“Contrary to what is often supposed, urban warfare is not more difficult than other types of warfare.” That’s what a recent article published in the Texas National Security Review argues. The authors believe, in fact, that urban environments are “neutral,” not to be feared—that, as in almost every other environment, the better-trained and more-professional force should have an advantage.
Unfortunately, history does not support this notion of urban terrain’s neutrality, nor do the realities of modern warfare. The article presents solutions to urban challenges, but is mistaken in its characterization of these challenges as simple dilemmas.
British soldier F. Spencer Chapman once wrote of a very different type of terrain,
The truth is that the jungle is neutral. It provides any amount of fresh water, and unlimited cover for friend as well as foe—an armed neutrality, if you like, but neutrality nevertheless. It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ The jungle itself is neutral.
Chapman wrote this in his book The Jungle is Neutral, which details his story of survival, resistance, and insurgency behind enemy lines in Malaya during World War II. Chapman’s words should not be taken out of context and applied to other forms of warfare or environments. More broadly, they are also wrong. Neutrality in an environment would mean it does not assist either side. That is not true in warfare, not true in jungles, and definitely not true in urban combat.
The authors of the Texas National Security Review article—Dr. David Betz, a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, and Lt. Col. Hugo Stanford-Tuck, an infantry officer with the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles—should be commended for contributing to a very important debate that does desperately need different paradigms and deeper thought. But this specific article included important contextual gaps, inaccurate claims, and as a result, dangerous recommendations.
Types of Warfare—and Why They Matter
As Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”
Discussions of war should, of course, never be separated from the political objectives in pursuit of which wars are fought. But warfare is specifically characterized by the method of fighting and the tactics, techniques, and technology used. So when seeking to determine which environments are especially difficult to fight in, it is important to specify the type of fighting—the type of warfare—in question. This is an important conceptual gap in Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s article.
The changing character of warfare does matter. There are few parallels between ancient historical accounts about fighting in cities and the character of urban combat today. Not accounting for the social or technological changes in which a war is fought is an abuse of military history and as dangerous as not recognizing history at all. Assessments about the difficulty of urban warfare today in comparison to other environments or with reference to past conflicts need to be fully contextualized to have contemporary value. War and warfare must be understood in the context of their social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological dimensions.
The political consequences of civilian casualties in warfare, for example, have dramatically increased. If one is to compare the urban warfare of antiquity to that of today, analysts should ensure their readers know that the killing of men with little regard to their combatant status and the enslavement of women and children was the norm for centuries. They should know that warfare fought by soldiers armed with swords, spears, arrows, and horses is vastly different—on many levels, including tactics and effects on soldiers and societies—than battles fought with gunpowder, tanks, armor-piercing explosive devices, and bombs that can turn city blocks into piles of smoking dust.
Urban warfare can take many forms, depending on variables, including the nature of the enemy, the political and strategic context, as well as the tactical situation. Is the urban area a permissive environment where a military force can move for the most part unobstructed but there is a small enemy element that must be found and destroyed? Or is the area completely nonpermissive and the military must fight just to get into the environment to begin searching for the enemy force? Even this one single characteristic matters—and it’s one among many that need to be considered to assess whether an environment is difficult to fight in.
Not only do few modern militaries have experience fighting in cities, urban fighting is not part of their corporate memories. Militaries have a long history of fighting for cities, but not in them. The earliest forms of urban warfare primarily involved sieges, which can be traced back to antiquity. We have detailed accounts of their conduct by the Romans and Greeks—including Alexander the Great. They remained a dominant and decisive military option through the Middle Ages. During siege warfare, fighting mainly occurred at the fortifications surrounding cities. Once the fortifications of a city were breached by the attackers, the city either capitulated or was brutally sacked. The invention of gunpowder-based weapons and advancements in artillery eventually brought an end to the era of siege warfare.
Even after the era in which sieges dominated, from the latter part seventeenth century, the professional armies of European kings ascribed to norms of decisive battle in the open. Similarly, with the rise of the levée en masse that followed, armies did not fight in urban areas—even when capturing a city was a primary operational objective—except when they were repressing domestic uprisings. With surprisingly few exceptions, urban warfare is a modern phenomenon.
