Rejecting the Urban Fight: The Psychology of Implausibility (Part III of a series)

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This is the third article of a series on the Twelve Urban Challenges. You can access the series here


The previous blog in this series described dissonant understandings of urban warfare, emphasising how they are manifest in the gap between the requirements of urban battle and capability policy.  Across many professional armies and at least 30 years there is a pattern of theoretical, doctrinal and senior officer acknowledgement of a growing urban challenge which has translated to action in Special Forces equipment, and in some armies, training.

Yet, except in Israel, almost nowhere has there been more than token investment in capabilities to address the known challenges of a large-scale urban fight such as well-protected engineering equipment and protected direct fire systems, obscurants and breaching munitions. This can only rationally be explained by professional armies assigning a relatively low risk to large urban battle – arguably because they consider it ‘implausible’ – which as we shall see, is better understood as a failure of visualisation, not calculation. 

Risk can be understood as a product of consequence and probability. Since nearly every army’s doctrine acknowledges a high cost in time, casualties and munitions for an intense urban fight, a low-risk judgement must presumably reflect a low probability assessment (despite evidence otherwise).  An army’s decision to accept the risk of relying on general-purpose forces rather than acquiring casualty-reducing capabilities for urban war is logically best explained by their judgment that intense urban war is relatively unlikely and/or avoidable.

Various armies including the US, have experienced the costs of intense urban operations in the last 30 years, and there are no obvious factors that would allow anyone to be confident they would not repeat this. Nevertheless, only the Israelis and the Russians have subsequently deployed specialist capabilities. Why? It appears that the discriminator is that in urban battles their armies not only suffered politically significant casualties, but that these were publicly attributed to shortfalls of military leadership or capability, presumably making the issue salient to military leaders.

This seems to suggest a capability gap phenomenon that is inconsistent with objective/rational assessment yet may be explained by cognitive dissonance and/or other biases distorting probability judgements. 

We should be clear what this phenomenon is not. First, it is not cultural resistance to new technology, as suitable capabilities date back 50 years and were previously in service in many armies. Second, the phenomenon is not ignorance of threat, as can be seen in the Australian case. The challenges of urban operations feature in Army’s notion of ‘Accelerated Warfare’, and vulnerability in that environment is an explicit justification for uncrewed systems and protection levels in new vehicle projects.  Third, the phenomenon is not ignorance of solutions.

The most senior levels of leadership have been briefed in Israel on that army’s urban equipment. But like most other Western nations, there has been a considered choice to at least defer preparing for intense fighting in cities. This is curious. 

Explanations for a capability dissonance phenomenon may lie in biases described in political and evolutionary psychology. Capability procurement is a contested bureaucratic decision-making process that is political, both in the sense of involving struggles of power and perspective amongst senior officers and civil servants, as well as in the need to shape, persuade and satisfy Ministers and their advisors.

This is appropriate – indeed arguably the mechanism of ultimate accountability to an electorate is to give democratic States advantage in protracted conflict, although domestic political considerations, such as where a supplier will manufacture a defence system, may politically bias procurement choices. Research demonstrates various other potential biases in capability decisions that are less obvious.

Kahneman provides a simplified explanation of bias in decision-making when he characterises decision-making as either ‘quick and intuitive’ or ‘slow and considered’. Experts in a realm are those usually able to make sound rapid decisions by calling on memories of tens of thousands of hours of relevant practise. Everyone else makes quick decisions using mental shortcuts called heuristics. These evolved as biases that gave survival advantage in prehistoric conditions, but give sub-optimal decisions in the modern world, especially under stress and emotion. 

Militaries have long understood this, and the military appreciation process is one method to achieve slower thinking and reduce the effects of bias. Similar methods are rigorously applied to force design and capability choices to deliver rational, balanced and contested decisions – but only within the bounds of a well-defined problem. Consequently, the bias issue is likely to be less significant in problem analysis, and greater where it is not addressed by process – problem definition.

Western armies have not conducted analysis and drawn different conclusions to the Russians or the Israelis about how to solve the problem of a large all-arms urban fight, rather it appears they have decided not to prioritise that ‘scenario’ as a problem.  Force design and capability processes typically begin by postulating military-strategic problem scenarios to which defence forces might be tasked to respond.

