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#WavellReviews “Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century” by Anthony King

Available here from Polity

It is essential that urban environments, and the conflicts conducted therein, are properly understood by modern military practitioners and policy makers.  As the global population increases, so too does the proportion of it that lives in or near an urban area.  Military operations in large cities have been a distinctive feature of the recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and the Philippines.

Anthony King’s ‘Urban Warfare’ furthers our collective understanding of urban warfare, adds new techniques to its comprehension and delves into depths as yet unexplored with regards to the conduct of urban operations and the environments in which they occur.  However, King’s primary objective in writing this book is somewhat unclear.  It is not a multi-tiered analysis of any one specific urban conflict, nor of a single type of urban warfare.  Equally, it is not an all-encompassing collection of case studies.  It is not a socio-economic evaluation of the impact of warfare on cities and those that live within.  Nor does it discuss human terrain in cities at the level to which one could claim it an academic discussion of the non-military aspects of urban warfare.

However, such critiques would miss the point of the book, which I believe is to act as a textbook for the topic.  As a primer for some of the key themes of urban warfare and the characteristics of the urban environment.

Where then does one go to research and understand such a crucial topic?  Alice Hills has written well on the human aspect of urbanisation and its impact on conflict.  David Kilcullen has contributed enormously to our current understanding.  At the Modern War Institute at West Point, John Spencer heads up the Urban Warfare Project, a venture to bring a wide range of scholars and practitioners to the table to discuss the subject.  However, these authors, while extremely knowledgeable, are perhaps better suited to subject matter experts, pursuing a detailed study of the topic.  ‘Urban Warfare’ instead provides a more rounded and encompassing look at modern urban warfare.

King explores case studies from Aleppo, Mosul and Marawi (among others) to consider the effect of certain themes and methods on the conduct of modern military practice in such environments.  An analysis is provided of factors such as: walls in cities, the use of fire (via weapons such as flamethrowers) and firepower (predominantly focused on artillery and airstrikes) and the swarming nature of armed groups in urban environments.  King details how urban conflict has taken on the form of a series of micro-sieges combined with positional warfare, in order to control physical key terrain.

He achieves all of this without losing the importance of history, and refers back constantly to the father of contemporary urban warfare – Stalingrad.  The central argument of the book is relatively simple: namely that the expansion of cities has not only made urban conflict more likely, but also determined the nature of its conduct.  King not only explores the urban environment as a physical presence (the ground upon which war is waged) but as an actor in its own right that can affect modern military campaigns.  A city, like a biological entity, has flows that both move through it and flow out of it: be it the influx of people, money or goods.  Thus, actors cannot simply act in isolation.  The urban environment by its very nature is a hive of background activity, which combatants need to understand in order to conduct their missions.  Yes, the urban battle physically takes place at certain sites within a city, but also permeates through society and across the world thanks to increased interconnectedness, information networks and social media.

Not only are more people living in cities, but these cities are increasingly complex, and manifest more and more on coastlines, adding yet more complexity to a military commander’s situation.  These difficulties increase the breadth of understanding necessary to both understand urban warfare, but also to be more effectively able to wage it.  It is therefore worthwhile that King breaks down his understanding into these themes along which the chapters align: Numbers, The Urban Guerrilla, Metropolis, Walls, Air, Fire, Swarms, Partners, Rumour and Armageddon.  For those seeking enhanced comprehension of the urban battlespace, clearly delineated themes, considerations, and trends are helpful, and King is able to portray these clearly and in some depth.

The final chapter of the book is entitled ‘Armageddon’ and worryingly explains that there are three forms of urban Armageddon possible in the coming years: “war in a megacity, automated war in a smart city, or a return of mass air attack with conventional or nuclear weapons.”  While it is worthy to acknowledge these possibilities and plan against them, King highlights, correctly I believe, that the current trends in urban warfare indicate that it will not be cataclysmic.  Its most likely manifestation will be a continuation of the forms seen thus far in the 21st century.  Urban warfare will be slow-moving, positional and attritional, with information providing a key advantage to both defender and attacker.  It will be conducted between small groups of relatively specialised forces using precise weapons and it will take place in specific locations.

In conclusion, this book is a must read for modern military practitioners.  Its analysis is sophisticated, and it is broad enough to discuss at some level the entirety of modern-day urban warfare without being so broad as to discourage reading and analysis.  It has an interesting and original conceptual framework with which to explore the effect of the urban environment upon military conduct.  Some may argue that its analysis of case studies does not delve deep enough, and that its exploration of political, social, architectural, tactical, historic, economic and geographic interconnectedness is not comprehensive enough to merit the title of an interdisciplinary introduction to urban warfare.  Nevertheless, I believe this book to be a valuable addition to our current reading lists.

‘Urban Warfare’ is an articulate book, exploring a pressing topic about which the British Army currently appears to be doctrinally confused and underprepared.  Western militaries trained and equipped for manoeuvre warfare may well find themselves unprepared for the positional and attritional warfare of the urban environment.  It is therefore crucial that this book serve as an introductory textbook, a manual to which military professionals, students of international security and policy makers turn to in order to better understand urban warfare in the 21st century.

Lt at British Army

Cameron Rintoul is an Officer in the British Army serving in the Royal Artillery.  He holds a BA in French and International Relations from the University of Leeds and a PgCert in Leadership and Strategic Studies.

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