It was not until World War II that Western military formations experienced heavy and frequent fighting in cities. Even then, a majority of the urban fighting was a part of much wider campaigns fought in rural areas. Even the often-referenced Battle of Stalingrad saw most of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group South (B) and major proportions of Gen. Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army fighting in the countryside around the city where they were later surrounded by the numerically superior Soviet armies.
The two main types of operations that Betz and Stanford-Tuck continually refer to in their article in support of their argument about cities being neutral are counterinsurgencies and attacks against an enemy defending from within a city. These two missions are very different and require different military capabilities, tactics, and considerations. At times the article discusses assaulting a besieged city but recommends tactics that are more appropriate to a counterinsurgency or urban-policing mission—such as becoming the “strongest gang” in the area.
During an urban counterinsurgency operation, military forces are deployed by a government to defeat an insurgency. Military forces conducting counterinsurgencies will frequently be tasked to defeat armed resistance, reduce passive opposition, establish or reestablish host-nation legitimacy, restore civil order, and assist with other stability operations. Counterinsurgencies are a complex subset of warfare. The insurgents can use a range of guerrilla, terrorist, and paramilitary tactics in pursuit of their political objectives. While urban insurgency campaigns can involve pitched battles against massed insurgent forces, more frequently insurgents attempt to blend in with local populations to conduct hit-and-run strikes as well as operations aimed at swaying public sentiment in their favor. This ability to hide among the people is one of the insurgent’s strengths and increases in highly populated areas. Dense urban areas also provide insurgents with high concentrations of targets and resources that other environments do not. They offer concentrations of large populations to blend in with, government forces and establishments to strike, dense physical terrain that is ideal for ambush sites, sniper perches, and escape routes, and easy access to food, water, and money. That’s why urban guerrilla advocate Carlos Marighella believed cities to have ideal conditions for insurgents.
Military forces fighting an urban counterinsurgency are usually conducting operations in a permissive environment. Everyday life of the city continues while the military looks to use a range of intelligence capabilities and search operations to both find insurgents and separate them physically and ideologically from the rest of the population. Once found, the military conducts intelligence-driven raids to kill or capture insurgents. Counterinsurgency operations also often involve stability operations meant to address the underlying social, political, and economic conditions allowing insurgencies to persist.
Thus, to argue that conducting a counterinsurgency in a jungle, mountain, desert, or any other environment is more difficult than an urban is not logical. Trying to find, separate, capture, or kill a small group of individuals without drastically changing the environment is orders of magnitude harder where there are tens of thousands or millions of people compared to all other environments that do not contain this density of populations.
The other military operation the “neutral cities” article references—and one that is often the topic of discussion pertaining to urban combat—is conducting a deliberate assault against an enemy force defending within an urban area with the purpose of clearing, seizing, or securing that area. This operation involves fighting in a nonpermissive environment in which the area most be penetrated to even gain access to the urban battlespace. Every part of the operating environment could contain an armed combatant force. That was the situation for most urban battles of World War II, including Stalingrad, Aachen, Manila, and Berlin, and also in the battles of Seoul, Hue, and Fallujah.. Each of these involved clearing defending enemy out of dense urban areas.
The Overarching Challenges in Urban Warfare
There are two overarching challenges when conducting a military operation in an urban area. One is simply being able to understand the environment. The other is being able to understand how to operate in the environment. Both these challenges are harder to do in an urban environment than any other. Claims of cities’ neutrality as operating environments only stand if these challenges are downplayed or ignored.
Understanding urban areas is complicated. Cities are complex adaptive systems—or more accurately, many systems of systems that allow the unique civil, social, and economic conditions that originally drove cities’ development and continue to allow the city to survive as an optimized hub of a large civilization. Like other complex systems, when it is touched, it changes, and the system’s complexity makes it nearly impossible to truly know the second- or third-order effects of those changes. Moreover, the increased connections of urban people and places means changes in one city can impact many other urban areas. No matter the metric, when a military interacts with the systems of an urban area, the effects (to residents, to local and global economies, and to the natural stasis of the system) are far higher than the costs in any other environment.
The very introduction of military forces into a city changes it. Combat operations can disrupt and destroy many parts of a city. There is physical destruction, clearly, of buildings, homes, and infrastructure, but combat can also destroy political power systems, social processes, and the natural flows of a city. These changes can negatively impact millions of people and result in billions of dollars in costs. This effect of warfare on the urban environment—its people, terrain, infrastructure—also has no parallel, in scope or magnitude, in any other environment.
