Unpacking the Urban Fight: Introducing the Twelve Challenges (Part I of a Series)

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

Armed conflict is increasingly occurring in urban areas: a fight amongst populations.  The Modern War Institute’s John Spencer argues they present the most difficult future combat environment and are becoming more so.  That trend was already evident in 2004 when the Australian Army labelled this ‘Complex Warfighting’. As explained in the 2008 Future Land Operating Concept ambiguity and uncertainty have compounded since then as technology, population and social factors drive a shift that the Chief of Army describes as ‘Accelerated Warfare’

Complexity remains a useful label and is far more than a synonym for ‘complicated’.  Complexity describes a problem that resists analysis and singular solutions because its elements are interwoven and dynamic.

Military leaders and security professionals must nevertheless not only understand and analyse the challenges of urban war, but persuasively explain them and their implications to politicians, media and subordinates.  How can this be done? While military doctrine offers useful lists of characteristics and considerations these are not readily recalled nor applied. This series of short pieces presents and then explains a framework of twelve challenges – a tool to understand, describe and analyse the key problems of urban operations. 

This framework is a refined and re-labelled version of the key challenges identified by the authors 2007 master’s research project which distilled a much larger set of a Defence Science and Technology Organisation Study ‘issues of urban warfare’ study.  The 12 constructs have proved to be robust analytic tools, but there may still be better labels to capture the ideas involved and suggestions are very welcome.

The challenges are grouped by increasing difficulty of resolution – first those associated with attitude, then those arising from physical terrain and finally those stemming from issues of population and influence. The challenges of attitude are confounding – readily observed, one is amenable to change yet apparently intractable.

The challenges of the physical terrain are complicated – yet amenable to systematic analysis and material solutions. It is the challenges of population and influence that add true complexity to the urban fight – meaning that the presence of populations resists analysis and requires adaptive solutions that emphasise political and psychological drivers.

The challenges are as follows

The First Layer of Challenges – the Confounding Puzzle of Trends versus Understandings

The first layer of challenge is the puzzling contradiction between accelerating trends towards urban conflict and the persistence of longstanding mindsets to either averse to preparing for that fight or selectively mis-characterising it.  The challenges are:

Challenge one – Escalating Stakes and Risks describes the trend towards more frequent and larger scale urban operations driven by urbanisation, conflict within these growing areas and adversaries seeking physical and political “cover.”

Challenge two – Dissonant Beliefs is the phenomenon of nearly a century of cognitive disconnect between the foreseeable demands of urban battle and military preferences and policies. The shortfall is observable in the tension between

  • broad acknowledgement of the inevitability, difficulty and possible scale of urban operations and risk-accepting absence of systems to reduce casualties and political risk in intense combat. 
  • the primordial demands of urban combat operations and the expectations of liberal societies,
  • military focus on tactical methods and outcomes whilst adversaries target strategic perceptions

The Second Layer of Challenges – From Physical Terrain: Four Enduring Complications

The second layer captures the five challenges arising from the physical environment that make this fight acutely complicated, though still open to systematic evaluation.

Challenge three – Hands-off Attack is the increased scope amongst urban structures for the engagement of forces using weapons displaced in time or space from the operator. It ranges from use of mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) triggered by their targets, through remote triggering of explosive devices, to now include remotely controlled or autonomous drones or weapon stations. New and sophisticated systems are dramatically decreasing the vulnerability and increase the combat power of individual adversaries.

Challenge four – Concealment and Ambiguity gives the adversary relative freedom of manoeuvre and insulation from effective intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance amongst urban structures, infrastructure and population. 

Challenge five – Aggravated Exposure is the dramatically increased exposure to attack throughout an urban area and from vantage points in three dimensions that may be at close range, protected and/or defiladed.  

Challenge six – Diluted Combat Power is the reduction in the ability to apply force and manoeuvre amongst a matrix of cellular structures because of:

  • the channelling and slowing of movement
  • the isolating and blinding of personnel
  • the masking and absorbing of weapons effects
  • the personnel consumption of clearing and securing. 

Challenge seven – Degraded Technology is the reduction in the effectiveness of sensors, communications equipment and advanced weapons because of physical obstruction and visual obscuration as well as electro-magnetic spectrum effects including absorption, reflection and noise.

The Third Layer of Challenges – From Population and Politics: Six Complexities

The third layer examines the six challenges imposed by the asymmetries of population and information –  the factors that compound to create complexity.

Challenge eight – Equivocal Rules of Engagement describes how because IHL protections for non-combatants and certain structures can be interpreted subjectively, constraints balancing risks to own troops and civilians are politically and normatively determined.  Different political constituencies may have very different and changing perceptions of what force is required or acceptable. 

Challenge nine – Global Media Display describes the vulnerability caused by the conjunction of increasing military importance of public opinion locally, domestically and internationally with an increased presence of and vantage points for, conventional and new media and their recording and transmitting devices. 

Challenge 10 – Noncombatant Welfare is the legal and humanitarian obligation to provide security and logistic support to populations.

Challenge eleven – Civilian Hinderance and Resistance describes the operational challenges imposed by the difficulty of moving undetected across populated terrain, the limits on manoeuvre imposed by civilian presence and the acute problem of active but unarmed resistance.

Challenge twelve – Overload and Interference is the potential for induced error where the military command, control and communication system is temporarily overwhelmed by the tempo, density and diversity of urban events, compounded by political interference and the psychological difficulty of switching between combat and benign tasks.

The remaining articles with theories will explore challenges in more detail.

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, served in the UK military and other armed forces, 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.