For most, the term “urban warfare” evokes images of destroyed buildings, terrified civilians, and dust-covered rescue workers in devastated cities like Aleppo or Mosul — not scenes one associates with a Midwestern city like Minneapolis. With public officials using such terms, let’s examine what scholars know about urban warfare, and whether such concepts are relevant to the current moment in the United States.
What is urban warfare?
Urban warfare is a broad term referring to military operations in cities. Depending on the political and strategic goals, urban warfare can be part of a conventional war, like the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II or a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign, such as the British campaign in Belfast from 1968 to 1973 during the Troubles. Increasingly, democratic countries are also sending in military forces when police are overwhelmed, as France did during the Yellow Vest protests.
Most recently, the U.S. military fought in urban warfare as part of a coalition to defeat the Islamic State from 2016-2017, supporting Iraqi and Kurdish allies in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. Before that, U.S. troops deployed to the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah between 2003 and 2011. In Somalia in 1993, the Battle of Mogadishu turned into the longest and most intense firefight involving U.S. troops since the fighting in Vietnam.
All this tells us that the U.S. military’s experience with urban warfare has involved fighting enemies overseas, not confronting Americans at home. That said, the U.S. government has deployed military forces on U.S. soil on some occasions — for instance, in Los Angeles in 1992, after an all-white jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in the trial of white police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King on the street, which sparked days of riots. At the request of California’s governor, then-president George H.W. Bush sent in federalized National Guard, Army and Marine units to back up law enforcement.
How do you mass and dominate the battlespace?'
Militaries prefer not to fight in cities. Cities are mazes of high-rise buildings, massive highways, underground transportation networks, narrow side-streets and densely populated neighborhoods. When large forces and heavy military equipment move through those streets en masse, they destroy buildings, streets, and critical infrastructure. Clearing buildings and patrolling narrow streets requires splitting units up to subteams that often can’t see or hear each other. Any multistory building could be a sniper’s nest.
To “dominate” the battlespace requires first physically and psychologically isolating or sealing off enemy combatants inside the urban area of operations — limiting movement, communications and access to reinforcements, weapons and supplies until they surrender. During the 2008 battle of Sadr City within Baghdad, for example, U.S. forces cut off the Sadrist armed militia, Jaish al-Mahdi, from its lifeline in the Jamiliya Market by building a 12-foot-tall concrete wall that isolated the Ishbiliyah and Habbibiyah neighborhoods from the rest of the city. It’s not clear what “isolating enemy combatants” would entail in an American city.
Effective urban warfare also requires gathering intelligence and managing and influencing public opinion. Gathering intelligence technologically can be difficult, since cameras, surveillance drones, and communication signals have a hard time seeing through and into buildings and underground spaces. Gathering human intelligence can be complicated by cities’ demographics. Urban communities’ complex ethnic, racial, economic, political and social diversity can make it difficult to determine who may have information or even where the military threat is coming from.
Meanwhile, militaries conducting counterinsurgency and urban combat operations need to win the local civilian population’s support while maintaining domestic and international support. Achieving that requires protecting civilians during military operations and minimizing collateral damage to critical city infrastructure. That’s hard to do in densely populated urban areas where enemy combatants easily hide among civilians. With different and often opposed ethnic, social and political groups, the military has to manage several very different audiences. And since thousands of people are equipped with handheld recording devices that can immediately broadcast to the world, controlling the flow of information and remaining in charge of messaging is almost impossible.
Why are U.S. leaders using military rhetoric to respond to events in American cities?
Public officials’ comments about protests and unrest have been heavily steeped in military language. Yet the protests themselves, taking a stand against police violence toward black people, are associated with increased militarization of policing. During the past 20 years, the Department of Defense 1033 Program has distributed surplus military equipment to U.S. police departments, including high-caliber weapons, armed vehicles, helicopters and other tactical equipment.
After Ferguson, Mo., police used this equipment to shut down 2014 protests over police violence, the public, researchers and policymakers increasingly examined this program. Research finds such transfers are linked to higher levels of law enforcement violence against civilians.
While the police seem to be facing a legitimacy crisis in some communities, the U.S. military remains one of the most popular U.S. institutions. Eighty-three percent of Americans say they trust the military to act in the public’s best interest. Still, civil-military relations scholars warn that politicizing the military could undermine that support. Talking about urban warfare and deploying U.S. troops in American cities risks ensnaring the military into a partisan political fight.
Margarita Konaev (@Ritakonaev) specializes in military applications of artificial intelligence, Russian military innovation, and urban warfare in the Middle East, Russia, and Eurasia.
Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite (@KirstinJHB) is an assistant professor of international relations in James Madison College at Michigan State University, specializing in combat effectiveness, urban warfare, and civil conflict.