disrupting the governance and service provision that the group has been conducting for three years? Turn to a military professional who has been trained and equipped to know how to do so. Faced with a critical objective of isolating an enemy leader without disrupting the flows human and resource traffic that keep’s a city’s fragile economic pulse beating? Call in another specialist. But because the Defense Department does not doctrinally conceive of cities as something fundamentally unique, we don’t have those specialists.
Returning to the example of the cancer patient, once a cancer has been identified, a treatment plan is designed. This can include a surgical oncologist to remove cancerous masses, a medical oncologist to use chemotherapy, or a radiation oncologist to use radiation therapy. If surgery is a part of the treatment, the surgeon’s team undertakes an elaborate process to prep the patient. Each step is deliberate and aimed solely at maximizing the prospects of the surgery’s success. They scrub their hands and arms before donning gloves and masks to protect the patient, who will be in a temporary state of incredible vulnerability to infection. In the operating room, they undertake a choreographed routine to minimize the chances of an unintended mistake—each step based on generations of incrementally improved medical understanding of cause and effect.
Perhaps most importantly, the team hooks the patient up to a network of monitoring devices to constantly measure and evaluate vital signs, prepared to react to any change that signals a potential threat to the patient. Here again, the analogy highlights how ill-prepared the US military is to effectively enter an urban operating room and achieve defined objectives. Not only do we not have the tools to monitor a city’s vitals, but we don’t even have a consensus view of what those vitals are, or how their importance is weighted differently from one city to the next. What are the resource inflows and outflows on which a city is most dependent? How do we monitor the economic and sociopolitical heartbeat of a city, on which its stability rests? How do we know if a cure for one problem afflicting a city isn’t exacerbating another?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but neither, of course, were the many medical questions that, over a long period of advancement, have so dramatically improved health outcomes for patients. And this brings us to a final learning point from the cities-as-bodies analogy. Each of the doctors that take part in a patient’s treatment was trained within a formal educational system. The military likewise has a robust educational organization underpinning its training—although the level of specialization when it comes to training for urban environments remains woefully under-developed. But medical schools don’t just teach future doctors. They form the centerpiece of the medical research framework that constantly refines the profession’s understanding of medical challenges and develops new and more effective techniques to address them.
The US military has no such center of learning—and more critically, research—about cities, either as a unique form of terrain or as operating environments. The US Army, for instance, has the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, the Shughart-Gordon urban training complex at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, and mock cities of Razish and Ujen at Fort Irwin, California, along with a smattering of less ambitious efforts to replicate urban environments for training purposes. But even setting aside the problems of unrealistic venues and uneven training across the force, the focus solely on training is akin to, say, surgical students showing up infrequently to practice their craft on pigs or some other stand-in for human patients, without a long and rigorous period of classroom instruction. Worse, without a research program that informs the training, those surgical students might be stuck practicing the same, timeworn and ineffective processes year in and year out. That’s clearly not good enough for a profession whose members hold lives in their hands, and it should not be good enough for a professional military force in an increasingly urban world.
From Hue to Fallujah, the US military has ample evidence that we need to improve the way we operate in cities. But before we can do that, we need to figure out a better way to think about cities. With their complexity, their dynamism, their individual quirks, and their vulnerabilities, the analogy to the human body is too obvious to ignore. If effectively contending with the array of difficult security challenges cities pose is the goal, following the path to get there will not be an easy task. Thankfully, the medical profession has left us a trail of breadcrumbs to get us on our way.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Jason Hull, US Army
This is an interesting analogy. I think it has a lot of merit.
I think it would be valuable to designate a BCT as the focal point for the study and understanding of fighting in cities. They would be the doctrinal experimenters and proponents. The leaders must have some experience, but more importantly, they need to be deep thinkers who can look beyond their own experiences. They would then be the "specialists" to which this article refers. They would write doctrine, facilitate leader training, inject ideas into the school houses, etc. Ideally they would be the experts and specialists, but they would educate the rest of the Army and DoD to be nearly as good. The alumni of such an organization would be the Jedi Knights of the future to help plan and execute operations in densely packed urban environments.
This requires the appropriate training areas and simulation capabilities — not just for training but for doctrine development, experimentation, analysis, acquisition, etc. I have already posted my thoughts about how we might create such a robust environment to another article from the Modern War Institute.
This is a great article in that it identifies a key capability shortfall of conventional forces. Where it falls short is that the Army has already identified this problem and taken some steps to remedy it.
First things first, urban theory is a complex field of study that blends multiple disciplines like economics, sociology, planning theory, and social theory. While the medical analogy is a useful one, it has its limits (see Morgan's "Images of Organization"), and we should be careful how much work we expect it to do. City political and social life is extremely messy, especially in the developing world.
