Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Urban Blind Spots: Gaps in Joint Force Combat Readiness

| November 2019

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Statements and views expressed in this report are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the U.S. government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, or the U.S. Army Reserve.

This paper was derived from open sources and contains no classified material.

Wars are Fought Where People Live

Cities have always been centers of gravity, but they are now more magnetic than ever before.  Once the gatherers of wealth, the processors of wealth, cities and their satellite communities have become the ultimate creators of wealth.  They concentrate people and power, communications and control, knowledge and capability, rendering all else peripheral.  They are also the post-modern equivalent of jungles and mountains—citadels of the dispossessed and irreconcilable.  A military unprepared for urban operations across a broad spectrum is unprepared for tomorrow. 

—Ralph Peters


The world today is urbanizing at the fastest rate in history, especially in the developing world.  Sixty percent of the world’s population will live in urban environments by 2030.  Today’s urban areas continue to grow in size, but more importantly, they are expanding into all warfighting domains to include air, sea, land, space, and cyber. These urban locales can have skyscrapers that dominate skylines, subterranean networks such as sewers or underground train systems that stretch for miles, and mobile phones and internet connections that allow for instant communication with the entirety of the outside world.  These cities, especially in the developing world, are progressively becoming the dominant centers of social, diplomatic, political, and economic activity in their countries. Indeed, between 2014 and 2016, the 300 largest urban areas in the world accounted for 36 percent of global employment growth and 67 percent of global gross domestic product increases. 

These trends will continue as the 21st Century progresses.  Urban areas will increasingly intersect with United States (US) national security interests whether it be part of the chess board of renewed great power competition or because the US is trying to support a friendly government in a contested region.  These areas will be important because “urban areas are often absolutely critical strategic objectives…that have a political value that is of much greater strategic importance than the material military advantage they provide.”  Whether or not the US decides to utilize its military to achieve its strategic objectives, the Joint Force (Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines) must be prepared to conduct a variety of urban operations in support of US interests.  These efforts could consist of anything from humanitarian efforts, battling a pandemic, supporting a friendly government against insurgents or terrorists, or conducting full spectrum combat operations.

The Joint Force, however, currently lacks a cohesive joint operating concept to conduct military operations in an urban environment because unlike the Army or Marine Corps which has an office assigned as an advocate for urban operations, the Joint Staff has not had such an executive agent since Joint Forces Command was dissolved in 2011.  At the conventional level, most of the service branches train at the tactical echelon on room clearing and how to capture a single building.  There are few Army or Marine courses designed to build expertise for urban operations at the warfighter (company and below) and planner (battalion and above) levels.  The majority of unit staffs at the battalion level and up do not train on how to maneuver their subordinate units in an urban environment.  At the service level, the Navy and the Air Force currently lack an urban operations doctrine.  The Army and Marine Corps are making efforts to improve upon the quality and quantity of urban training, but aside from service-level initiatives, the Joint Force is currently not at the level of readiness it should be for urban operations.

Of the significant, service-level initiatives, there is a focus on investigation and recognition of a problem or gap in preparedness as opposed to a resolution.  General Ray Odierno, the former Army Chief of Staff, directed his Strategic Studies Group (SSG) to research megacities and the potential threat they posed to US forces in 2014.  The SSG published “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future.”  In one of its concluding paragraphs, this 28-page study declared:  “The Army is currently unprepared.  Although the Army has a long history of urban fighting, it has never dealt with an environment so complex and beyond the scope of its resources.”  In 2014, a US Army study directed by the Army Chief of Staff determined the Army was not ready for urban operations.  Although the study concentrated on megacities, its conclusions are relevant for all urban centers.  The SSG effort was a notable one that created conversation, but unfortunately did not result in concrete and lasting changes to improve the Army’s readiness to conduct urban operations.  

General Mark Milley, General Odierno’s replacement and the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also believes the Army will fight in urban areas and has said so repeatedly.  In 2017, General Milley said, “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas.”  General Milley also added that he believes the Army, “needs to man, organize, train, and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas.” The last two heads of the Army have understood the importance of urban combat and the fact that the Army is not properly prepared.  Despite such high-profile attention and support, however, there has been little change.  As a result, the Army continues to train for urban warfare much in the same manner as it did prior to 2014: at the company and below level.  

The Army’s challenges with improving how it trains for urban operations are reflected throughout the Joint Force, as all services are operating from a service-specific perspective and not from a unified approach.  The Marine Corps is pursuing a variety of urban initiatives, but they are largely uncoordinated with the other services, and both the Navy and the Air Force currently lack an urban operations doctrine as mentioned earlier.  Future urban efforts will require more than a service-specific response.  Activities in urban locales will require ground forces, such as the Marines and the Army, but also the ability to get those forces into theater.  The Navy and Air Force will be needed for force projection, logistics, close air support, medical evacuation, and many other tasks.  More than one service will be needed to successfully conduct urban operations in the future, whether it is a humanitarian mission or a conventional fight.  The future of urban operations will be a joint effort because it will require two or more military departments to succeed.  The current lack of any joint urban exercises or training is preventing the Joint Force from being properly prepared for the next major urban operation.

The disconnect between recognition of gaps in readiness faced with the inevitability of the urban nature of future operations presents not only a say-do gap between senior leadership perspectives and actual training, but it also presents a significant blind spot in readiness if not resolved through a paradigm shift in how the Joint Forces prioritizes and integrates urban training throughout all services and echelons.  Failure to rectify this urban blind spot greatly increases the risk of collateral damage, civilian casualties, friendly losses, and the possibility of mission failure.

Military planners face significant challenges when preparing for urban operations in the 21st century. On one hand, the Joint Force must maintain the ability to counter threats from a near peer enemy on a traditional conventional battlefield in a more rural setting. On the other hand, the Joint Force is likely to face either a near peer competitor or some other type of threat or mission in an urban environment for one simple reason: it is very difficult to avoid cities when the majority of the world’s population is urban.  

The Joint Force needs to develop capabilities, doctrine, and training that will give it an advantage in this extremely complex environment at the tactical and operational levels. Historically, the military has adapted conventional capabilities to develop advantages in an urban environment, but the size, ubiquity, and complexity of today’s urban terrain require dedicated analysis and preparation.  This paper offers military planners and policy makers a starting point for understanding the need for developing a cohesive strategy to ensure the Joint Force is able to successfully reduce its urban blind spot and effectively conduct urban operations in support of US national security interests.  Given the rapid urbanization of the 21st century and how cities are increasingly the dominant social, political, diplomatic, and economic centers, the Joint Force must take measures to address shortfalls across all services and echelons to be ready to meet future urban challenges in all warfighting domains. To continue the status quo is simply unacceptable.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Goedecke, Kenneth and William Putnam. “Urban Blind Spots: Gaps in Joint Force Combat Readiness.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2019.