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Experts address the challenges of urban operations

The world is becoming ever-more urbanised. More than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities, it is vital that the Army can work effectively in the urban environment. This makes operations in an urban environment unavoidable and almost the ‘new normal’.

Some countries have an even greater concentration of population in cities, including those in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Asia. For example, according to the UN, as of 2018 Libya has an urban population over 80% and Iraq is over 70%.

Urban operations provide a huge spectrum of opportunities and challenges for the Army. Some of these include urban terrain constraining manoeuvrability, buildings disrupting communications and intelligence, or disruption to surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and conducting operations in much closer proximity to the adversary and a civilian population, where human security must also be considered.

The environment itself – such as critical physical infrastructure in close proximity - and everything being highly connected, adds another layer of complexity. For example, all visible activities could be live tweeted by civilians. 

Nevertheless, the British Army is highly experienced in operating in an urban environment, where we can use concealment and protection opportunities to our advantage.  It also suits our tactical doctrine and culture of operating in small but integrated teams, using junior leadership resilience and mission command. 

In addition, although the urban environment is primarily geared towards Land forces - manoeuvring through urban terrain, engaging with the enemy, or with a local population - Land forces will employ an integrated approach, working with other domains, departments, external agencies and coalition partners.

The recent Future Land Challenges Symposium – part of the Army’s AGILE WARRIOR programme – looked at urban operations in detail. AGILE WARRIOR aims to provide an evidence base, drawn from lessons, research and experiments, upon which to base decisions on the future development of land forces.

Some of the biggest names in their respective fields – Dr Anthony King, Dr David Kilcullen, Ben Barry from IISS and John Spencer (head of urban warfare studies for the US Army Modern War Institute) – were among those who addressed the issue of future of conflict in cities.

Areas of focus included emerging adversary tactics, ethical and legal implications of urban operations, combined arms concepts for urban tactics, small unit structures and subterranean operations.  

We are sharpening the Army for success in urban environments Brigadier Ollie Kingsbury

As part of Future Soldier, innovation will be given greater priority, especially in areas such as digitisation, robotics, AI and electronic warfare, all key for successful urban ops. As part of the Future Land Combat System, the Army has set a vision to be “honed for urban” and, as part of the Land Urban Roadmap, has been working with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to predict future technologies and ways of operating, helping to ensure the right doctrine and equipment is in place for the challenges of urban operations.  

Part of this work is a programme known as the Contested Urban Environment (CUE) Strategic Challenge. Part of The Technical Co-operation Partnership, the multi-year CUE programme works with Five-Eyes allies and partners, as well as industry and academia, to ensure collaborative working and to identify where cutting-edge tech can benefit our forces operating in urban environments.  

Technologies developed through CUE include highly distributed sensors that use AI to detect adversaries such as personnel, vehicles, and drones; technologies to enhance the situational awareness of soldiers in complex terrain such as high-rise buildings and tunnels; and tools for exploiting the many data sources available from the city itself.

Stuart Lyle leads all support to Army’s AGILE WARROR programme at Dstl and is their urban operations lead. He said: “It’s critical that the Army is the principal focus because the Army is the principal service for conducting any future urban operation.

“The Future Land Challenges Symposium is important not only to set the tone for upcoming research, but it also highlights some of the areas which need greater understanding. The fact that an entire day has been dedicated to urban shows how seriously this subject is being taken by the Army’s leadership. 

As part of Agile Warrior, the symposium looks out to 2040, but also considers nearer-term issues as well. It is not all robots and artificial intelligence. The challenges of urban operations have been growing in prominence in the UK and with partners over the last few years. We recognise that we are more likely to conduct operations in an urban environment, across the full spectrum of conflict from peacekeeping to warfighting.”

Brigadier Ollie Kingsbury is Head of Warfare Development at the Land Warfare Centre, and co-chairs the Land Domain Urban Operations Steering Group.  He said: "We are sharpening the Army for success in urban environments. We will have to operate in built up areas, and it plays to our strengths: the resilience of our junior leaders and our culture of initiative and mission command. Following a roadmap for improvement, we are now prioritising urban expertise in our current and future plans, including research and experimentation.

We are updating and refining the way we work now - tactics, training, equipment, structures, and infrastructure - as well as building urban capabilities into our modernisation programmes. We're aiming to move beyond being good at urban operations if we get drawn in, to really embracing the challenges and looking for ways to exploit our expertise."

The threats and challenges of urban ops are detailed in Dstl’s Future Cities report.