Understanding how to operate in a city depends on the mission given to the military. In an urban counterinsurgency, military forces must understand the human geography in order to achieve their mission of finding, separating, fixing, and finishing the enemy. They must understand the city as a system to identify the requirements of the people they wish to safeguard from the enemy and those on whom they are dependent for intelligence. The people and their support systems are the terrain and understanding how to conduct an urban counterinsurgency is much harder than in any other environment. Conducting a city assault—the other mission Betz and Stanford-Tuck highlighted in their article—requires understanding how to use military force to achieve the mission of either destroying the enemy in its entirety or seizing the physical terrain with the lowest possible risk to the attacker, residents, and built environment. Regardless of mission, cities require militaries to conceptualize ways to operate that are unique to the environment.
The City is Neutral?
Contrary to the Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s thesis, an urban environment will never be neutral while civilians are present. Certain terms, like “urban environment” and even “city,” have their own complicated and often controversial definitions. The article in question is right to highlight that most militaries recognize that urban environments are defined by the presence of three components: a complex, man-made, physical terrain; a population of significant size and density; and a supporting infrastructure. Most dictionaries define cities in relation to smaller population centers—of “greater size, population, or importance,” for example, “than a town or village.” Doctrinal definitions often classify environments based on population size. Other classifications add to population size factors like governance and administrative borders, functional areas and roles, or even royal decree. Although the article does not further define the urban environment Betz and Stanford-Tuck describe as neutral, we can assume they mean large and densely populated areas.
People are partisan. They can and will act to constrain, support, reject, limit, block, or displace military operations. The fact that people might be found in other environments, although definitionally not in such high density, is irrelevant. Urban means high concentrations of people and people in the middle of warfare do not influence both sides equally—thus they are not “neutral.”
The article’s claim that civilian populations “may be evacuated, limiting their exposure to harm,” thereby making military operations less difficult, is at odds with experience and consequently not a prudent planning assumption. Historical case studies of urban combat show that no matter the scale of militaries’ efforts to evacuate cities before major assaults, some civilians always remain. This has been the case in almost every single major urban battle in the modern age. For example, in the 1944 Battle of Aachen, even after two mandatory evacuations (one by the Germans and one by the Americans) there were still an estimated seven thousand civilians in the city at the beginning of the battle and one thousand remained by the time it ended. In 2004, there were six months between the first and second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq, during which time civilians were notified of impending operations and encouraged to leave. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the estimated three hundred thousand residents vacated the city—but that still left thirty to ninety thousand civilians present during the fighting.
Even if the civilians within urban areas could be evacuated, the urban physical terrain that remains is not neutral. There is an assumption that the terrain can be manipulated to the advantage of whichever side has better tactics or is better trained. That is simply not accurate. The large advantage that urban terrain provides to a defending force—even a weaker one—gives the occupier of the terrain a significant advantage. In warfare, it is neither wise to hope for an empty battlefield or a sound planning assumption that one can reach the terrain first. Militaries have historically been presented with no option other than to attack weaker enemies in dense urban terrain—and confront the important advantages that terrain gives to the defender.
Urban Warfare is Not More Difficult than Other Types of Warfare?
In the context of both a counterinsurgency and deliberate assault, urban combat is the most difficult form of warfare because the environment is both the most physically constraining and also involves the most constraints from a policy perspective.
Evaluating the difficulty of warfare in a specific environment requires considering both the environment itself and the military capabilities available to achieve the task in that environment. Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s arguments focus mainly on military methods but pay less attention to how the environment itself constrains modern military capabilities.
It is partially right to argue, as their article does, that many of the tactical challenges of the physical terrain of dense urban areas—how it constrains military units from conducting maneuver warfare by breaking them up into disconnected small fighting elements; how it offers a defender thousands of hidden and protected ambush sites; how it helps prevent a defender from being surprised; how it limits the ability to see and strike an enemy with military ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and aerial weapon capabilities; and how it interferes with global positioning systems and radio transmissions—are all equally true, if not more so, in thick jungle environments. But one of the many differences between the jungle and dense urban terrain is how the physical terrain limits the effects of the weapons of an attacking military force. The ferns, vines, and bush of jungles or thick trees of wooded areas are an obstacle and may provide a defender great concealment from observation, but provide little covering protection from bullets and bombs; indeed, trees can enhance the effects of artillery rounds. Concrete, on the other hand, limits (and in many cases, stops) the effects of an attacker’s weapons (as well as their navigation and radio signals) and provides a defending force ready-made bunkers throughout the environment.
