Many senior military and civilian leaders recognize the need to do much more to prepare for these operations. But while the military has a long history of evolving its doctrine and training for urban combat, and the field of urban studies is well established in civilian academic institutions, it is only a recent development that soldiers will be able to intellectually prepare for cities as much as train for them.
Today, over 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, two out of every three humans on the planet will reside in a city. The U.S. military will continue to be asked to conduct a full range of operations in major cities — whether it is assisting in offensive operations against insurgents like ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa, peace-keeping operations in Sarajevo and Mogadishu; or humanitarian aid operations in Port-au- Prince, Haiti, or Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. It is not a matter of if, but when again, we will send Army units to conduct missions among the populations of dense urban areas.
Army senior leaders have made it clear that the Army will begin preparing for operations in dense urban areas. The chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, has said, "In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas,” and with readiness as his number one priority, Milley believes the Army “need[s] to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas.”
An Army senior officer whose views on urban operations are relevant and important is Gen. Stephen Townsend, currently the commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command. He was previously the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force–Operational Inherent Resolve in Iraq during the U.S. supported mission to recapture Mosul from ISIS in 2017. Townsend not only believes the enemy will continue to pull the U.S. into dense urban areas in the hopes of gaining an advantage over American forces, but also that “we’re going to see battle in megacities and there’s little way to avoid it.”
But how do you train for operating in a megacity with over 10 million residents like Seoul, Mumbai, or Lagos or even urban area with populations over a million like Tripoli, Tijuana, or Taipei?
Gen. Townsend’s recommendation for preparing for operations in dense urban areas includes not only training the ability to fight in cities, but also to better understanding their “flow.”
Flow is the movement of people, resources, information, or things in and out of a city through a network of lines and systems similar to the blood stream, nervous system of a living organism. Some urban experts believe a city’s social infrastructure is more important than its physical infrastructure.
But understanding the social infrastructure, demography, governance, economics, power hierarchies, and security systems of how a city works goes beyond Army capabilities and tactics for urban combat. It requires a formal educational program provided by experts. That is exactly what study groups and urban scholars such as Alice Hills and Michael Evans have recommended for a long time. Hills has gone as far as to say that the military’s lack of understanding of how cities work and their human architectures will lead to strategic incoherence and operational failure.
Professional military education within the institutional Army and urban studies programs at civilian institutions for the most part do not include a long term academic urban specific focus on researching the military and broader security implications of cities.
To be sure, there are many academic institutions with urban studies programs that research and create a wealth of knowledge on the social, political, and economic systems of urban areas geared toward the planning, sustainability, and health or global urban areas. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced a new urban science major that combines urban planning and computer science to study the continued evolution of urban settlements and technology. For the most part, despite past recommendations, professional military education within the institutional Army and urban studies programs at civilian institutions have not had a specific focus on the military and broader security implications of dense urban areas. But now such a program is finally being developed.
Arizona State University Research Enterprise, or ASURE, is developing a Dense Urban Area curriculum. Partnering with multiple school across the Arizona State University campus, such as ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, ASURE is facilitating the development of a transdisciplinary program that will educate students in understanding urban sustainability, infrastructure, population, environment and economics.
ASURE is working closely with Army and Marine organizations to provide access to the new curriculum to the widest possible population of soldiers and marines. Course will be available online and are already scheduled to be a part of the TRADOC Military Advisor Training Academy E-Learning/E-Intern program catalog of courses.
We, as a society, live in cities, send soldiers to fight in them, but as of yet have not committed to studying cities. Programs like the new ASU curriculum will allow the Army and other to invest in understanding cities as well as training for them.
Educating soldiers and future leaders in the complexities of cities is an investment we need to make.
Claudia ElDib is a logistics program manager at Arizona State University Research Enterprise and a SOLE Demonstrated Logistician.
Retired Maj. John W. Spencer currently serves as a senior scholar with the Modern War Institute and Co-Director of the Urban Warfare Project. Follow @spencerguard