Urban warfare. Where all security ends

by Laura Santilli

“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