The physical terrain of cities has changed across time. In the past, the fortifications that protected cities were robust, but interior home and building construction was not. Advancements in building materials have changed and now the city walls are gone, but many structures within the city are made of steel rebar–reinforced concrete that serve as instant fortifications. This makes many urban sites superior defensive locations with little to no investment of time or resources.
Also, unlike other environments, military force applied to urban terrain historically increases the difficulty of conducting operations in it. The preparatory and assaulting fires from airstrikes, artillery, and mortars creates rubble that in turn makes the terrain easier to defend and harder to attack. The rubble blocks vehicle movements and, in many cases, creates even stronger fortifications than the buildings provided while standing. The commanding officer of the US mission in support of the Iraqi Army during the final battle to liberate Mosul in 2017, Gen. Stephen Townsend, described it by saying, “The buildings had been turned into bunkers. Imagine a five-story building and the top four floors are gone. They’re rubble now and that rubble is twenty and thirty feet deep on top of the first floor and the basement floor. . . . You couldn’t build a better bomb-proof shelter than that. If you tried to erect it, it would be easier to penetrate that with our munitions than the accidental bunkers created by rubble.”
The ready-made defensive qualities of urban terrain cannot be overlooked. While defensive sites can be prepared in other environments such as mountains and jungles, it takes large investments in time and resources to do so. Fortified concrete bunkers, pillboxes, towers, and gun positions must be constructed. Tunnels and underground military complexes must be dug. This constructed defensive infrastructure can take months if not years to make other environments defensible. The Japanese invested over a year to supplement the existing natural defensive qualities of the island of Iwo Jima for the eventual United States attack and communist forces spent years digging networks of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam. In urban areas, it is already there.
Urban Warfare Doesn’t Favor the Defense over the Offense?
Clausewitz was right in his conclusions about the defense. “It is easier to hold ground than to take it. It follows that defense is easier than attack,” he wrote. “If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, if follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object.” In short, not only is defense the “stronger form of war,” it is the tactic of the weaker force.
In their article, Betz and Stanford-Tuck emphasize not allowing the enemy time to establish a defense. They also suggest the best advice military officers can give to political leaders is that they should think twice before ordering the military to assault a city. Both of these points are irrelevant to an assessment of whether conducting a deliberate assault against an urban defense is more difficult than doing so in other types of terrain.
History is full of examples of enemy forces quickly occupying dense urban areas and using the existing physical terrain to create fortified positions that would take years to build in other environments. Single buildings can and have been turned into battlefields. Despite Betz and Stnford-Tuck’s recommendation to forget the 1942–43 Battle of Stalingrad—they believe no similar battle for a city will ever be fought with such vigor and commitment of resources—that battle included a long list of single structures being turned into fortresses with little time and resources. In the summer of 1942, Sgt. Yakov Pavlov and roughly twenty other Soviet soldiers occupied a small apartment building. The soldiers put machine guns at windows to cover all approaches to the building and emplaced wire and antipersonnel and antitank mines around the exterior. When the building was bombed, the men moved into the basement. When German tanks attacked, the small band of Red Army defenders shot antitank rifle fire down from floors above the point where the attacking tanks could elevate their guns. Pavlov’s men are credited with destroying over a dozen German tanks. Despite German attacks with up to a division of tanks and infantry, Pavlov’s small group held the house for two months. The Germans lost more men attacking the house than they did during their entire push to Paris in 1940.
This rapid and easy use of the urban physical terrain for military purposes has also been seen in many other battles and theaters of war. In the Battle of Manila in 1945, Japanese forces, mostly poorly trained sailors, turned the steel-reinforced concrete buildings of the city into a series of fortified strongholds. They made barricades out of cars, laid mines along roads, filled windows with concrete, made gun slits in walls, and dug tunnels connecting select buildings. The attacking US forces of the 1st Cavalry Division quickly learned that reducing the Japanese strongpoints required deliberate and overwhelming force. They developed a tactic that required a full battalion to attack a single multi-story building. For example, on February 20, 1945, the Americans used a battalion to clear a large building, Rizal Hall, within the University of the Philippines complex. They fired two hours of preparatory fire before breaching the exterior walls, although that fire did not flatten the building. Inside, the Americans found that the Japanese had created bunkers throughout the building, which was itself a bunker. For two days the opposing forces literally fought an indoor battle, hurling grenades at each other from room to room. Rizal Hall is also an example of how dense urban terrain can contain numerous micro-environments. Urban battles have even seen opposing forces controlling different floors of the same structure at the same time.
