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Document created: 25 March 02
Aerospace Power Journal - Spring 2002


Aerospace Power
in Urban Fights

Capt Troy S. Thomas, USAF*

Institute for National Security Studies Emblem


Editorial Abstract: Urban warfare will likely become the norm in future conflicts. Captain Thomas’s description of this challenging environment gives airmen a perspective that may prove helpful in winning the urban fight.

*The finer qualities of this work are due to the assistance of others. I appreciate the support provided by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at the United States Air Force Academy. Its funding and guidance enabled the realization of a goal of mine. Genuine thanks also go to Maj Michael Moore, USMC; Maj Jeff Olander, USMC; Capt James Adams, USMC, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1); Alan Vick, RAND Project Air Force; Lt Col Joe Perry, Dominant Maneuver Assessment Division; and Capt Rick Lesan and Capt Steve Kiser, USAF, Department of Political Science, USAF Academy. Each brought valuable expertise and insight to bear on this effort.

AIRMEN KNOW THE urban fight. Airmen of Fifth Air Force coordinated Marine Corsair strikes in the campaign for Seoul, Korea, in 1950. Airmen of Seventh Air Force struggled through gloomy skies to put 500-pound bombs on North Vietnamese army positions in the citadel of Hue, South Vietnam, during the Tet offensive in 1968. Desiring to avoid a house-to-house fight in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982, Israel used airpower to besiege the Palestine Liberation Organization for several weeks. Airmen of Central Command Air Forces applied decisive force in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq; Kuwait City, Kuwait; and Khafji, Saudi Arabia, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But since past achievements do not necessarily guarantee current readiness, airmen need to review their urban-warfare doctrines, techniques, and overall readiness for the urban fight.

The changing character of American warfare necessitates this new look. All services are engaged in the transformation to a more expeditionary, technologically sophisticated force capable of achieving national objectives without destructive, bloody force-on-force engagements.1 It means applying our strengths against an adversary’s vulnerabilities to attack his centers of gravity directly and with increased discrimination.2 Among our many joint-force strengths, aerospace power stands out as highly relevant to this “asymmetric force strategy” and is increasingly relevant to the urban fight as well.

This article aims to enhance the thinking of airmen and their leaders about how to apply aerospace power in urban warfare.3 It is not directly about strategy, tactics, techniques, or procedures. Rather, it adds to those areas with an operational focus on control- the ability to dominate an adversary’s influence over strategic outcomes.4 This article acknowledges the good work on tactics and technologies begun by the joint force in recent years but bemoans the persistent inadequacy of operational concepts. It builds on the concept that urban warfare is not just a mission or task but terrain that is complex and demanding. The urban-warfare battle space has two uniquely challenging components: people and infrastructure. This is the environment that airmen must be ready for in the future.

Urban Future

Airmen will fight in cities, which are integral to operations across the spectrum of conflict for two principal reasons: urbanization and strategic value. Both of these areas are increasingly important factors for the future, when, as we anticipate, the level of conflict will increase in cities as it takes on a variety of forms.


Although rapid urban growth by itself may not make the case for the inevitably increasing frequency of urban combat, as the argument goes, clearly growing urbanization on a global scale has important implications for warfare. People have been migrating to cities for centuries, primarily for socioeconomic reasons. In the industrial and postindustrial eras, cities have become centers for economic growth.5 Yet, urban growth becomes a source of instability and potential conflict when its rate surpasses the capacity of government to provide for the basic needs of its residents. Decaying cities often portend the failure of a state.6 According to the United Nations Population Division, virtually all the population growth expected from 2000 to 2030- 2 billion persons!- will occur in urban areas.7 Of this, 1.9 billion persons will be added to urban cities of the developing world. When city governments and economies cannot keep up, the result is relative deprivation, social tension, and, ultimately, collective violence.

Potentially more important for airmen is the way urbanization is occurring- ad hoc and out of control. One sees the most dramatic growth in the “million cities,” those with populations between 1 and 10 million. By 2015, there will be 516 such cities, compared with only 270 in 1990.8 But these cities generally do not receive priority for limited state resources.9 Moreover, growth does not occur in the city’s core but along the fringes, resulting in urban slums beyond the reach of government. As seen on the periphery of Delhi, India; Karachi, Pakistan; or Cairo, Egypt, this new urban sprawl constitutes its own highly complex system whose links to the industrial core are minimal at best. In essence, they exist next to each other but rarely interact. Therefore, rapid urbanization in developing countries results in a battle-space environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.

