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Urban warfare. Where all security ends

“The worst choice is to attack cities."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Attacks on a city or urban fighting are not a recent phenomenon. New and unprecedented, however, is the level of technology applied during the war and the involvement of civilians. Is it possible to continue to imagine such a level of destruction?

1. What is urban warfare

Urban warfare belongs to the category of wars defined as "asymmetrical", that type of fighting that takes place between a national army and another non-state subject, such as a terrorist group, one or more militia groups, guerrilla movements or the so-called rebels. It is not two national armies fighting. It is a type of clash in which the adversary is favoured and the fighting takes place on his territory or city, of which he has control and, above all, knowledge.

The urban environment is a very complex place in which to fight because of its construction: small maneuvering spaces, tunnels, underground, difficult visibility during the fighting, the possibility of multiple attacks, continuous unforeseen events, poor or incomplete knowledge of the entire city. Precisely because of these characteristics, fighting in cities requires very precise strategic planning and very large investments for the composition of the military asset to be used. These difficulties have never discouraged, however, military strategists or army commanders to prepare and then conduct an attack against a city that represents the heart of a country's governmental and economic power. There are many examples that history offers us: Jerusalem was besieged four times and sacked and destroyed on two occasions, Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 was the battle that marked the beginning of the end of the Empire.

The war has changed over the centuries, its claims and the means used in battle have changed. During the First World War most of the fighting took place in rural areas and the larger urban areas were evacuated instead. Urban warfare began to become predominant during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when the cities of Madrid and Barcelona became targets for fighting and the German Air Force undertook the first large-scale aerial bombardment against the city of Guernica, almost totally devastating it. With the Second World War, urban warfare reached a point of no return: many decisive fights for the fate of the conflict took place in the cities with high civilian involvement. During the Second World War, air power in urban contexts began to be decisive for the fate of the war. Dresden was destroyed by bombing. The city of Stalingrad was completely razed to the ground: of the 600,000 civilians who inhabited the city only 1,500 remained there at the end of the fighting[1]. With the end of the Second World War, urban fighting left Europe and moved mainly to the Middle East and Africa, where it underwent a technological evolution that went hand in hand with the growth of urban contexts.

Technology applied to urban warfare has grown at the pace of globalisation and has adapted to it. How can we fight in cities that are increasingly connected internally and externally, branched out by rapid urbanization and equally rapid population growth?

2. No security

Fighting in an urban environment must adapt to the context in which it takes place and is therefore different depending on the city, but also on the type of enemy to be defeated. Contemporary urban warfare involves three levels of combat: high (air space), medium (urban space between buildings, mainly used by snipers) and low (urban and underground street). In this sense urban warfare is a total, complete war, where there are no barricades behind which to be safe, although the word security takes on a naive meaning in a context of war.

The military operations that take place on the road involve so-called close combat, close fights with the opponent or with those who are supposed to be. Urban warfare does not have a defined front with which to distinguish the two adversaries, and often the enemy does not have a military uniform. This involves a dual exposure to danger: on the part of civilians, who are exposed and involved in unregulated violence and terror, but also on the part of the military, who most often fail to obtain complete information about exactly where the enemy is. The army moves in fact, in a territory that it does not know and as much as it can equip itself with instruments to help it in this, GPS, day and night sensors, radar instruments, it will hardly have access to the same number and quality of information as the enemy. Land operations in urban areas are very risky also because the same risk factors are unpredictable: the type of war that the enemy puts in front of the army is asymmetrical and therefore also the responses to the attack will be so.

If armies have technological and sophisticated means of combat, the adversary has on his side the use of economic means of response, but with equally strong power of destruction, such as suicide attacks or car bombs. In this context of unpredictability, ground operations expose traditional armies to huge losses in the number of men, an uncomfortable choice for governments in electoral terms. In particular for the Pentagon, it has become increasingly difficult to find soldiers willing to leave for urban warfare contexts, which is why engagement contracts are increasingly expensive for the coffers of the U.S. government, which in some cases prefers to turn to contractors, private military companies that provide specific services of a military nature: contemporary mercenaries.

If training a traditional army for this type of war is so difficult, then has the opponent already won? No, it is enough to move the battlefield where the opponent could be in trouble: the airspace. The most recent and still ongoing urban wars in Syria and Yemen are so totally destructive precisely because of the exponential use of bombardments by conventional armies. The war becomes so symmetrical because the non-state actor in the conflict is supported by a state actor who has the means to fight on equal terms. It is true that the U.S. urban warfare strategy manuals provide rules of engagement for those who fight: during the bombardments, no civilians, schools, hospitals, but only the so-called "knots" of the battle, the strategic points of the enemy, can be hit. However, it is difficult to think that the drones respect rules of engagement. Sure, the drones are controlled according to precise rules, the data-net-GPS connections are constantly improved, but in a war context where the internet connections are not stable at all, the drones have autonomy, or at least they have a good chance of missing the target of the bombardments. Whoever makes a mistake, pays.