The Challenges of Urban Warfare aren’t New?
Urban warfare means fighting among a population and is therefore the most constraining on the use of force. That makes it alarming that Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s study of whether urban warfare is especially difficult did not once mention international humanitarian law. Even if one makes an argument that the challenges presented by the complex physical terrain and the presence of noncombatants have remained the same across time, the same cannot be said with respect to the constraints on military force. Modern militaries are expected by their governments and populations to execute warfare within the bounds of recognized laws, treaties, customs, norms, and moral standards. Since World War II, there have been numerous additions to the laws of war that guide the actions of participants in armed conflict These laws dictate how military combat will be carried out and what the military can and cannot attack, with a special emphasis on protection of civilians and civilian objects in warfare.
The four basic principles of the law of armed conflict, otherwise called international humanitarian law—distinction, proportionality, military necessity, and avoidance of unnecessary suffering—are most relevant in urban combat. Urban areas require military commanders to consider the use of force in greater detail and apply more constraints on the use of force than any other environment. Unlike all the other environments where military forces might fight, urban areas contain a density of protected population and objects that limit the methods of warfare that can be applied. This, again, makes urban warfare uniquely difficult because military commanders must consider more variables on how they will accomplish their mission than in, say, a jungle or a desert.
In one of the boldest claims Betz and Stanford-Tuck make in their article is that the primacy of politics, political interconnectedness, media influence, and tactical complexity—hallmarks of contemporary urban operational environments—have not changed in two thousand years. They cite the example of Roman troops attacking Jerusalem in 70 AD to show the tactical complexity of fighting among a hostile population, arguing “that this battle involved swords and clubs rather than M-4s and AK-47s matters little—just replace ‘archers’ and ‘arrows’ [in Flavius Josephus’s account of the battle] with ‘close combat attack’ and ‘armed aviation’ and the scene has an obvious contemporary resonance.” This is a gross oversimplification of the tactical challenges of close combat, the capabilities and lethality of modern military methods, psychological and physiological impact of explosive weapons, and risk to soldiers and civilians in warfare.
Furthermore, the Roman legions were repeatedly repulsed on the narrow streets of Jerusalem by untrained rebels throwing rocks from the roofs above. Yet the Roman tactic of forming protective formations using their heavy shields was pretty much invincible in open terrain. Thus, the Battle of Jerusalem actually supports the argument that the city is not neutral—the constraining terrain allowed for a weaker defending force to gain tremendous advantage over the attacking Romans.
Betz and Stanford-Tuck also use the ancient Roman battle as an example of the impacts of tactical actions on strategic political issues and political interconnectedness in warfare. The military commander of the Roman force was the son of the newly elected emperor and the results of the battle supposedly could have undermined the emperor’s political power. This example has little resemblance the complexity of political control and societal influences on modern military forces during urban warfare today. The information from the Roman army’s battle might have reached the Senate weeks later; in urban combat today societies and the governments can watch their militaries fight in real time. Information from battles no longer require messengers running from Marathon to Athens to announce victories, or even popular and credible media personalities like Walter Cronkite flying back to the United States after visiting Vietnam to report that the war was mired in stalemate.
Any urban environment today will have thousands of instant messengers. There are few barriers to getting information from a combat zone today, and information is most readily available and waiting to be transmitted in urban environments. Not only can the plentiful media that is found on a modern battlefield broadcast live and unfiltered images, but every photo or video captured by a cell phone can be uploaded on the internet and instantly shape the narrative of the battle.
Simply put, in order to assess the difficulty of urban warfare today, any effort to do so must take place in the full context of the constraints on military forces. That is why the best use of the 70 AD siege of Jerusalem is to show the difference in expectations surrounding the use of military force between then and now. Once the Roman legions breached Jerusalem’s walls they proceeded to punish the resisters in a systematic sack of the city. Thousands of noncombatants were executed, enslaved, or sent for slaughter. The temple that served as the center of Judaism was destroyed. Today, the same urban mission—capture a city—would have to be accomplished while minimizing harm to protected populations and sites. The armies of Western democracies and their allies that wish to maintain their legitimacy and political support must today execute their tasks, no different than those of their ancient Roman counterparts, in compliance with the law of armed conflict and the expectations of their societies, in many cases in the real-time view of their governments, their populations, and the world—clearly not only very different but much, much harder. Consider, as an example, the First Battle of Fallujah in 2004, when American forces were completely halted—in the middle of the operation—under pressure from Iraqi authorities after images of civilian casualties were broadcast around the world.
