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Future war in cities: Urbanization's challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century

  • Michael Evans


This article argues that, despite an ongoing global revolution in urban demography, most Western military research into urbanization is narrowly focused and remains disengaged from the interdisciplinary expertise of urban studies. Because so many cities are sui generis in terms of their governance, architectural design and demographic composition, the art of war must seek closer interaction with the science of cities. In the coming years, in order to control armed violence and reduce casualties across an urbanizing world, military analysts must seek greater cooperation with urban specialists. The common aim must be to develop an urban-oriented strand of strategic studies that is firmly based on a sophisticated understanding of the ecology of cities. Such a cooperative approach will assist in the development of military methods of operating in cities using appropriate rules of engagement that embrace international humanitarian law.



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1 For the shift towards maritime warfare in Western countries, see Haynes, Peter D., Towards a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2015 ; Parry, Chris, Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century, Elliot and Thompson, London, 2014 ; Michael Evans, The Third Way: Towards an Australian Maritime Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Army Research Paper No. 1, Directorate of Future Land Warfare, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2014.

2 For a historical overview, see Ashworth, Gregory J., War and the City, Routledge, London, 1991 .

3 For the background to contemporary issues surrounding urban warfare, see Hills, Alice, Future War in Cities: Rethinking a Liberal Dilemma, Frank Cass and Routledge, London, 2004 ; Graham, Stephen (ed.), Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics, Blackwell, Oxford, 2004 .

4 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision – Highlights, New York, 2014 (2014 World Urbanization Prospects), p. 1.

5 See ibid ., pp. 7–9 and Annex, p. 20 ff. By 2050 it is estimated that 52% of the global population will be located in Asia and 21% in Africa.

6 Ibid ., pp. 1, 11–12.

7 See Angel, Shlomo, Planet of Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, MA, 2012 ; McKinsey Global Institute, Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities, March 2011 (Economic Power Report), available at: (all internet references were accessed in October 2016); McKinsey Global Institute, Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class, June 2012 (Consuming Class Report), available at:

8 See Muggah, Robert, Researching the Urban Dilemma: Urbanization, Poverty and Violence, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, May 2012, p. vi; Joel Kotkin, “Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, not Cities, are the Answer”, Foreign Policy, 6 August 2010, available at:; Kotkin, Joel et al. , The Problem with Megacities, Chapman University Press, Center for Demographics and Policy, Orange, CA, 2014 , available at:

9 For dystopian views, see Norton, Richard J., “Feral Cities”, Naval War College Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2003 ; Woodbridge, Roy, The Next World War: Tribes, Cities, Nations and Ecological Decline, University Press of Toronto, Toronto, 2004, pp. 7880 ; Graham, Stephen, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, Verso, New York, 2011 ; Liotta, Peter H. and Miskel, James F., The Real Population Bomb: Megacities, Global Security and the Map of the Future, Potomac Books, Washington, DC, 2012 ; Kilcullen, David, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013, Ch. 5.

10 P. H. Liotta and J. F. Miskel, above note 9, p. 7.

11 Sydney Freedberg Jr., “Army Grapples with Cyber Battles in Mega-Cities”, Breaking Defense, May 2014, available at:

12 See Sassen, Saskia J. (ed.), Cities in a World Economy, 4th ed., Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2011 ; Kotkin, Joel, Cities: A Global History, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2005, especially Part 6; Brenner, Neil and Keil, Roger (eds), The Global Cities Reader, Routledge, New York, 2006 .

13 2014 World Urbanization Prospects, above note 4, p. 3.

14 Ibid ., p. 1.

15 Economic Power Report, above note 7, pp. 17–20, 27–28, 30; Consuming Class Report, above note 7, p. 1.

16 Emily Moir, Tim Noonen and Greg Clark, What are Future Cities? Origins, Meanings and Uses, paper, UK Government Office for Science, Foresight Future of Cities Project, London, June 2014, p. 5.

17 Emily Moir, Tim Noonen and Greg Clark, The Future of Cities: What is the Global Agenda?, paper, UK Government Office for Science, Foresight Future of Cities Project, London, September 2014, pp. 35–50, 152–153.

18 Ibid ., p. 13.

19 Ibid ., pp. 11–12.

20 Ibid ., pp. 2, 11–12, 17; Vinolo, Alberto, “Smartmentality: The Smart City as Disciplinary Strategy”, Urban Studies, Vol. 51, No. 5, 2014 .

21 Campanella, Thomas J., The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2008, p. 15.

22 Jo Beall, Tom Goodfellow and Dennis Rodgers, Cities, Conflict and State Fragility, Working Paper No. 85, Crisis States Working Papers Series No. 2, Crisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics, London, January 2011.

23 P. H. Liotta and J. F. Miskel, above note 9, p. 9.

24 J. Kotkin et al., above note 8, pp. 16–17.

25 2014 World Urbanization Prospects, above note 4, p. 13.

26 Economic Power Report, above note 7, p. 4.

27 Consuming Class Report, above note 7, pp. 5–6, 19.

28 Ibid ., pp. 5–6, 19; Burrows, Mathew, The Future, Declassified: Megatrends that Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014, pp. 8990 .

29 2014 World Urbanization Prospects, above note 4, p. 1; Economic Power Report, above note 7, pp. 14–17, 28–31.