Who pays in a context of urban warfare? The civilians, the population who experience urban warfare and suffer it in its uncontrolled, by proxy and deliberately insane. In Syria alone, since the beginning of the war in 2011, there have been 101 hospitals attacked by the bombings[2]. Hitting a hospital during an urban war means for civilians to eliminate any possibility of being rescued. Civilians are totally involved in contemporary urban wars, they don't have much choice when they are exposed to air strikes and sniper fire on inhabited houses and in many cases they take people living in the house as prisoners to use them as human shields or as bait: if there is no connection given to indicate where to bomb the enemy, civilians are sent by the opponent with a white flag, in this way the sniper knows where the enemy is and strikes, in all probability also who has been used as bait. How can civilians survive in a city that is no longer such? In fact, the aerial bombardments are mainly aimed at hitting the strategic assets for the survival of the city: electricity, water and even schools, hospitals, everything that makes the enemy weak and insecure, but the enemy is among civilians, innocent. Or are the enemy civilians?

3. Future of urban warfare

Aleppo, Sana, Idlib, Homs, Raqqa in Syria; Mosul, Baghdad, Iraq; Taiz and Sana'a in Yemen; villages and towns in South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic. Lists of cities destroyed by urban wars that do not help, because of the speed with which they are written and despite the numerous occasions when we listen to them, to understand and become aware of the number of deaths and the exodus of thousands of civilians that urban conflicts cause.Why, then, will urban war still have a future?

War is a business that involves several actors before, during and after the war itself. The arms industries occupy an important place in the business of a conflict, but perhaps even more advantageous is the phase of reconstruction after the war. Also for this reason the war has moved to cities and does not intend to abandon them: rebuilding a city, a metropolis, is a safe and necessary source of income. In a report[3] by the Research and Technology Organization, a NATO research body, published in 2003, it is expected that in 2020, this year, urban wars will become highly and exclusively technological conflicts. However, the report stresses that NATO, as an alliance and not a state entity, must use much stricter rules of engagement for its urban combat, with particular attention to the type of targets to be hit during the bombing. Although NATO does not have an operations manual for urban warfare combat, the report hopes that by 2020, the Alliance will have acquired the tactical and strategic superiority necessary for urban environments.

Russia, after the reform of its military apparatus in 2008, has become one of the predominant actors in urban wars. After the war in Chechnya, in East Ukraine and again in Syria, Moscow has acquired an in-depth knowledge of the strategy in urban conflicts that has allowed it to obtain a complex military system, made of autonomous systems, military robotics, precision remote controlled munitions, a C4ISTAR program (Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Interoperability, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Recognition) functional and operational in every context. Russia, unlike the United States, has not yet published its own formal doctrine for urban warfare fighting. It is not clear, therefore, how it places itself in terms of rules of engagement in battle and what targets it recognizes as attackable or not. It is known, however, that the government has decided to continue to invest in new technologies suitable for urban warfare. The United States, for now, remains committed to adapting its joint operations increasingly to urban contexts. John Spencer, Director and strategic planner for the Department of Military Education at the Institute of Modern Warfare at West Point, spoke in a debate organized by OCHA[4] on the protection of civilians in urban warfare: "Armed conflict has moved into cities and there is its future. Many of the weapons available to the army are not suitable for urban combat, but for open battlefields. That is why we need training, organization and better equipment for our troops.”[5]

No state actor thinks of leaving the context of urban warfare therefore, despite the high costs and operational difficulties. Fighting in the home of the enemy, after all, also has its advantages: to keep the territory and the population of one's own state safe and calm, far from the scenarios of death and destruction that an urban war generates.


Urban warfare. Where all security ends
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[1] Margarita Konaev, “The future of Urban Warfare inthe Age of Megacities”, Études de L’Ifri-Focus Stratégique,n. 88, march 2019.

[2] Doctors without border’s report,, 3 february 2020. [3] Research and Technology Organization-NATO, “Urban Operations in the Year 2020”, technical report n. 71, april 2003.

[4] United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

[5] Meeting report “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare” organized by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 13 december 2017.


  • Defense Department-United States of America, Joint Publication 3-06, “Joint Urban Operations”, 20 november 2013.

  • Umer Khan, “The hybrid doctrine for urban operation’s: comparing the U.S. and the Russian evolution of urban warfare doctrine”, ResearchGate, september 2019.

  • Margarita Konaev, “The future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, Études de l’Institut français des relations internationales-Focus Stratégique, n. 88, march 2019.

  • Doctors Without Borders’ Report, “Syrie: l’impasse humanitaire”, 3 february 2020.

  • Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare”, 13 december 2017.

  • Research and Technology Organization-NATO, “Urban Operations in the Year 2020”, technical report n. 71, april 2003.

  • Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts, “For Sama”, film-documentary, KBMO production, 2019.

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