In 2001, when U.S.-backed Afghan fighters forced the Taliban out of Kabul, the capture of the city was largely a symbolic victory. In many ways, the more meaningful fight would rage in Afghanistan’s rural areas, scattered with villages from the ruggedly mountainous east across to the dusty plateau of the southwest.
Indeed, control of those areas was key to the Taliban’s consolidation of power during the 1990s. The group fought and defeated various factions whose violence had made traveling even short distances along rural roadways a frighteningly dangerous event. When Afghans could once again travel on a consistently and reasonably secure road network, an important measure of normalcy re-emerged, and the Taliban’s harsh policies seemed an acceptable price to pay.
But in recent years, traffic on those roadways has become largely one-directional: toward Kabul. The population of the city has grown tenfold since 2001, from 500,000 to more than 5 million. With that, the Taliban and other combatant groups have energized efforts to bring the ongoing war’s violence to the city with complex, spectacular and deadly attacks against government, military and civilian targets alike.
Much like Kabul’s population explosion preceded the Afghanistan War’s migration to the city, rates of urbanization worldwide strongly suggest the likelihood of more and more urban conflict in the future. In 1950, as the U.S. was embarking on its last sustained, conventional war, less than 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. That figure surpassed 50 percent a decade ago, and by 2030, it is expected to rise to 60 percent. Urbanization is happening most rapidly in poorer regions of the world that are also home to some of the greatest instability and most prone to conflict.
No wonder Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley has said he has “very high degrees of confidence” that in the future, “the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas.” But he went on to say that the Army needs to fundamentally adjust the way it is staffed, organized, trained and equipped to operate effectively there.
The U.S. military has a proud tradition of adjusting on the fly, adapting to new missions and new environments as needed. Though it is perhaps apocryphal, a quote attributed to an unnamed German officer from the World War II era (or was it a Soviet observation during the Cold War?) sums it up: “A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.” The quote’s staying power despite its dubious origins testifies to an important quality within American military formations: If the preplanned solution isn’t working, find a new solution.
But that will not be good enough in dense urban environments. The complexity of cities presents too many layers of tactical and strategic challenges. The notion that a city of millions could swallow a division of soldiers is an oft-used and perhaps simplistic trope. But it points to an undeniable truth: We will not have the days, weeks, months or even years to test new solutions in order to find the right one, to field equipment optimized to an environment we’re already in or to train soldiers to overcome the unceasing assault of new and unique challenges that a city poses. We need to be ready before we send units into dense urban environments.
Adequately preparing the Army to operate effectively in cities will require a range of changes, but three initiatives would combine to lay a much-needed foundation.
Urban Training Center
First, the Army badly needs a school dedicated to training soldiers for urban warfare. The service has operated the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont since the 1980s to teach specialty mountain warfare courses. The U.S. Army Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska has prepared soldiers to operate in arctic conditions for decades. More recently, the Army has reconstituted the Jungle Operations Training Center in Hawaii and stood up a Desert Warrior Course at Fort Bliss, Texas. Why? Because environments such as these need specialized training to fight and win in.
Yet there is no consolidated Army urban training center that adequately replicates the unique characteristics of dense urban environments. The Indiana National Guard’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center comes closest. The site contains over 60 buildings and training venues, 9 miles of roadways and even a tunnel system. But set on a 1,000-acre site, even this does not come near the structural density of a real-world city. And it is largely lacking an equally important feature: realistic civilian population density. Furthermore, while Muscatatuck’s facilities offer an impressive urban training range, it is just that—a range. There are no cadre that can develop into environment-specific subject-matter experts.
Other urban training efforts within the Army suffer from these deficiencies to a markedly greater degree. Correcting these and creating an urban warfare training center will require substantial resources. But investing those resources is the only way to ensure soldiers are adequately prepared for cities’ unique challenges, rather than for a thin, superficial approximation of them.
Second, an urban research center should be associated with this school. As static and enduring as war’s nature is, the character of warfare not only changes but is becoming more complex. Nowhere is this truer than on urban battlefields. Mastery of military art and science is only one necessary element in urban operations. An understanding of demography, anthropology, engineering, municipal management, law, emergency services, civil-military operations, social networks and more are imperatives. A research center would bring interdisciplinary expertise together and orient it collectively toward the complex challenge of enabling success in cities.
Finally, as Milley has made clear, units themselves will need to look different in order to be optimized for cities. But how?
The best way to find out is to create an experimental urban warfare unit. It should be given wide latitude to test unique formations within its ranks. But beyond that, it would also use rotations at the combat training centers—and at an urban warfare training center, once that is complete—to test new, nonstandard equipment and tactics. Its training would be focused less on validation exercises that other units undergo at the combat training centers and more on finding solutions—from incremental improvements to game-changing breakthroughs—that will enhance its combat effectiveness in urban areas. Informed by dedicated urban warfare research, the unit would serve as the principal learning organization at the forefront of Army planning for future operations in cities.
Of course, the best option to avoid urban risks that we’re largely unprepared for is to bypass cities by simply choosing not to operate there. That has mostly been possible in the past. As The Combat Soldier author Anthony King has written, throughout most of history, military forces have fought for cities but not in them. For a variety of reasons, though, that will almost certainly not be an option in the future.
A range of scenarios can be imagined that will pull U.S. Army units into increasingly dense urban environments. The future battlefield is an urban one, and that future is not far off. It’s time for the Army to prepare to operate, survive, fight and win in cities.