America’s Next War Will Be Urban
In the future, adversaries will seek to engage NATO in battles for cities.
NATO’s Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations is largely based on U.S. Joint Operations Doctrine and focuses on standoff and enhanced precision strike capabilities with an intent to annihilate the adversary before it even makes initial contact with friendly forces. This is possible through air superiority and technical capabilities such as signal jammers or electromagnetic pulse devices.
With this in mind, adversaries will seek to engage NATO in battles for cities for three reasons: 1) cities are a symbolic representation of political power, economic strength, and population; 2) the urban settings deter NATO’s tactical and technological supremacy; and 3) urban engagements put a halt on numerical superiority, quantitively a major disadvantage to NATO.
Consequently, the deep battle concept which is fundamental to the NATO/U.S. doctrine loses its relevance in urban operations. NATO doctrine provides two solutions to resolve this predicament: military blockade or complete annihilation. Putting it simply: liberation through death and destruction. This form of liberation was tolerable in Raqqa and Mosul, where military commanders were overwhelmed by ISIS fighters mounting serious defenses in the occupied cities. Yet for a military alliance based on collective defense, none of the said options will be politically acceptable.
It is also important to highlight the political leadership’s reluctance to ponder the changing nature of warfare and the implications of future combat operations. This is evident from NATO’s 2019 Annual Report, which highlights the alliance’s investments in employing innovative technologies to enhance its operational military capability without exhibiting any details on future urban operations or technologies for urban combat. The document is devoid of any references pointing toward the likelihood of urban operations in the future. To our surprise, none of the military exercises cited in the report featured urban operations scenarios.
The Way Forward
In comparing recent urban battles with historical urban offensives, it confirms the trends predicted in the early 1990s: Cities have greater tactical significance and strategic vitality not only in intra- and inter-state conflicts but also in regional socio-political dynamics and international terror campaigns.
For NATO, it is not a challenge that fundamentally alters tactical, strategic/operational level decisionmaking in unconventional scenarios. Although not usually urban in nature, some lessons can be drawn from the NATO presence in Afghanistan, especially the importance of human intelligence, humanitarian aid/support, and constant engagement/dialogue with regional political actors. As witnessed in Afghanistan, political support to regional parties provided clarity in military decisionmaking—in urban cities, the relationship between political actors becomes more intertwined due to the presence of multiple stakeholders such as non-government institutions, civil society groups, and international aid agencies. This relationship becomes further complex with the simultaneous employment of combat and stabilization operations.
For NATO, these challenges may be interpreted by political leadership differently, however, for military leadership and planners, it is imperative to take the ongoing engagements seriously. The solution to challenges will not emerge from innovative technological mechanisms—simply because meagerly integrating them in training simulations is not sufficient on its own to prevent civilian/military casualties or save a city from destruction. Instead, military leaders must integrate infantry and special operation units with mechanized and armor forces while simulating urban battle and permitting the participation of civilian urban warfare experts, academics, and humanitarian aid-centric institutions for constant operational/tactical revisions. It is important to note that the idea is not to have a large pool of civilian/military advisers who can provide constant training to militaries with smaller armed forces. The idea is to ensure that lessons learned from successive urban offensives are internalized by NATO military planners before NATO forces are drawn into an intense urban battle. A form of this training is occurring with the U.S. Army National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division’s urban training center in California.
Anant Mishra is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) where he undertakes his research on interoperability during complex operations. He is a Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Policing & Security, University of South Wales, Pontypridd.
Edward Salo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the heritage studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University. Before coming to A-State, he served as a consulting historian for various projects across the globe.