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By Kent Davis

Urban warfare has been a significant challenge in modern warfare worldwide. Fighting in cities and towns presents a highly complex operating environment with a wide range of potential scenarios and challenges. Operations take place in a three-dimensional environment with multi-storey buildings (some of them collapsed) with basements serving as defensive emplacements, tunnels shielding movements and debris limiting mobility. There is also the civilian population to contend with—some trying to flee and others sheltering-in-place.

The names of cities where urban warfare was fought have become shorthand for complex, multi-layered operations. Stalingrad, Hue, Mogadishu, Grozny, Fallujah, Aleppo, Mosul, and more recently Mariupol and Kharkiv, have become synonymous with urban fighting.

Developing and delivering training for this operating environment is necessary to prepare militaries for future operations.

Trends Impacting Urban Warfare

David Kilcullen’s formative work Out of the Mountains presents clear global trends regarding urbanization.

Megacities on the ocean present a significant challenge for the future of conflict. ‘Crowded, complex, and coastal’ defines the challenge. These are cities with millions of people, complex terrain, and ocean access providing connection to the global economy while also presenting a displacement threat in the case of tsunami and/or rising sea levels.

Non-coastal cities also present significant challenges. The refugee flows and displaced people flows created by fighting in places in like Mosul and Aleppo create major challenges outside of a coastal environment.

The complexity of the urban environment has been called ‘the great equalizer’ between technologically superior force and local forces with superior cultural and terrain knowledge¹. Technological advantages can be negated by the human dimension, where bogging down an armoured, network-reliant enemy is achieved by low-technology advantages like speed, agility, concealment and rapidly breaking contact.

The UN forecasts that 68% of humanity will live in cities by 2050², meaning urban warfare is not something that western militaries can ignore. Rather, it is something that must be better understood to prepare and train for a range of urban operations.

Defining Complexity of the Urban Environment

Before developing training concepts, we need to define the urban operating environment. The environment is three-dimensional, with buildings above ground and tunnels and defensive emplacements below ground. There is plentiful cover from sight and cover from fire. Collapsed buildings serve as obstacles or as fortresses, both of which favour the defender. This has major implications for defining forward lines and boundaries, which will be more porous than in rural terrain.

The reliance on roads means there is canalizing ground everywhere, providing the defender an advantage for sighting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, anti-tank weapons and other heavy weapons. Aviation provides good observation of the urban operating environment from above, and air transport frees land forces from dependence on road travel. However, in the case of aircraft being shot down, rescue operations become very complex, immortalized in the Hollywood film Blackhawk Down.

There are also significant command and control challenges. Concrete and heavy debris can interfere with wireless communications systems that modern armies rely on. Transmissions of voice and data are essential to passing information and creating situational awareness. If data cannot flow in urban spaces, coordination suffers.

The presence of civilians and ordinary life is perhaps the most pervasive challenge in urban warfare. Some people may flee in the face of combat. Others may try to shelter-in-place and attempt to stay. In either case, there is a risk of collateral damage and unnecessary loss of life. In prolonged periods of urban siege, people still need to go about their daily lives. Finding food and water, shopkeepers operating their businesses, evacuating garbage, finding sanitation and other daily activities all need to continue in any human-occupied space. Urban warfare is no exception. The presence of civilians throughout the urban environment creates considerations for any urban operation.

Training Concept and Development

Realistically re-creating the challenges of the urban operating environment is essential to developing and delivering relevant, challenging urban warfare training. High fidelity terrain models are necessary to recreate the mobility challenge in urban environments. Blocked roads and destroyed bridges and infrastructure will figure prominently in the urban environment. Planning urban operations will rely heavily on ISR assets collecting information to provide the most up-to-date common operating picture. This means data fusion and integration are important for realism.

Robust scenarios and challenges need to be created for the maneuver of infantry and armoured forces, and specific attention should be paid to combat support and combat service support. Engineering scenarios are essential for simulating the mobility and counter-mobility challenge. Transport and logistics planning will be impacted by identifying suitable and unsuitable supply routes and air corridors. Deconflicting airspace for aviation and fires is important to prevent fratricide or collateral damage. Signals and communications challenges will be complex, including dead-zones, jamming, and cyber operations. Interoperable radio networks for air and land units will be important for continuity of operations. Medical scenarios should simulate the challenges of evacuating wounded and civilian casualties.

The interconnected nature of the urban operating environment means that all these aspects must be well-developed to deliver a realistic, challenging environment. All functions and roles will have important value to deliver in the urban environment.


As more people move into cities and as the impacts of climate change accelerate, the urban environment continues to present a complex challenge for military planners. Historically, urban warfare has been a slow, deliberate, resource and casualty-intensive undertaking. The pervasiveness of civilians contributes to the complexity of the urban environment. For these reasons, urban warfare training needs to represent these challenges accurately and with sufficient fidelity to provide accurate simulation. High fidelity terrain modelling and realistic scenario development are essential to creating a synthetic training environment and to challenging the training audience.

¹BR Posen, “Urban Operations: Tactical Realities and Strategic Ambiguities” in: MC Desch (ed.), Soldiers in Cities: Military Operations in Urban Terrain. Strategic Studies Institute, 2001.

²United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs. ‘68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN.’ 16 May 2018.