The difficulty of conducting urban warfare within the legal, moral, and ethical constraints of one’s society and international norms is only increasing as, more and more, warfare moves into dense urban terrain and is increasingly conducted under the watchful eye of a connected world. As an example of these changes, in response to an explosion of urban combat in the last five to ten years, many groups and key leaders—from the International Committee of the Red Cross to the United Nations Secretary-General—are advocating for a political declaration to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated urban areas. Over 130 countries recently met under the United Nations banner to discuss such a declaration. The effort is similar to the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, endorsed by ninety-nine countries, whereby governments have committed to restrict their use of schools—as military headquarters, for example—during combat. These actions implement policy commitments for countries and their militaries to constrain their methods of warfare, which contributes to making urban warfare the most difficult type of fighting for military forces.*
With better articulation of the context of urban warfare—including specifics about the mission, enemy, constraints on military force, terrain construction, and other environmental conditions—dedicated researchers can not only see why urban warfare is the hardest, but also better understand the formation of tactics and approaches that have been learned and developed over time. These include the number and composition of troops required to accomplish tasks like assaults on a fortified urban structure or to conduct an urban counterinsurgency, the use of firepower to allow attackers to get closer to defended positions, and the organization of attacking forces.
Despite citing little of either quantitative or qualitive research, wargaming, or experimentation, Betz and Stanford-Tuck make several recommendations that they argue would make urban warfare even easier than they assert it already is. Specifically, they recommend that militaries give up approaches that are “reliant upon massive firepower and overwhelming manpower,” become more imaginative, be less risk-averse and rule-bound, and become the “strongest gang” in urban combat.
Their article’s argument has fallen victim to a particular fallacy, the mistaken belief that precision-guided munitions necessarily make urban combat easier for an attacking military and less destructive to the urban environment. They write that “technological advances in the form of precision-fire weapons supported by unmanned aerial vehicles reduce the requirement for conventional artillery, even if they do not replace them altogether.” Recent operations in Iraq and Syria strongly call this assertion into question. US Army scholar Amos Fox has written widely on the fallacy, describing it as the precision paradox, wherein the practice of targeting enemy forces in dense, concrete urban terrain has actually resulted in systematic destruction of cities because of the large number of strikes required to engage targets in such hardened structures. In the 2017 Battle of Mosul, the US military forces supporting Iraqi ground forces nearly depleted their entire precision-guided munitions stockpile attempting to precisely strike enemy positions. The enemy within the buildings often were in fact not destroyed because of the protection of the structure, or simply moved by underground tunnels to an adjacent building which became the next structure to be targeted for destruction. Furthermore, the promise of precision-guided munitions has yet to reduce the need for conventional artillery in city assaults. In the recent five-month Battle of Raqqa, Syria, US Marines fired thirty-five thousand artillery rounds against Islamic State terrorists. That is more rounds than any Marine artillery battalion has fired since the Vietnam War. The threat of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 was so high that the American military decided to strike every visible vehicle on the streets of the city with an artillery round to eliminate the potential threats to the attacking troops.
The amount of forces needed to accomplish a military task is a decision for military commanders and planners that takes into consideration range of variables—the assigned mission; enemy composition, disposition, and strength; troops, time, and capabilities available; terrain; tactical risks; and the history of successful operations with a similar task and in similar situations. For urban operations, current US Army doctrine states, “Major urban operations, particularly those that are opposed, require a significant number of forces of which infantry will be the largest portion. History suggests urban offensive missions require three to five times greater troop density than for similar missions in open terrain.” The article is not specific, but it does imply that militaries could accomplish everything from reducing individual fortified positions to full city assaults with much less forces than current military planners allocate. They do this despite historical case studies from almost every major urban battle in modern history—Stalingrad, Manila, Berlin, Seoul, Panama, Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and many others.