Strategic Value

In addition to the fact that urbanization engenders social conflict, airmen will fight primarily in cities because cities have strategic value as a function of location, symbolism, and power.10 Cities sustain populations due to the proximity of resources and lines of communication (LOC) that are vital to economic prosperity. Istanbul, Turkey, straddles the Bosporus Strait; Seoul, South Korea, hugs the Han River; and Singapore guards the Strait of Malacca. As hubs for air, land, and sea travel, cities can rarely be bypassed, particularly if operations require the movement of military and/or humanitarian supplies into and throughout a region. The urban port in Mogadishu was essentially of strategic value in the dissemination of relief aid during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia.11

Strategic value can also stem from cultural relativity, whereby cities symbolize national identity that transcends their socioeconomic role. A city’s symbolism derives from its cultural, religious, political, and social importance- it is psychological, implying the salient role of information operations in the urban fight. Given the link to identity, control often becomes the object of struggle, even when costs are excessive. US marines and South Vietnamese soldiers fought desperately to retake Hue, the cultural and educational heart of South Vietnam. The symbolism draws in conventional forces in wars between states as well as nonstate actors during civil wars. Insurgents, terrorists, and criminals thrive in the symbolically target-rich urban environment. Some of the darkest days of the conflict in Northern Ireland involved the Irish Republican Army’s bombing campaign in London during October 1981.12

Most significantly, cities are centers of power, growing geometrically in economic, political, and economic importance. They are often seats of government, commercial epicenters, industrial backbones, and information hubs for states, regions, and even nonstate actors. Controlling them brings ready access to resources, technologies, information, and the population. As such, urban systems or elements thereof qualify as Clausewitzian centers of gravity.13 Due to this powercentric nature of cities, US military interventions have often focused on them, including Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; Panama City, Panama; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Kuwait City.14 As the culturally symbolic centers of economic and political power grow in size, number, and strategic importance, so will they more likely be embroiled in accompanying urban fighting.

Urban War Fighting

The urban fight will challenge the courage and skill of airmen. If aerospace power is to win this fight, airmen must understand the nature of urban combat as a subset of urban operations characterized by demanding war-fighting rules.

Urban Operations

Airmen engage in urban warfare when two criteria are met: (1) they plan and execute operations in an area dominated by man-made features and noncombatants (Sarajevo counts; the Serengeti Plain does not),15 and (2) they apply lethal and nonlethal aerospace power against an adversary often bent on their elimination. Although it sounds oxymoronic, the second criterion highlights nonlethal force as a means to enhance lethality as well as minimize collateral damage. Moreover, physical presence is not necessary for engagement in urban operations. For example, airmen of the 352d Special Operations Group, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom, engaged in urban combat in 1996 when they planned the noncombatant evacuation operation for Monrovia, Liberia.

Urban operations are a subset of all military operations because they represent an environment- cities- rather than being just a single point along the spectrum of conflict. The two distinguishing features of cities- people and infrastructure- are instrumental to military action in major theater war (MTW) as well as military operations other than war (MOOTW).16 Although many urban operations since 1990 have originated as MOOTWs, aerospace doctrine correctly asserts that “a distinct characteristic of MOOTW is the ever-existing possibility that any type of MOOTW may quickly change from noncombat to combat.”17 Situations deteriorate!

War-Fighting Rules

Relevant aerospace-power functions as well as the level and scope of required force may shift across the spectrum of conflict, but most urban-combat situations share several operationally significant characteristics. Among the lessons pertaining to the nature of urban warfare, sensitivity to civilian casualties and restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) are of particular relevance.18 Their importance derives from our emerging asymmetric force strategy and the concentration of people and property, which makes force application far more complex in terms of the laws of armed conflict.19

In the urban fight, the density of people and property magnifies caution and necessitates adherence to the maxim “how we fight can decide victory.” Although sensitivity can restrain action by US forces, it also argues for the prominent role of aerospace power, wherein our core competencies- particularly precision engagement- rise to the occasion. Depending on the circumstances, precise airpower can be less destructive than imprecise land power and, therefore, valuable to the urban fight. In the urban battle space, ROEs are primarily intended to minimize civilian suffering and collateral damage- we do not destroy the city to save it. Rules dictate when, where, against whom, and how we use force.20 Urban-warfare ROEs adhere to international law and are no different inside than outside of cities, just generally more difficult to comply with. Recent experience, however, has shown that airpower can be the method of choice in sensitive circumstances demanding minimal collateral damage and minimal risk to friendly forces. During Operation Desert Storm, the air campaign known as Instant Thunder embraced an “absolute minimum of civilian casualties and collateral damage” as part of its concept of operations.21 It began with intense, near-surgical strikes in a very urbancentric environment of downtown Baghdad, providing a positive perspective of airpower with respect to urban-combat ROEs. 