Second, this capability is squarely within the mission set of the Civil Affairs branch. But even the CA branch recognized fairly early during OIF that it lacked many of these capabilities (see LTC Scot N. Storey's strategy research project entitled "Rebalancing Army Civil Affairs: the Key to Military Governance"). So it created the Military Governance Specialist area of concentration (http://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2015/06/08/reserve-officers-sought-for-new-civil-affairs-specialty/). USASOC also created the Institute of Military Governance (http://www.soc.mil/swcs/IMSG/index.htm) to perform the research role you mention. But even this organization will have to piggy-back off research conducted by civilian planning and urban studies departments.
Third, it is probably unrealistic to ask a training center to effectively replicate urban environments for anything other than tactical or operational training. This is why over 90% of the Army's Civil Affairs force is in the United States Army Reserve. This allows the Army to mobilize – at least theoretically, as the devil is always in the details of the UMR – city managers, city planners, lawyers, judges, police chiefs, superintendents of education, utility superintendents, public works directors, environmental health specialists, public health specialists, economists, agronomists, and now even specialists in art and archives preservation and curation.
But ultimately, the biggest challenge lies with the commanders of operational forces. There are no easy or quick answers when it comes to cities, outside of stabilizing urban populations during the conduct of operations on the war end of the ROMO spectrum. . At least not for the long term, anyway. Long term stability will require sustainable solutions. And that is where it really gets difficult. And expensive. And the commander with a one-year deployment may be unwilling to take the time necessary for that.
You make an excellent point about using the expertise of our reservists. Back during the Spanish American War when I was training lieutenants at Ft. Benning, I had a class full of reservists. Their perspectives were interesting. (For several of the police officers, I had a hard time teaching them that they didn't have to take down the enemy by themselves; they had a whole platoon to help.) You are right that a good many of our reservists have the necessary skills and experience to play a major role in urban operations. We might think hard about how better to leverage that expertise.
And to tag on to my comment on long-term solutions, in the spirit of joint/unified land operations doctrine, I suppose that's where USAID comes in. https://urban-links.org/
I like the metaphor as a vehicle for exploring the issues of urban operations. In my experience, too many perceive the combat operations in Iraq and Syria as being successful and appropriate to the tactical situation. But I disagree, we must do better, especially in future dense, megacities. Our current training sites, however well planned, are not appropriate to the task.
One approach, which could incorporate your thesis would be to consider moving some of our bases (or at least the urban 'specialists') into these cities. This would force operators to contend and incorporate the city as a system in all unit activities, whether going to work, or practicing the art of urban operations, including working closely with public and private organisations and media.
Where the Army needs to do much better is in managing the presence of the civilian population. Even FM 3-06, Urban Operations, dedicates less than 10 pages out of 316 to dealing with the in-place civilian population. While tactical training acknowledges interaction with civilian populations, doctrine, force structure (see the MWI article on CA), and most planning continue to assume either a mostly sterile battlespace or that someone else will take care of the problem. History belies that assumption: it wasn't true in Stalingrad, nor Arnhem, nor Aachen, nor Seoul, nor Hue, let alone Fallujah or Mosul. Nor can the Army pawn this off on interagency partners or NGOs. Neither USAID, FEMA, or anyone else will start operating in an area that's not completely secured, and many won't have the logistical or engineering resources to initiate recovery operations for an occupied city laid waste.
The Army Science Board study on the "Character of Future War" suggests that we should embrace the opportunities as well as the challenges of cities in the 21st century. Those opportunities include concealment from sensors, protection against long range fires and logistics foraging (e.g. access to clean water (bottling plants, manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing) and communications.)
Who will run said "opportunities"? If the local population, the current practice of saddling the tactical commander with negotiating support will rapidly crumble under higher intensity operations. If not, does the Army have enough CSS capacity to run utilities, manufacturing, and city-wide communications on their own? Doubtful. It's a fine recommendation, but still demands changes to Army doctrine and force structure.
Alan Beyerchen at Ohio State always preferred the human body metaphor. We've treated it like a machine instead. Problem with a machine is it's too simple: you can take it apart and put it back together and it works– "reconstruction." Human body–not so easy. We like to oversimplify, focus everything on one or three lines of operation–linear thinking. Cities ain't very linear.
A BETTER APPROACH TO URBAN OPERATIONS: TREAT CITIES LIKE HUMAN BODIES – Interesting concept to look at a city as like the human body and learning to target specific areas/problems once identified, with specialist. I believe this would achieve greater success in an urban/city environment, rather than the big Green machine rolling in. To become a specialist in Urban warfare would I believe be extremely difficult and attempting to replicate anywhere near a real city environment, with a training environment is impossible. However I think attempting to do so is the way forward and as the paper says "Target the cancer" before its spreads.
One of our issues is our limited tool kit of weapons that cant limit the amount of force applied. What I propose is "Limited fire support for limited warfare"
Artillery is the only fire support weapon that is scaleable in both range and destructive force. Used as a large bore, crew served weapon, tube Artillery can deliver focused lethality. Other conventional systems in use today were originally developed for open warfare, [mass killing]. Modifications added to increase accuracy and hard target penetration only address half of the problem. A complete solution for URBAN warfare must both penetrate buildings and scale the amount of force delivered. As a separate loading system, Artillery can prevent over penetration of URBAN targets through a variety of means. Brigade Commanders already own 12-18 complete systems, with no additional coordination required!
