By Michael Evans

There is little question in my mind that the demographic trends creating rapid urbanization will, over time, influence the conduct of joint warfare. By 2030 up to seventy per cent of the world’s population is likely to inhabit an urban area marking a strategic shift from landscape to cityscape. Moreover, many of the new urban centres will be in Asia and Africa. Even if one disagrees with Parag Khanna’s observation that we are approaching a global inflection point in which ‘the age of nations is over. The new urban era has begun’, we are, nonetheless, in the midst of a profound geopolitical shift in which urban areas will figure prominently in future Western joint military planning.

The difficulty the US and its allies will confront is that, while some global megacities may become hubs of stability, many others in the underdeveloped world are likely to become distributed slum ecosystems for a volatile migrant underclass marked by unemployed youth that will be easy recruitment material for revolutionary militias or any number of transnational insurgent groups or hybrid warfare opponents. It does not require a great leap in imagination to realise that the dystopian features of urbanization will favour the forces of transnational disorder. The rise of ‘metropolitical warfare’ is not a Blade Runner fantasy but a looming reality in the decades ahead – General Krulak’s ‘Stepchild of Somalia and Chechnya’ with a vengeance.

As a result, it will be incumbent in full-spectrum military operations to develop a form of urban operational art that exploits robotics and digitisation and appropriate low-tech capabilities. Cities are classic complex adaptive systems, a blend of interactive human and material forces, unpredictable and difficult to control.

Our conceptual problem in Western strategy is that we often equate city warfare with the horrifying battles of Stalingrad and Manila from a World War II paradigm – or else we default to MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain). This is an outmoded approach and must be replaced by a MOUP (Military Operations as Urban Planning) approach in which military professionals leverage knowledge from urban planners, emergency services and policing – in short an inter-agency approach.

After ten years of counterinsurgency, there is, of course, little appetite for urban military operations. Unfortunately, urban development in the ‘global South’ will continue and it will intersect with insurgency, terrorism and hybrid warfare. Most urban development is predicted to be decentralized and may over time become focused on sprawling ‘city webs’, dense enclaves with no clear urban-rural divide and this will favour any number of armed groups who may, in turn develop a rural-urban interface. Cities such as Karachi in Pakistan are a good example of this development and potentially pose a severe challenge to state-order.

An urban lens in strategy and security policy must then be developed in the US and the West – and this must go beyond military professionals and embrace the policy community and defense intellectuals. The city as a battlespace is not a place where we would choose to fight, but it may become necessary in some future contingencies.

It was Lewis Mumford in his book 1961 book The City in History who warned us that evey city contains within it the ‘lethal genes’ of war. Fifty years on Mumford looks more prescient than ever.

Dr. Michael Evans is a Fellow at the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia.