For Iraqis returning to Mosul, the homes missing roofs and walls, filled with rubble, are a reminder of what existed before ISIS took control of the city in 2014. To the U.S. Army that helped liberate the city — originally designed as a fortress — after a nine-month campaign, the ruins and a lingering threat are pointers to the future. Massive piles of tangled debris and burned cars line the streets, framing gutted houses. But though the main roads have mostly been cleared, side streets throughout the city remain blocked by tangled debris and riddled with explosives, left behind by ISIS in places that are too narrow for coalition vehicles to access.
Mosul is the latest pointer to the urban nature of theaters in which many future conflicts may be set. Experts view situations the U.S. has found itself in over the past 15 years as foreshadowing a part of what the Army and the Marines may face with increasing regularity in the years ahead. It’s a future they are preparing for.
A new program announced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last summer aims to develop software capable of running on personal electronics that Marines can use to simulate and test situations they might encounter in coastal, urban settings. The Marines also run urban combat training programs like the Raid-Leaders course, in which Marines raid a part of a city — in 2014 it was Los Angeles — as a training exercise. The U.S. Army is trying to increase the density at some urban training sites to replicate what fighting in crammed cities would be like. And West Point’s Modern War Institute, through its Urban Warfare Project, is collecting research on the subject, says John Spencer, deputy director of the institute and strategic planner for the Department of Military Instruction.
[In the year 2000], very few people would’ve thought we would’ve been in an urban [military] environment.
Gian Gentile, military historian, RAND
For sure, urban warfare will likely remain only one part of America’s overall national security strategy. The 2018 National Defense Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration in January highlights great power competition — more than terrorism in urban settings — as the country’s biggest security challenge. But experts are unanimous that urban warfare will continue to grow in importance, whatever space it occupies in the larger national security emphasis of the government. The recognition that battles like those in Aleppo, Fallujah and Mosul are not anomalies but previews of increasingly what’s to come is at the heart of this emphasis on urban warfare preparedness. Those urban battles of the last decade displayed the impacts of modern urban combat, scenarios that RAND senior historian Gian Gentile says many Army personnel didn’t expect before America launched the Iraq War in 2003.
“[In the year 2000], very few people would’ve thought we would’ve been in an urban environment,” says Gentile. “And that’s exactly where we were once the United States moved into Iraq and we operated in places like Baghdad and Mosul.”
That many future war theaters may be urban isn’t surprising, suggested Mark Milley, chief of staff at the U.S. Army at New America’s 2017 Future of War conference in March 2017. More than half the global population lives in urban areas, and the world is currently home to 31 megacities. That could increase to 50 by 2050, according to a University of Ontario population projection. “I think we’re on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of war,” Milley said at the conference. “If war is really about politics, it’s going to be fought, in general, where people are.”
Beyond demographic shifts, cities are also becoming less stable and create an asymmetric advantage for actors defending such an area, says Spencer. Every building can be fortified, while defenders can tunnel within and between buildings to avoid being exposed in the street. Communication is difficult when spread across city blocks and removing civilians is harder, the larger a city. Overall, urban environments are several orders of magnitude more complicated than the rolling hills of boot camp, says Zachary Griffiths, special forces officer and American politics instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. The DARPA program for the Marines aims at enabling soldiers to adapt faster than adversaries in such complex environments.
Previous experiences in urban combat situations have also taught the Army lessons; machine-oriented changes, like making sure tanks can shoot at a high enough angle to target high-rises and working with units that combine light and mechanized infantry with the right protection and weapons, could help make the Army more effective, Gentile says. Though, he cautioned that technological advancement can only take the Army so far.
“Technology and improvement in technology are important, but it’s not going, in the end, to make this something like a cakewalk,” Gentile says. “If we do send military forces into a city to do combat operations, you can do your best to reduce the level of destruction, but ultimately that’s what war is about — it’s about death and destruction.”
Although the shift is being discussed at a high level, Griffiths says training throughout Army units should be more focused on urban combat, particularly in the long-term efforts needed to succeed in those confrontations. And, developing a better understanding of how cities work, becoming more “environment-centric,” as Spencer says, can also create a military advantage for one side over another.
Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Army started to appreciate the importance of cities, Gentile says. Now, into the next decade, it will see how the landscape of urban combat will be fleshed out. And if it looks anything like previous battles that have been fought in cities, that future could be ugly.