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Urban Warfare is Not Exceptional

The idea that urban operations are somehow exceptional, or more difficult than anything else, rests on an almost tautological foundation. Is urban terrain a uniquely difficult place to fight a war?  Those who answer in the affirmative are known as ‘urban exceptionalists’, a term coined by Jim Storr, a 25-year veteran of the British Army. 

Urban exceptionalism is rooted in literature dedicated to proving the idea that always holds that the solution is more training for urban operations.  The problem today is that many things claimed about urban operations are not supported by history or operational analysis.  If observations from World War II battles in Stalingrad, Berlin, and Manilla are so insightful and enduring, how likely is it that new insights will become apparent?  The data shows that urban exceptionalists are often incorrect.  Urban warfare literature is built around a small number of narrative-based examples, it is based on stories over analysis; stories and experience over verified facts. 

Challenging our assumptions with evidence

The idea that urban terrain favours the defender, a common claim by today’s urban exceptionalists, is incorrect.  In the 1980s the UK’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) showed that urban terrain was not a defender’s paradise.  The opposite was true. The attackers almost always won, and in almost all cases for which detailed data were available, the defenders suffered high casualties

Simulated city used for training on San Clemente Island. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie Harrison

Notably, the deciding factor in urban operations was good training and supporting fires from armoured vehicles.  Based on comparing historical analysis with trials using the Berlin Brigade, further research confirmed that urban operations usually, but not always, ended badly for the defender for very easily understood reasons.  Skilled urban defences were rare and required pre-planned counterattacks best supported by armour.  Yet more evidence was apparent from work done by Christopher Lawrence, who confirmed the DERA findings.  Using mainly data from World War II, he found that there was little exceptional about the urban environment in war.  Whether the variable is lethality or intensity, Lawrence found that urban combat was not more extreme than non-urban combat. This work has been in full view of the advocates of urban operations for a long time, but is ignored to further weaker, but compelling, narratives.

Even a cursory analysis of commonly available data tends to support the above.  For example, the Battle of Marawi saw 150 days of fighting where the defenders lost catastrophically, suffering a KIA loss rate of 6.52 per day compared to the attacker’s 1.12 KIA per day.  Fallujah 2004 was fought over 50 days and saw the US attacker suffer 112 KIA at a rate of 2.24 per day while the defender suffered an estimated loss rate of 40 KIA per day.  Operation Protective Edge in 2014 saw 49 days of fighting, with the IDF losing 67 KIA, so a casualty rate higher than Marawi at 1.3 KIA per day, but only very marginally. 

An M-198 155mm Howitzer of the US Marines firing at Fallujah, Iraq, during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Lance Corporal Samantha L. Jones, USMC

Does one to three KIA a day represent intense combat?  Compare and contrast the Falkland War British casualty rates of up to 23 KIA and 54 WIA in one night of fighting.  Notably, a veteran of that night went on to be a major architect of British urban doctrine, so he was pretty familiar with “intense combat.”

The Blackhawk Down event of 3-4 October 1993 saw 19 US KIA and 70 wounded, but that is clearly an anomaly.  On the 20th of June 1967, the British Army suffered 22 KIA and 31 wounded in one day of fighting in the city of Aden.  Today this incident is almost entirely forgotten and almost no urban warfare literature mentions it.  This was also an anomaly.  Neither event was indicative of a trend.  The truth here is simple:  Urban Warfare has never generated casualties at a rate greater than non-urban engagements.  Thus, it appears that what some armies believe about urban operations is not based on operational analysis but on narrative literature designed to promote agendas and reputations.  

The literature falls into two distinct categories. The first is the historical narrative, where the intensity and difficulties of urban combat are emphasised.  The second is a predictive approach that urges greater study of urban operations because of its increasing prevalence and difficulty. 

I am not alone in challenging the idea that more urban combat is inevitable or more difficult than other warfare.  The late Colonel David Johnson was notably sceptical, as were David Betz and Hugo Standford-Tuck from King’s College.  The historical narrative lacks an evidence basis, and the warning for the future dates back well over 30 years, yet the prophecy has not come to pass. 

Of course, urban operations are difficult, but the problem with exceptionalism is the defining idea that they are more difficult than anything else.  If the question is how much of the world’s population lives in jungle and forest, then the history of warfare does not suggest that warfare takes place in population centres. WW1 and 2 are a clear testament to that.

So What?

What harm does urban exceptionalism do? 