The implications for airmen are critical. Restrictive ROEs can increase risk, chiefly at the tactical level, while a reduction in risk can increase the chance of collateral damage. Given the extreme difficulty of identifying hostile forces from a standoff orbit in complex terrain, even highly skilled rotary- and fixed-wing pilots place ordnance off the mark, striking dangerously close to friendly positions and hitting unintended targets.22 Therefore, close scrutiny of target lists prior to inclusion in the air tasking order, particularly targets located in the urban battle space, has become a pervasive feature of conflict since Vietnam. For example, during Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, airmen had to conduct redundant identification of terrorist-related targets near Tripoli, Libya, to avoid collateral damage.23 Similarly, ROEs for the planned invasion of Port-au-Prince required that all air strikes be direct and observed.24 Restrictions in each case came not as a consequence of the urban character of the terrain, but the urban environment compounded the complexity of the fight under such ROEs.

Urban Battle Space

Airmen must have battle-space awareness in order to attain operational success. Understanding the urban setting is tough, given the complex and diverse nature of the environment. We need a framework that embraces the diversity of cities but in a manner that has actionable, operational significance. The framework offered here entails a systems approach in which subsystems interact to create a continuum with modern cities at one end and primitive cities at the other (table 1). Adding the type of threat faced by airmen results in a framework that has real consequences for the way we fight.

Table 1
Battle-Space Framework
Threat Type
City Type


Conventional Force North Korean army in Seoul;
Chinese People’s Liberation
Army in Taipei, Taiwan
Russian army in Baku,
Azerbaijan; Indian army in 
Unconventional Force Leftist guerillas in Bogotá,
Colombia; Islamic radicals
in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Technicals in Mogadishu;
West Side Boys in Freetown, 
Sierra Leone

 Systems Approach

The urban battle space is a system.25 One can understand cities as a set of interrelated elements interacting as whole cities interdependent with the environment- cities are not islands. Rather, they are connected to a surrounding mixed terrain or rural setting through permeable boundaries and LOCs, a fact having much significance to urban airpower strategies, operations, and tactics. With a systemic perspective, airmen should better orient their thinking to relationships and patterns of activity rather than static objects or individual events in time and space. A systems approach recognizes that complex, interacting urban factors, including the relationships of human activity, intersect at key nodes. The more decentralized and unconventional the enemy, the more difficulty in discerning the nodes. The problem is compounded in the sprawling peripheries. The dynamic complexity of cities often means that relationships between cause and effect are difficult to discern and that the effects of aerospace power may be delayed in time.

Urban Space

The urban system is unique in that it consists of five dimensions or spaces. First, the airspace above the ground is usable to aircraft and aerial munitions.26 Second, the supersurface space consists of structures above the ground that can be used for movement, maneuver, cover and concealment, and firing positions.27 For airmen, the supersurface warrants special consideration since the enemy can locate weapons such as surface-to-air missiles or antiaircraft artillery there. Structures also channel or restrict movement at the surface. Third, the surface space consists of exterior areas at ground level, including streets, alleys, open lots, parks, and so forth.28 Fourth, the subsurface or subterranean level consists of subsystems such as sewers, utility structures, and subways.29 Although often overlooked, the subsurface space is more exploitable than one realizes because these elements exist as part of a city’s planned infrastructure; therefore, they have known relationships and nodes. The fifth domain is the information space.

Urban System

Distinctions between modern and primitive cities are a function of three subsystems: physical, functional, and social. All can exist in the five urban spaces.

The physical subsystem consists of man-made terrain. One argument holds that because “location, size, and materials making up the physical components are recorded and archived . . . that makes cities the most understandable and militarily exploitable.”30 Yet, although this is true for urban areas under government control, it is not always the case in unintended slums of the developing world, such as Kabul, Afghanistan. Although the relationships and nodes in these slums are harder to discern, they still exist within the context of a terrain that can be sorted into rough zones with operational relevance.