30 Sassen, Saskia J., “The Urban Complex in a World Economy”, International Social Science Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, 1994 .

31 US Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future, Strategic Studies Group, Megacities Concept Team, Arlington, June 2014 (US Army Megacities Paper); US Marine Corps, 2015 Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast: Futures 2030–2045, Futures Directorate, USMC Futures Assessment Division, Quantico, VA, 2015 (US Security Environment Forecast).

32 US Army Megacities Paper, above note 31, pp. 5, 8.

33 US Security Environment Forecast, above note 31, p. vii. For the military debate over megacities, see Felix, Kevin M. and Wong, Frederick D., “The Case for Megacities”, Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2015 ; Evans, Michael, “The Case against Megacities”, Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1, 2015 .

34 US Security Environment Forecast, above note 31, p. vii.

35 Ibid ., pp. 54–59.

36 Bugeaud, Maréchal, La guerre des rues et des maisons, unpublished manuscript presented by Maité Boussy, Jean-Paul Rocher, Paris, 1997 . This is significant as the first professional military study of a modern, industrial-age city. For the evolution of modern urban warfare and speculations on the future, see Evans, Michael, “Lethal Genes: The Urban Military Imperative and Western Strategy in the Early Twenty-First Century”, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2009 ; Evans, Michael, City Without Joy: Urban Military Operations into the 21st Century, Occasional Paper No. 2, Australian Defence College, Canberra, 2007 ; M. Evans, above note 33, pp. 33–43.

37 Collins, John, Military Geography for Professionals and the Public, National Defence University Press, Washington, DC, 1998, p. 195.

38 M. Evans, above note 33, pp. 33–43; M. Evans, “Lethal Genes”, above note 36, pp. 534–535.

39 For those interested, useful from a strategic studies perspective are S. J. Sassen, above note 12; Brenner, Neil and Keil, Roger (eds), The Global Cities Reader, Routledge, New York, 2006 ; J. Kotkin, above note 12.

40 Alan Gilbert, Urbanization and Security, Comparative Urban Studies, Occasional Paper No. 31, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC, 1999, pp. 16–17; Robert Muggah, “How Fragile are Our Cities?”, World Economic Forum, 2016, available at:; Kevin Savage and Robert Muggah, “Urban Violence and Humanitarian Action: Engaging the Fragile City”, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 19 January 2012, available at: For a recent perspective on security in cities, see Graham, Stephen, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, Verso, London, 2016, pp. 6795 .

41 R. Muggah, above note 8, p. 49.

42 Ibid ., pp. 49, 66.

43 Ibid ., pp. vii–ix.

44 K. Savage and R. Muggah, above note 40.

45 R. Muggah, above note 8, p. 11.

46 Ibid ., p. 69.

47 M. Evans, “Lethal Genes”, above note 36, pp. 540–552; Vautravers, Alexandre, “Military Operations in Urban Areas”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 92, No. 878, 2010 .

48 R. Muggah, above note 8, p. vi.

49 Ibid ., pp. 9–10.

50 For useful insights, see R. Muggah, above note 8; Kemp, Ian, “Urban Warfare: Complete Guide”, Armada International, Vol. 32, No. 4, Supplement, 2008 ; Valpolini, Paolo, “Urban Warfare: High-Tech Take-Over”, Armada International, Vol. 34, No. 4, Compendium Urban Warfare Supplement, 2010 .

51 R. Muggah, above note 8, pp. vii–ix, 5–7.

52 For the reluctance of anthropologists to engage with security officialdom, see Price, David H., Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State, Counterpunch, Petrolia, CA, 2011 ; Kelly, John D. et al. (eds), Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL, 2010 .

53 Cox, Brian and Powles, Anna, Protecting Civilians in an Urban Conflict: Lessons Learned from Australia's Deployment Following the Timor-Leste Crisis, 2006–2007, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North, 2015, p. 2. See also Graduate Institute of International Studies, Small Arms Survey: Guns and the City, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007 (Small Arms Survey), pp. 178188 .

54 M. Evans, above note 33, pp. 41–43.

55 See Johnson, David E., Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 2011 ; McCants, Will, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, St Martin's Press, New York, 2016 .

56 For a military operational analysis, see Gaza Conflict Task Force, Gaza War Assessment: The New Face of Conflict, report, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Washington, DC, March 2015 (Gaza Report); Shamir, Eitan, “The 2014 Gaza War: Rethinking Operation Protective Edge”, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2015 .

57 Gaza Report, above note 56, p. 10.

58 Ibid ., pp. 10–11.

59 Ibid ., pp. 19–20, 25–27.

60 Ibid ., pp. 13, 20

61 Ibid ., pp. 57–58.

62 Scales, Robert H. Jr., “Urban Warfare: A Soldier's View”, Military Review, Vol. 85, No. 1, 2005, p. 10.

63 M. Evans, above note 33, pp. 33–43.

64 Scales, Robert H. Jr., “The Indirect Approach: How US Military Forces Can Avoid the Pitfalls of Future Urban Warfare”, in Future Warfare, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1999 .

65 J. Kotkin, above note 12, p. xviii.

66 Small Arms Survey, above note 53, p. 188.


Future war in cities: Urbanization's challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century

  • Michael Evans


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