Note from John Spencer, MWI chair of urban warfare studies: In the last three years there has been no shortage of urban warfare. The wars in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Israel have been and will be defined by urban battles. The increasing frequency and intensity with which cities are becoming battlefields requires new investments and ideas. Each year, the Urban Warfare Project produces a Christmas wish list of capabilities, ideas, and initiatives absent in the US a other militaries. This year, I invited fellow urban warfare scholars Major Jayson Geroux and Mr. Stuart Lyle to create a combined wish list.
A New Way of Conceptualizing Urban Operations. Militaries must stop thinking of cities as a special environment. Urban operations are pervasive precisely because the terrain is universal. One can find urban areas (and battles) within a full range of environments. Urban terrain can be juxtaposed alongside of—and even intermixed with—other environments like jungle, mountain and arctic, and desert. We should, therefore, treat training for urban operations as a foundational skill for militaries rather than a culmination point.
A US DoD Line Item for the Urban Operations Planners Course. For three years, the 40th Infantry Division has conducted a weeklong Urban Operations Planners Course to teach division and brigade staff members how to conduct large-scale urban operations (offense and defense) in dense urban areas. The course does not have a consistent or dependable funding source. Training for urban operations is important, as is the right equipment. But so is planning when faced with the unique considerations presented by urban environments. Resources are required to ensure those planning skills exist in our military formations.
More Urban Operations Courses. The 40th Infantry Division’s Urban Operations Planners Course includes non-US students, but it does not have the capacity to meet the needs of all allied and partner nations. There must be an equivalent course available to each of these militaries. Course offerings also need to be expanded to the Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as to specialized communities including, for example, special operations forces and judge advocates general. Nonmilitary stakeholders, like State Department foreign policy advisors, nongovernmental organizations, and even elected officials should also be included.
A NATO Urban Operations Center of Excellence. There are twenty-nine NATO centers of excellence for topics such as countering improvised explosive devices, mountain warfare, and security force assistance, and a further thirty-three partnership training and education centers covering topics such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, peacekeeping, and special operations, and more. However, none is dedicated to urban operations. Building on sovereign national institutions, like the 40th Infantry Division’s Urban Operations Planners Course, the creation of a NATO Urban Operations Center of Excellence would help to cohere training and doctrine across the alliance and drive lessons sharing and research.
Fit-for-Purpose Equipment. Urban operations should be the driver for equipment requirements. The challenges of operating in urban environments is almost always treated as an afterthought for equipment design and procurement, with negative results. Basic urban-specific equipment such as ladders and breaching tools are seen as specialist items rather than standard equipment and are consequently less commonly available for training. Larger platforms are not designed for the terrain they are frequently operating in and we therefore too often have to rapidly procure or adapt equipment in theater (e.g., the TUSK kits for M1A2 Abrams tanks). All this costs time, blood, and treasure.
Cheap, Expendable Drones for All Squads. Urban environments can be full of unknown threats and challenges to military forces operating there, hidden across a labyrinth of three-dimensional terrain. Drones are needed at the lowest level of fighting formations for reconnaissance, security, strike, and even protecting civilians that, no matter the evacuation measures taken, are always present. These drones should be as expendable as ammunition, hardened against cyber threats, and under $1,000.
A Heavy-Duty, Remote, Armored Bulldozer. Historically, the bulldozer is a vital tool when attacking an enemy-held city. The bulldozer clears complex obstacles, creates logistical routes or axes of advance, and can withstand an enemy defender’s first blow. The Israeli military has an organic heavy-duty bulldozer, the D9, including variants that can be operated remotely. It has proved invaluable during urban operations, showing what an important capability it is for militaries who seek to be prepared for urban warfare.
More Subterranean Training Areas. Current events are demonstrating the need to have more and better subterranean training areas. Existing subterranean training areas are few and far between and are also severely lacking in variety. We can spend the large amount of money required to build them, but an alternative is to find existing disused subterranean systems in cities that can be utilized for training purposes. Either way, we all need more subterranean training areas.
Better Urban Representation in Professional Reading. Individual professional development matters. In an ideal world, a military service could make reading one urban-focused book a year mandatory. But achieving a similar outcome would be possible simply by encouraging every officer and every senior noncommissioned officer, regardless of branch or specialty, to include such books in their professional reading. Including relevant titles on professional reading lists is one way. Leader emphasis on the subject and the importance of self-study is another. Unit professional development sessions could be built around these books, as well, to spur important discussion. But there need not be book reports or presentations or anything formal associated with it. The act of reading is what matters. As Brigade General Rob Wooldridge, deputy commanding general of the 40th Infantry Division and the driving force behind their Urban Operations Planners Course, includes in his X profile, leaders are readers.
We believe strongly that urban battlefields represent the present and future of warfare. With the evidence increasingly suggesting that to be the case, it would be great to deliver some of these wishes so that our militaries are better prepared for the challenges they will inevitably face.
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War and coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.
Major Jayson Geroux is an infantry officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment and is currently with the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre. He has been a fervent student of urban operations and has been involved in urban operations training for two decades. He is an equally passionate military historian and has participated in, planned, executed, and intensively instructed on urban operations and urban warfare history for the past nine years. He has served twenty-eight years in the Canadian Armed Forces, which included operational tours to the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Afghanistan.
Stuart Lyle is the urban operations research lead for the UK-based Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). His work is varied and has included designing force concepts for the British Army to improve effectiveness in urban combat. He led Dstl’s Future Cities study which looked at global trends in urbanization and their implications for military operations.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez, US Air Force (adapted by MWI)