Terrain zones give direct insight into the challenges for aerospace-power functions (fig. 1). The core is the heart of the city, normally located at the center of the urban area and home to the most important economic, political, and social structures. The boundary links the core to the periphery, usually consisting of critical LOCs and a mix of industrial, commercial, and residential structures. The periphery extends out from the core, transitioning into the surrounding landscape. The periphery can be an orderly mix of functional areas or an unruly sprawl that exceeds the capacity for governance. LOCs intersect the areas and serve as the locus for industrial and commercial functions.


Figure 1. Terrain Zone

Figure 1. Terrain Zones 

Critiques of the applicability of aerospace power focus on the challenge of operating in the urban core. The density and height of structures in the core create “canyons” with deep shadows. LOCs limitations make command and control difficult and can mitigate the effects of weapons, due primarily to high attack angles.31 These critiques are valid, particularly when the enemy is conventional and dependent upon nodes at the core. It is not as limiting, however, when one considers that only 1–3 percent of urban areas are thus characterized. These zones dominate in developed cities, where airmen are less likely to fight.32 Modern cities tend to have robust cores and peripheries, all under government control. Primitive cities tend to have small cores and sprawling peripheries, without government control. Many cities in the developing world are dualistic, having small, modern cores and unintended, primitive peripheries. 

The functional subsystem is vulnerable to manipulation by aerospace forces. It consists of the lifeblood networks of the city that allow inhabitants to thrive and the enemy to survive. The functional subsystem includes services, transportation, communication, and utility networks that enable the flow of resources. Modern cities have formal subsystems characterized by centralized administration, industrial or postindustrial technologies, and identifiable links and nodes. On the other hand, primitive cities normally contain informal, decentralized subsystems in which primitive or adaptive technology dominates, and the network generally consists of patterns of individual or small-group activity. Nodes are highly decentralized or may not exist at all. The periphery of Karachi, for example, is a seemingly endless sea of urban squalor. No blueprints exist, and points of leverage in the system are not readily discernable.33

The physical and functional character of the urban battle space is irrelevant without the human dimension- the social subsystem, which includes a wide range of variables, such as culture, demographics, religion, and history. At the risk of oversimplification, one can divide the “human architecture” of cities into three rough types: hierarchical, clan, and multicultural.34

Hierarchical cities are those airmen know best. They are characterized by a unified citizenry that lives according to agreed-upon rules of interaction.35 The city consists of chains of command that operate within an accepted legal framework.36 Modern cities are hierarchical. Most of the cities of North America and Europe qualify, as do many in Asia, such as Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Tokyo, Japan. At the opposite end of the spectrum are clan cities of rapid urban growth and associated impoverishment.37 Relationships are governed by loyalty and revenge. Restless young men fight over limited resources and control of the government. Desperation and anger are core motivators, and they are alarmingly persistent and resilient. Airmen who enter a fight in a clan-based urban system will find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe or to identify patterns of activity and points of leverage to manipulate. Clans dominate in such primitive cities as Kabul; Kinshasa, Zaire; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; and Lagos, Nigeria.

Multicultural systems exist between these extremes, in which “contending systems of custom and belief, often aggravated by ethnic divisions, struggle for dominance. They are, by their nature, ‘cockpits of struggle.’ ”38 Multicultural cities might contain the pressure for conflict through a robust hierarchy, but they cannot eliminate the struggle for power among ethnic, religious, and/or criminal groups. Clan-type interactions can gain momentum and drag the city into brutal violence. Jerusalem, Israel, is a good example of a multicultural city that oscillates between hierarchical order and clan-oriented conflict. Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is an example of a modern city that descended into a factional hell. Airmen must recognize that many cities, indeed most, reflect both modern and primitive areas existing side by side, as in Lima, Peru; Mexico City, Mexico; and Beijing, China.


The threat is an indispensable component of the battle space. We complete our framework for it by considering two general threat types: conventional and unconventional. The former usually has definable chains of command, uses combined-arms tactics, and employs more technologically advanced (or at least larger-caliber) weapons; examples include the North Korean army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.39 Although capabilities vary widely, conventional forces tend to fight in urban areas with stiff defenses and muscular firepower; they focus on holding terrain against an attacking force.40

Unconventional, nonstate forces include terrorists, criminal gangs, and warlords. Organization can range from centralized and overt to decentralized and covert.41 Terrorist and guerilla tactics dominate, and forces primarily use light arms. More than conventional forces, they challenge our understanding of objectives and values, use military technologies in surprising ways, and employ unpredictable operational concepts and tactics.42 Unconventional forces often break the conventional war-fighting rules, such as using noncombatants for cover and concealment. Finally, these forces are not as dependent on the urban system as their conventional counterparts.