The absence of specialist equipment for the urban fight indicates that these armies have not given priority to meeting a demanding urban scenario.  The presumed absence of such demanding scenarios in US and NATO planning but their presence in that of Russia and Israel cannot be satisfactorily explained by geo-strategic circumstances. While it is obvious that urban scenarios must be considered by Israel, it is not evident that Russia’s particular circumstances make an urban fight significantly more likely for them than all US and other NATO countries.

This absence of urban scenarios is better explained by a military cultural preference for open country warfare and the impact of associated cognitive biases on plausibility.

Scenario planning imagines future events that will test the organisation. For example, an Australian capability planning exercise might explore possible operations to support ‘Australia’s commitment to support international rules-based order’. Given myriad possibilities, practical considerations would likely see senior leaders provide constraining direction.

Polyheuristic decision making theory explains that senior leaders frame problems intuitively to exclude options that are threatening to their worldview, status, or organisational interests. Senior leaders may quite reasonably believe that large-scale urban combat scenarios are so unlikely or far beyond the ADFs capability that it would be unable to offer government politically palatable options: some commentators would agree

This would make urban scenarios intuitively threatening, with little upside in their exploration. Furthermore, some analysts argue that Australia rationally avoided developing heavier army capability for intense combat, since the US could not expect a light infantry force to be deployed for intense coalition operations. Since Australia has avoided all but a couple of minor urban engagements in its wars, leaders may have plausibly extended a similar logic to simply exclude serious urban scenarios. However, biases are likely to have operated more subtly.

Defence capability planners deliberately try to use scenarios to guard against the unexpected and challenge paradigms. The archetypal example of the value of scenario planning is Royal Dutch Shell’s executives exploring the possibility of a dramatic rise in oil prices, prior to this unexpectedly occurring after the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Variation is created by writing scenarios to conform to different interactions or specified conditions or factors, analogous to the way that temperature, air pressure, wind direction and humidity can together be used to create a scenario we call a weather forecast. While scenario creators apply techniques to minimise the impact of bias and preference and inject uncertainty, a fundamental requirement for a scenario to be a useful analytic tool is that it must be plausible: ‘possible to believe’. Ambiguity must be ‘tolerable’. 

Humans typically conflate intuitive plausibility with statistical probability, and despite being notoriously bad at assessing likelihood, will express rejection quantitatively as ‘that is too unlikely’ when what we mean is qualitative – ‘that is ‘inconceivable’. There is the crux, scenarios are a form of theatre, for which the audience must ‘suspend disbelief’.  

If we recognise that scenarios are constructive fictions that are works of creativity and art, then it is easier to appreciate the central role for heuristics and cognitive bias – myriad well-established systematic patterns of deviation from norm or objective rationality in judgement.  Examples include; the availability heuristic which is the tendency to overestimate the probability of events that are readily visualised, the confirmation bias which is the tendency to assess in a way that confirms one’s preconception, and the normalcy bias which refuses to plan for or react to a disaster that has never occurred before.

These many biases operate together to determine the threshold of what an audience will consider plausible. Scenario creators must, in order for their work to be of value, shape scenarios towards plausibility for their audience. They will be consciously or unconsciously be influenced by actual or supposed decision-maker biases, preferences and interests. They will happily present scenarios that they identify as very unlikely, but not those that they consider implausible.

Cognitive science suggests that judgements about what is plausible are greatly influenced by constructs such as conditional likelihood, typicality and similarity – all of which flow from a decision-makers experience. Experiments reinforce the proposition that an event that is outside of participants experience, is at odds with the cultural narrative, and threatens unprecedented disaster is unlikely to be considered plausible. 

As discussed earlier, the intense urban fight with its potential for high casualties, prodigious use of ammunition and costs in civilian suffering represents expectation dissonance. That fight is at odds with professional military culture and narrative of ethical precision warfare conducted by full-time forces which has evolved in the West since 1991. The psychological biases that flow from this framing of war, combined with a much older pattern of rejection of urban war appears to have profoundly shaped its plausibility to military audiences.  This framing requires analysis and will be explored in the next article.


About the author: Dr Charles Knight researches capability for operations amongst populations and structures at UNSW and CSU.  He has a practitioner and unconventional warfare background having served in the UK military and other armed forces. He also wrote the Australian urban doctrine and as a reservist is the SO1 Urban Operations at the Australian Army Research Centre. Views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @ChasAHKnight