In one of the few pieces of evidence supporting a claim that fewer forces are needed to attack a city than conventional military wisdom tends to believe, the article cites the 1944 Battle of Aachen. This seems to contradict Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s other assertion that militaries should not be reliant on firepower. The American unit that executed the Aachen operation did it with massive amounts of artillery and mortars. The attacking unit adopted a catchphrase—“Knock ’em all down”—that reflected both its systematic approach to destroying buildings and a complete lack of concern for collateral damage. In fact, researchers have shown that the soldiers displayed a degree of enthusiasm for destroying the German city.
The Battle of Aachen is also not an example of a smaller attacking force defeating a larger defending enemy. To say that “two battalions of the American 26th Infantry Division (with armor and engineering attachments) soundly defeated a much larger entrenched German force of 5,000 troops,” as the authors do, is simply not accurate. The fact is that the German defenders under Col. Gerhard Wilck were outnumbered by the Americans by a ratio of three or four to one. The American force was composed of over a division of armor, infantry, engineers, and artillery, not just two battalions of the infantry. Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s description ignores the division used to encircle the city, the engineer unit functioning in an infantry role fighting on the flanks of the two clearing battalions, units used to secure key hilltops around the city, artillery forces, and others.
Another major recommendation from the article is for regular military forces to simply become the “strongest gang in a given area.” Putting aside the legal, moral, and ethical reasons as to why one should not refer to military forces as gangs, the concept might work, but only under limited circumstances; the methods of implementation could easily evolve into unethical, unjust, and immoral practices. According to Betz and Stanford-Tuck, urban wars can be won by “not necessarily using divisional-level maneuvering to shatter an enemy general’s plan, but successfully overwhelming the adversary’s cognitive abilities at the team and individual level.” The article recommends attacking a city with a large swarm of dismounted soldiers that can “create a thousand small outflanking maneuvers together to generate the conditions to destroy their enemy’s ability to put together a response.” This too might work, but thousands of small maneuvering and flanking forces requires thousands of soldiers and defeats the proposition of a smaller force. The article also fails to convincingly show that the problem with past major urban operations—even recent ones—was overly controlled maneuver forces or the speed of operations, especially since most urban fighting evolves into thousands of small-unit engagements, all the way down to the squad level.
It is dangerous to tell military formations to simply go faster, act with fewer rules, plan less, use less combined-arms maneuver, and fight with smaller formations. The danger of rushing into dense urban terrain without fully understanding the enemy defenses or plans to reinforce gains made by maneuvering forces is a recipe for complete failure. Modern history abounds with examples of the consequences of militaries’ overemphasis on speed, lack of planning, lack of appropriate resources, and general unpreparedness, including the Russian defeat in the first battle of Grozny in 1994 and the American defeat in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 and again in Sadr City, Iraq in 2004. The Russians lost more tanks, proportionally, in Grozny in 1994 than they did in the battle for Berlin in 1945.
Training is Only Part of the Solution
The challenges of urban warfare do make it the hardest of all environments to conduct multiple different types of operations, but the challenges posed by cities should never be looked as insurmountable. Military forces must be prepared to fight and win in any environment. New approaches, doctrine, training, and investments are needed to increase military effectiveness when they are asked to accomplish complex missions in dense urban environments.
Training is critical to building the necessary skills and confidence for urban combat. But unlike the recommendation Betz and Stanford-Tuck make in their article, militaries of the world should not forget the Battle of Stalingrad. The authors claim that no government will expend so much over a city. They forget that in 2004 two Marine battalions were ordered to immediately retaliate against the perpetrators of an attack that killed four American civilians in Fallujah—a city with an estimated population of 280,000 at the time. Because of the worldwide media attention to the Americans’ burning corpses hanging from a bridge, the American people and government demanded the military immediately respond, despite senior military commanders’ recommendations not to enter the city.
Instead of thinking less about Stalingrad, militaries should think less about using techniques typically unique to special operations forces, which is generally a legacy from the failed 1972 operation to save members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany. In his book, The Combat Soldier: Infantry Tactics and Cohesion in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Dr. Anthony King details how the failed operation led to the creation of elite counterterrorism forces around the world and the development of specialized close-quarter battle tactics and techniques. These tactics center on high-risk, intelligence-driven raids and the capability to enter and clear a building and room to kill a surprised enemy while sustaining few casualties to both the soldiers and any civilians intermixed with the enemy. The context for training this mission usually involves a semi-permissive environment where military forces can get to the objective and assumes knowledge of where the enemy is, that the enemy can be surprised, and that the enter-and-clear tactic will be successful.