Battle-Space Matrix

Cross-referencing city type against threat provides a framework for developing operational art and achieving operational effects (table 2). Warfare in a modern city against a conventional force plays to contemporary nodal approaches for achieving direct operational effects. Air Force doctrine, training, and weapons are optimized for this fight. Warfare in a primitive city against an unconventional force, however, is more the domain of ground forces conducting tactical engagements. Aerospace power can achieve operational effects here as well, but indirectly, through cumulative attacks on key relationships (such as movement patterns, personal exchanges, and fluid assembly areas). Combat with a conventional force in a primitive city or a fight with an unconventional foe in a modern city requires combining nodal and nonnodal operational concepts and effects. The real challenge for airmen lies in fighting in cities such as Karachi, where both city types and threat types coexist.

Table 2
Battle-Space Framework

Threat Type
City Type


Conventional Force Nodal Attack;
Direct Effects 
Nodal and
Nonnodal Attack;
Direct and
Indirect Effects
Unconventional Force Nodal and Nonnodal
Attack; Direct
and Indirect Effects
Nonnodal Attack;
Indirect Effects


Urban Art

When joining the urban fight, airmen can benefit from discerning elements of operational art vital to achieving effects that will accomplish command objectives. Due to the unique nature of war fighting in the urban battle space, operational art involves the fusion of principles of war and principles of MOOTW (table 3). 

Table 3
Principles of War and MOOTW



Objective Objective
Unity of Command Unity of Effort
Security Security
Offensive Restraint
Mass Perseverance
Maneuver Legitimacy
Economy of Force

Operational art, regardless of the environment, is the process of planning and sustaining operations to meet strategic objectives.43 The keys to effective operational art in the urban battle space are matters of contention, suggesting a need to return to the principles that guide operations, regardless of the level or environment. Both joint and Air Force doctrine distinguish between principles of war and principles of MOOTW. Yet, when airmen operate in the urban battle space, they must appreciate that this is an artificial distinction. Urban fights almost always include both. Gen Charles C. Krulak, former USMC commandant, discussed the spatial proximity of strategy, operations, and tactics in urban combat using the term “three-block war.”44 Similarly, there is a confluence of the principles of war and the principles of MOOTW in the urban environment, requiring the fusion of each. As seen several times around the world within the last decade, peacekeeping can escalate to combat, and theater war can involve refugees.

Fusing principles is not an intractable problem unless airmen cling to the idea that MTW and MOOTW are mutually exclusive. Three principles of each have the same basic purpose, and eight principles of war can be shaped by the remaining three MOOTW principles (see table 3). The challenge lies in linking an understanding of principles from an airman’s perspective to our knowledge of the urban battle space. For example, the intent of both unity of command and unity of effort is to unite efforts to accomplish objectives. In the urban setting, these principles involve the centralized control of military forces and the building of consensus among nonstate actors. Given the multimission nature of the battle space, centralized control and decentralized execution of aerospace power are especially vital to prevent fragmentation and dilution of effects.45 Security enables freedom of action in both MTW and MOOTW. One must extend this principle in the urban environment to include protecting forces, noncombatants, civilian agencies, and information from potential adversaries.46

The remaining principles of war are tempered by the three remaining MOOTW principles.47 The MOOTW principle of restraint, for example, essentially embraces the war-fighting rules. The inherent flexibility and versatility of aerospace power allow airmen to increase or relax restraint, based on command guidance. The development of measured firepower (scalable munitions) and nonlethal capabilities will increase versatility. Concurrent, ponderous efforts to negotiate cease-fires or impose sanctions during protracted urban fights, for example, will require airmen to be “patient, resolute and persistent.”48 Aerospace power can persevere. As clarified in Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, aerospace power’s “inherent exceptional speed and range allows [sic] its forces to visit and revisit wide ranges of targets nearly at will.”49 Airmen do not occupy terrain- they dominate space and time. During Operation Provide Promise, airmen airlifted or dropped humanitarian-relief supplies in Sarajevo with perseverance over a three-year period, simultaneously maneuvering through the battle space and massing effects.50 Finally, legitimacy enhances the amalgamation of objective, mass, and economy of force in the urban aerospace fight. With international interest and coalition efforts in activities from MTW to MOOTW, airmen are called upon to provide what is increasingly considered the most legitimate means of intervention, due largely to airpower’s speed and precision.