At one level, very little.  Most urban literature and debate seem to have little effect on what soldiers do.  The problems occur when armies believe data-free propositions because it speaks to how they understand the evidence.  That is a problem because the story has become the driver, not the evidence.  It is akin to institutional blindness.  If you cannot see the reality of urban operations based on actual evidence, how smart are you as an institution? What else are you getting wrong? 

This can manifest in such ideas as armoured vehicles specifically designed for urban combat or co-opting ideas such as “hardened logistics” as an urban operations requirement.  Both examples rely on their technical merits being exclusive to urban operations.  If a combat vehicle specifically designed for urban use is more useful than one for non-urban operations, then there is little to discuss.  The problem occurs when the opposite is true.  If urban is deemed exceptional, it will surely demand heavier, more expensive, and more complicated technical approaches.  The fact that the Dupuy Institute notes that by and large urban operations do not lead to higher AFV loss rates is evidence best ignored by those promoting the idea. 

If the urban exceptionalists have been wrong about the past, can they be right about the future?  Make no mistake, you need to train for urban operations in the same way you train for jungle, forest, mountain or arctic.  Every Army has a limited number of training days, and the correct balance needs to be struck when it comes to training for challenging environments.  Based on the “pop-narrative” literature, “urban” has attracted a disproportionate emphasis. 

Reasoning Forward 

We have two compelling reasons to distrust urban exceptionalism beyond that which history indicates. The first is to understand why the defender logically loses, should they seek to defend from strong points.  Defending any structure in a city is predicated on an all-around defence and the need to hold the bottom two floors of any structure (plus any underground access).  If the enemy manages to overrun the ground floors everyone else in the structure is isolated and at the mercy of demolition or fires. 

Holding ground from within buildings absorbs huge amounts of dismounted soldiers so “strong points” are not the way to go.  A strong point is eventually a street address or 10-figure grid which is then just a target to be isolated and destroyed  unless it can enable wider blocking actions or counter-attack by large reserves.  Add to that the fact that limited fields of view mean mutually supporting direct fire is hard to facilitate and your urban defence has shrunk to just the twelve large buildings your nine rifle platoons with support weapons detachments a battlegroup can hold. 

2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment’s Mortar Platoon fire the 81mm Mortar during a urban training exercise. Photo: MOD.

Second, the fundamentals of modern tactical defence apply just as well in the urban as they do in the rural environment or any other terrain.  If one cannot conduct or train for a coherent and sustainable defence outside of cities, one cannot defend in the urban.  In fact, given the oft-mentioned channelization of enemy approaches, it should be easier to conduct a mobile defence in urban than in rural terrain where the manoeuvre is less constrained.  Yet this touches on a paradox that a mobile defence of sufficiently large urban area could be more effective than in the rural and that effectiveness is born of mobility and manoeuvre, but these advantages also lie with the attackers.

Thus, the advantage does not lie with the attack or the defence but with the side better at manoeuvre and command-and-control.  The absence of these two simple points from much current expert opinion should indicate that while much has been written some pretty simple practical aspects do not seem to have been considered; urban exceptionalism.. 

Prophets and Prediction

Military thought is riven with the false foretelling of future war and warfare, yet basics endure.  In terms of the British Army, merely doing the urban training it had in place in the 1980’s and 1990’s would need very little adaptation for today.  There has never been a time in recorded history when fighting in towns, cities, or villages has not been prevalent.  Likewise, sieges endured, be they Leningrad, Dien Bien Phu, Khe Sahn, or Sarajevo – and notably, two of those were airfields, not cities. Sieges will be as common as they always were

History does not tell us that the largest and most decisive battles have or always will occur in cities.  As previously stated, you need to be as well prepared for urban operations as you are for all combat operations.  The second is that making predictions about future warfare has never been useful, unless such predictions were strongly evidence based on things doable in the present.  To paraphrase Colin S. Gray, the future of War is the future of politics.  War and warfare’s future is not about the terrain. 

Good adaptation is reactive, not predictive, because prediction is impossible.  That urban combat will become more prevalent in the future is not based on evidence, it is based in narrative opinion.  If urban fighting does become more prevalent, then the current training accounts for that fact, or should do, if done correctly.  What counts is relevant, cost-effective training delivered today.  Choices as to what is relevant can only be based on enduring fundamentals. Debates about fundamentals should start with the evidence, not with academic conjecture.  

Cover photo: Destruction of Berlin, 1945. No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes A (Sergeant)

Will F Owen

William F. Owen (Wilf) is the editor of Military Strategy Magazine (formerly Infinity Journal).  He consults,
speaks and presents to military audiences, HQs and staffs on a wide range of subjects covering
command, doctrine and capability.  He served in both regular and reserve units of the British Army

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