Training for intelligence-driven, high-tempo raids using the enter-and-clear tactic has attracted a growing share of current military training resources and represents the majority of training for urban areas that is conducted by most forces. This is despite evidence from major urban battles—historical and modern—like Aachen, Seoul, Hue City, Fallujah, Sadr City, Mosul, and Marawi, which show that entering and clearing a room is not the tactic that leads to success. Rather, what is required is the integration of combined arms, specific urban tactics to kill enemy forces in fortified structures, urban-specific tools, and innovation of small units.
Very few militaries have training sites that allow them to train city assaults or urban counterinsurgencies with large combined-arms formations. The US military only has one training site that can train more than a battalion of soldiers. Even that site, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, lacks density or realism. A brigade in the US Army will use the site for a simulated battle for only one day during its biannual training rotation to the training center. The site also lacks any ability to simulate the effects of combat inside or on the physical terrain itself. An enemy soldier can hide behind a plywood door and not be affected by the rounds of attacking soldiers or their fire support.
Training is important, but if military forces do not have the right capabilities to accomplish the tasks or challenges of urban operations such as city assaults or counterinsurgencies, training will still leave them unprepared. Because of military wargaming of the most likely enemy and locations of future war, most military forces do not have the urban-specific tools. Combat units in World War II had more capabilities to penetrate concrete fortifications and clear buildings than soldiers have today. Without combined-arms formations, mobile-protected firepower, and concrete-penetrating munitions, swarms of assaulting infantrymen can quickly flow through walls and jump rooftops all they want—as Betz and Stanford-Tuck suggest they should. But eventually they will reach an enemy fortified in a structure like Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad or the “house of hell” that Medal of Honor recipient Staff. Sgt. David Bellavia described from the Second Battle of Fallujah, and they will need the right capabilities to defeat the entrenched defenders.
Militaries must be able to train for both city assaults and urban counterinsurgencies, not just intelligence-driven raids in permissible or semi-permissible environments. They need urban-optimized capabilities for the most difficult challenges they will face. Not having the best tools for urban operations and the right training opportunities only contributes to the difficulty posed by cities.
The primary mission of the US Army is to “organize, train, and equip its forces to conduct prompt and sustained land combat to defeat enemy ground forces and seize, occupy, and defend land areas.” The hardest environment on the planet for a military that abides by the law of armed conflict to accomplish this mission is densely populated, large urban areas.
To be sure, in some ways the challenges of urban warfare are not new. One could argue that almost every challenge that arises from the nature of war, irrespective of environments, has remained the same. War remains a human endeavor to impose one’s will on an enemy in the pursuit of political objectives where tactical actions can have strategic implications, including with respect to one’s population and government. But when considering the changing character of warfare, military operations in urban environments have changed drastically. Urban environments are physically bigger, with larger populations and increasingly complex systems—trends surely set to continue. Yet, the application of military force in urban terrain is more constrained than ever before.
While it is vital that we should robustly debate how to conduct urban operations in the future, it is alarming when an article like Betz and Stanford-Tuck’s so readily dismisses leading current thinking about urban warfare. The unavoidable facts are sobering. Global urban areas have become bigger and more unstable, complex, and connected. Cities have become attractive territory for weaker nonstate actors and home to an increasing share of the world’s political violence. The costs of conducting military operations in dense urban areas has increased with time. The levels of war have condensed because of globalization and worldwide connectivity. Defending from urban terrain does negate the advantages of a technologically and militarily superior attacker. And urban attacks do require more troops than attacks in all other terrain.
Urban warfare is not the mythical monster Betz and Stanford-Tuck describe it as. It is a very real monster that military forces must be prepared to slay. Warfare in densely populated urban areas is the hardest type of warfare for many reasons, it is not something that can be wished away or avoided, and the city is most definitely not neutral.
John W. Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point and co-director of its Urban Warfare Project. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-four years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
*Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is not a human rights organization, but a neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. The ICRC President and United Nations Secretary-General’s joint appeal calling on countries and warring parties to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide impact area in populated areas can be found at this link. The article previously included this link to a Human Rights Watch article discussing the effort.
Image credit: Capt. Gregory Walsh, US Army