The principles are a guide, not a checklist. They are interrelated, not exclusive. Fusion results in “universally true and relevant” principles that form a more lasting basis for operational art in the urban fight.51

Urban Effects

Aerospace power produces effects to achieve objectives based on operational art. The core effect airmen should pursue in urban warfare is battle-space control. All other effects spring from the overarching, desired outcome of controlling the urban battle space to enable freedom of action by the joint force as well as critical state and nonstate actors.52 Control is directed against the subsystems and threats of the battle space. Effects will be realized by existing functions of aerospace power, directly or indirectly, depending on the character of the battle space.

Full-Spectrum Effects

In MOOTW, airmen assert control over a deteriorating situation by channeling crowds. In MTW, we achieve control over an enemy by isolating him from reinforcements. The most important subeffects are revealed by history and embraced by contemporary joint doctrine, but only for MTW. Even though effects are equally relevant to MOOTW, joint and service doctrine neglects to discuss them, focusing only on types of operations. The multimission nature of urban operations and the asymmetric force strategy demand a focus on effects across the spectrum of conflict. 

Currently, war-fighting doctrine identifies five effects: isolating, retaining, containing, denying, and reducing.53 Of these, isolation of the adversary is consistently identified as paramount to operational success. A Marine Corps study of 22 urban battles in the last century revealed that “even partial isolation of the defenders resulted in attackers enjoying a success rate of 80 percent.”54 Isolation is equally valid in lower-intensity operations. Aerospace power sought to isolate Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed by conducting counterinformation missions against his Radio Mogadishu broadcasts.55

MOOTW operations can also be refined to reflect an effects-based approach to urban combat. For example, strikes and raids are intended to “inflict damage on, seize, or destroy an objective.”56 Seizing and destroying are the effects! Recasting each of these types of operations results in such effects as disrupt (Iraqi armored forces en route to Khafji); restrict (Liberian rebels from reaching landing zones used in noncombatant evacuation operations in Monrovia); recover (downed airmen or injured soldiers in Mogadishu); evacuate (embassy personnel in Tirana, Albania); and demonstrate (Operation Vigilant Warrior to Kuwait) (table 4).

Table 4
Operational Effects

Reduce  Isolate
Destroy Seize
Deny Confiscate
Delay Enforce
Disrupt Recover
Retain Evacuate
Detain Protect
Contain Demonstrate
Restrict Assist

Direct and Indirect Effects

The battle-space matrix clarifies whether or not one can obtain operational effects directly or indirectly. Direct operational effects result immediately in time and space from the application of aerospace power.57 They occur more readily as a result of actions against modern cities and conventional threats due to the robust availability of key nodes and the more explicit nature of relationships. Also, knowing the relationships between subsystems allows one to predict effects more accurately.

Indirect effects flow out of direct attacks but are delayed in time or removed in space. These effects are more difficult to predict, given the highly complex nature of the connections between subsystems and threats. One can also achieve operational effects indirectly as the result of cumulative tactical effects. One may need to use this approach in primitive cities against unconventional enemies due to the lack of knowledge about subsystems. As previously asserted, both the system and the threat exist outside government control and may actually be nonnodal, featuring unpredictable, inconspicuous relationships. Microwave towers were not essential to command and control in Kigali, Rwanda, during the civil war of 1994. Rather, hundreds of thugs and small gangs with radios operated out of shacks and trucks. Achieving operational effects through cumulative tactical engagements does risk returning to attrition-style warfare if one assumes that only ground forces can successfully mass effects at the tactical level.

Using speed, range, flexibility, and precision, airmen employ the functions of aerospace power to achieve operational effects. Every function is worthy of thorough analysis, given the important contribution it can make to the urban fight. Air refueling enables counterair missions to achieve enforcement; navigation and positioning enable strategic-attack missions to destroy targets; special-operations employment can protect or detain individuals; and combat search and rescue can recover and evacuate personnel. Research has revealed that four functions are vital to urban fights: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and counterland operations.58 Airmen fight for desired effects through aerospace-power functions that are currently optimized against the modern cores of Belgrade and Baghdad. These same functions can get the job done in the slum peripheries of Khartoum and Kabul only if airmen know the nature of the battle space and its implications for effects.