Howitzer direct fire; assault fire, and indirect fire are established skill sets used in crew certification. With adequate risk mitigation and planning, Artillery’s unique ability to deliver scaleable fire support for limited warfare can reduce collateral damage, avoid civilian casualties, and is economically supportable over the course of a long war.
By conducting a quick comparison contrast with other systems in use, one will quickly notice the lack of any ability to limit over penetration of the target area or destructive force used. Take for instance the main battle tank; nothing can compete with its combination of firepower, accuracy, and crew protection. However, in a close urban fight its limited main gun elevation prevents it from engaging elevated targets. The tanks inability to ramp up or down his firing velocity, or swap out different projectile and fuse combinations [in the field] limits its ability to reduce collateral damage. Buildings are much easier to repair if they only have breach holes in selected spaces as opposed to complete destruction.
By comparison, tube Artillery’s ability to reach very high firing angles in direct fire allow it to engage elevated targets at the close ranges experienced in URBAN fighting. Artillery’s ability to adjust “on site” the amount of energy used in firing, and use a wide variety of projectile and fuse combinations allow it to modify its effects on target. At the high end of destruction tube Artillery can engage targets using concrete piercing fuses fitted to high explosive projectiles fired at maximum velocity. At the lower end, Artillery systems can attack with non-exploding training munitions at a reduced speed relying on velocity, and mass to achieve effects. In an URBAN fight Artillery can be employed as if it were a gas- powered wrecking ball, firing steel-coated concrete blocks.
With the recent fielding of Howitzer night sight systems, Artillery crews can conduct these missions under the cover of darkness. Using different combinations of issued thermal weapon sights, night sights, and infrared aiming lasers, engagements can be planned and executed much like AC 130 H/U gunship missions. The supported unit can designate what portion of a structure to attack with any common infrared aiming device. The Artillery crew then confirms the target with its own laser, and on order, delivers focused lethality, limiting collateral damage.
When compared to rockets and missiles you will find many of the same limitations that apply to the Tank. While these systems are very accurate, they are also very expensive.
With rocket prices ranging from $10,000 to 25,000 dollars per shot, Artillery’s cost of $ 250.00 for a box of two complete rounds is quite a bargain. The cost benefit of leveraging Artillery’s ability to deliver scaleable destruction for limited warfare addresses the issue of supporting a long war.
Baron Von Clausewitz once said, “War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds”, and I think he is right. However, you do have to ask yourself at the end of every engagement, how many insurgents did I kill, and how many did I create. Indiscriminate destruction aids the enemy’s recruiting efforts and reduces popular support among the locals.
Limited destruction for limited war is also an information operations success
Scalable fire support for limited warfare is an information operations success. Even if it is never used in combat. Demonstrating willingness to avoid civilian causalities reads well with our allies and US citizens alike. Consider the fact that almost all-future population growth will be in URBAN areas, our current and future enemies will choose to fight among the population. As a moral nation, the effect of so many human shields limit’s our options in combat. For our foreign allies whose security forces may have to fight within its own cities, among its own citizens, scaleable fire support is a must.
With limited budgets, tube Artillery’s focused lethality will allow them to achieve their victories while minimizing collateral damage. At the State Department level, our Artillery night sight systems could be easily modified to accommodate their fire support assets.
With tube Artillery employed as a large bore crew-served weapon, possible non-standard missions include;
1. Follow and support with direct fire / assault fire.
2. As part of an Infantry hard point defense for early entry forces.
3. Planned limited destruction missions near occupied and protected structures.
4. In support of combat Engineers conducting shaping operations.
Techniques for fragmentation mitigation vary as one progress from highly lethal to less lethal fires. At the high end of destruction concrete piercing fuses fitted to conventional high explosive rounds are fired into a structure detonating after penetration using the building itself to contain fragments. That same mission fired using a projectile constructed with high fragmentation steel detonated either in or on the target will increase the probability of a hit as well as produce less collateral damage.
For those readers not acquainted with high fragmentation steel, this is one case where size really does matter. Using the blast pattern of a typical 105mm High Explosive round as my benchmark for destruction, I will explain the difference between large and small fragmentation. A typical 105mm round produces between 3,000 – 5,000 fragments, that range in size from one pound, to several grams in weight. By comparison a typical High Fragmentation round produces more than 14,000 fragments. When concerned with collateral damage smaller fragments are better as they retain less kinetic energy, travel shorter distances, yet increase the probability of a lethal hit.
I am not proposing that Artillery be used as a stand-alone weapon, however; when employed as a large bore crew served weapon, it can do the ugly job in a crude manner, with tailored effects