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Fighting From Cities: The British Army after Ukraine

In its most recent publication, Future Soldier, the British Army describes its plans for future conflict. In it, the Army affirms its commitment to war-fighting with heavy conventional forces:

‘Warfighting remains the cornerstone of deterrence and the bedrock of the British Army’.

Future Soldier prioritises not the close battle when ground troops engage each other at close – even bayonet – range, but focuses on the ‘deep battle’, striking the enemy at range far in advance of ground troops. At pride of place is the new Deep Recce Strike Brigade whose purpose is to manoeuvre in depth against the enemy in order to coordinate air and artillery strikes on them to a range of 499 kilometres. In the light of Russian aggression, it all sounds comforting; the British Army will defeat Russian attacks at a distance.

But is it realistic? It is worth comparing Future Soldier with the War in Ukraine. Clearly, at this point, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions from the fighting in Ukraine. However, preliminary inferences are possible and perhaps useful in refining British Army’s operating concept.

One of the most striking things about Future Soldier is that it never mentions the urban environment once. Yet, in Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian forces have converged on cities and towns. There, the battles have been fiercest and the destruction greatest. The developing battle of the Donbas is likely to be decided around the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Severodonetesk. Why has the fighting concentrated on and around cities in Ukraine?

In the last twenty years, many commentators and soldiers have observed the rise of urban warfare. They have attributed this trend to two factors: demography and asymmetry. As a result, sprawling urban areas have become operationally unavoidable for the armed forces. At the same time, urban areas offer opponents the best protection from advanced targeting systems. These factors are not irrelevant in Ukraine. Yet, a third factor may be more important in this theatre: force size. The size of armies seems rather mundane. Yet, in fact, historically the mere size of opposing armies has had a determinate effect on campaign geometries and the character of warfare in any era. In Ukraine, it has played an important role in driving forces into cities.

The Russian Army deployed about 190,000 troops to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Army consists of 245,000 active personnel. These are objectively large forces. Yet, when the Red Army drove the Wehrmacht out of Ukraine in 1943-4, it deployed twenty armies and over three million soldiers fighting across the entire country, north to south.

Because troop numbers have been low, Russian and Ukrainian forces have not been able to form the classic fronts which typified twentieth century warfare, fought between mass armies – and which bisected Ukraine north to south in 1943-4.Consequently, they have necessarily converged on urban areas where the decisive operational objectives, like transport nodes, critical infrastructure, population centres, are located. Localised fronts have developed around them.

The Siege of Mariupol is clearly the most terrible illustration of this dynamic. During the invasion, Mariupol, a city of 100,000, has become a prime strategic objective, critical to the Russian attempt to link the Donbas to the Crimea. Russian troops began to encircle and bombard Mariupol at the outset of the war. On 12 March, the Russians committed to a full scale assault of the city. For four weeks, three Russian regiments (14,000 troops) have fought their way into the city against 3000 defenders, losing perhaps 500 soldiers killed, many thousands more injured. Eventually, on 20 April, Russian forces finally surrounded the Azovstal Steel Works still held by a few hundred Ukrainians. After six weeks of intense attack, the Russians still do not control the city completely.

Mariupol is extreme but it is not an anomaly. The pattern of urban defence has been repeated elsewhere in Ukraine, most notably in Kyiv from which Russian forces retreated three weeks ago. In each case, outnumbered Ukrainian forces have fought effectively from urbanised fortresses attritting or repelling Russian forces.

These failed or costly sieges demonstrate the utility of urban defence in modern warfare. As a result of Ukraine’s urbanised defensive strategy, Putin has failed to achieve his goals. Zelensky is still in power and will remain so; he may fail even to make any gains on the Donbas and Crimea; NATO and the EU has been unified against him.

The British Army is better equipped and trained than the Ukrainian Army – before the war at least. It might be more capable of matching Russian forces as equals in the open. Even so, rather than prioritising manoeuvre or deep recce strike, attractive though that capability is, it might be more troubling to Russian generals, if the British Army learnt from its Ukrainian colleagues. Instead of manoeuvring in the field like the British Army in World War II, it might be more effective if it fought from fortresses inside urban areas. Indeed, the Army’s aspiration to deep strike would seem to be predicated on having secure positions from which to launch those attacks. Urban areas might form the crucial hinge for deep strike from which to strike Russian forces in the deep.

Indeed, individual urban fortresses could form an interlocking defensive system to provide a framework for land operations. Operating from an urban network, the British Army could create a series of kill-boxes outside or on the edge of urban areas, in which enemy forces could be engaged and destroyed at range by deep ground fires and airstrikes. The countryside around urban areas could effectively become a glacis for long-range fires. Urban areas might also provide a base for special operations forces raids or counter-attacks. This is precisely what the Ukrainian Army has done so successfully in the war up to now.

Of course, urban defence would not be enough. An effective urban force would not just be capable of defending cities. It would also have to be adept at urban assault. After all, a key part of the urban defence is the counter-attack. Moreover, in any conflict, it is very likely that it would be necessary for western forces to attack and re-take an urban area. However, as the Russian have shown, well-defended urban areas cannot be taken by rapid, lightning manoeuvres. They require slow, deliberate operations, aimed at their reduction. Heavy armour, tanks, bull-dozers and vast quantities of precise and coordinated firepower are required; information, cyber operations, civilian engagement, political outreach all play a role. Logistics have to be stockpiled. Once fortifications have been reduced, assault troops can be ordered to take specific positions which they clear and, then, hold from counter-attack. Urban assaults have more to do with the bite-and-hold of the Western Front in the First World War, than the blitzkrieg of the Second.

The Ukraine War does not suggest that the British Army should refute its concept of deep strike. On the contrary, it demonstrates its utility. It would be optimal to attrite enemies miles in front of the main line of defence. However, Ukraine suggests that operationally, in order to execute its deep strikes, the British Army will need to concentrate its main defensive forces in fortified urban areas. In the twenty-first century, the British Army might find it more effective to return to medieval or even ancient methods of warfare, rather than to persist with the manoeuvre tactics which worked in the twentieth century.

Anthony King
Professor of War Studies at Warwick University

Anthony King is the professor of war studies at Warwick University.  In 2019, he completed a trilogy on western military transformation, The Transformation of Europe's Armed Forces (Cambridge University Press, 2011), The Combat Soldier(Oxford University Press, 2013), and Command (Cambridge University Press, 2019).  His most recent book, Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Centurywas published by Polity in July.  He has advised the British Army and Royal Marines for nearly two decades.

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