There is a strong historical record of aerospace power in urban fights, but the future demands even more awareness of the urban system and innovative approaches to using aerospace power in cities, based on the changing quality of American warfare. Airmen can apply their asymmetric strengths in the urban setting if they learn the war-fighting rules, understand the battle space, and embrace the basic elements of operational art and effects. Thus equipped, airmen can win in concrete downtowns as well as clapboard slums.


1. The “new American way of war” rejects the “traditional strategies of attrition and annihilation that evolved from nineteenth century warfare.” Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 2-1, Air Warfare, 22 January 2000, 3.

2. Ibid.

3. This effort embraces the institutional shift within the US Air Force from “air” to “aerospace,” with aerospace power defined as the use of lethal and nonlethal means by aerospace forces to achieve strategic, operational, and tactical objectives. Ibid., 1.

4. Adapted from a definition proffered by David A. Deptula (then a colonel) in Firing for Effect: Change in the Nature of Warfare, Defense and Airpower Series (Arlington, Va.: Aerospace Education Foundation, 24 August 1995), 5.

5. As of 1999, 76 percent of the populations of the advanced countries in the Global North lived in urban areas. World Urbanization Prospects: The 1999 Revision (New York: United Nations Population Division, 1999), 1.

6. The US national security strategy identifies failed states as a threat to US interests. Failed states include governments unable to provide “basic governance, safety and security, and opportunities for their populations, potentially generating internal conflict, mass migration, famine, epidemic diseases” and other effects that can weaken regional security. Executive Office of the President, A National Security Strategy for a New Century (Washington, D.C.: The White House, December 1999), 2.

7. “The Urban Environment,” World Resources, 1996–97: A Guide to the Global Environment, on-line, Internet, 12 December 2001, available from http://www.wri.org/wri/wr-96-97/ud_txt3.html .

8. Ibid.

9. Resources tend to go to the handful of 10 million-plus resident megacities (23 in 2015). Ibid.

10. Adapted from an assessment of “The Role of Urban Areas in Military History,” in the Handbook for Joint Urban Operations (Washington, D.C.: Joint Staff, J-8, Dominant Maneuver Assessment Division, Pentagon, 17 May 2000), I-5.

11. Ibid., IV-31.

12. Ibid., IV-39.

13. The joint force and airmen define centers of gravity as “those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force [adversary] derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight.” AFDD 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, 1 September 1997, 79.

14. The example of Port-au-Prince is taken from Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, I-7.

15. Ibid., I-5.

16. Briefing, subject: The City’s Many Faces: Investigating the Multifold Challenges of Urban Operations, in The City’s Many Faces, ed. Russell W. Glenn (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2000), 215.

17. AFDD 1, 8.

18. These primary political constraints on urban operations are highlighted in Alan Vick’s Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments: Exploring New Concepts (Arlington, Va.: RAND, 2000) and discussed during an interview with the author on 22 July 2000 in the RAND Project Air Force offices, Pentagon City, Va. Subsequent interviews with marines of Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), particularly Capt James Adams, on 25 July 2000 in Yuma, Ariz., reinforced the conviction that the law of armed conflict becomes increasingly important in urban operations due to infrastructure, the presence of noncombatants, the pervasiveness of the media, and the adoption by political leaders of this “new American way of war.” An interesting example of airpower in urban combat that involved combatants’ perceptions of rules and sensitivities occurred in San Salvador in 1989. Members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front believed the El Salvador government would never bomb middle-class areas of the city and took some ground in the wealthy areas. The government decided differently, however, and showed determination by bombing them.

19. Joint Publication (Pub) 3-06, “Joint Urban Operations,” draft, 8 May 2000, III-143.

20. Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, III-30.

21. Col Richard T. Reynolds, Heart of the Storm: The Genesis of the Air Campaign against Iraq (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, January 1995), 57, based on remarks made by Col John A. Warden III during the presentation “Desert Storm Air Campaign” at the USAF Air and Space Doctrine Symposium, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 6–8 April 1993.

22. Maj Michael Moore, Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, Ariz., interviewed by author, 25 July 2000. During a highly informative tour of the Urban Close Air Support (CAS) Facility, Major Moore explained the challenges and risks associated with target identification, based on his extensive training experience as a ground forward air controller (FAC) during several training events. Initial results from a year-long urban CAS study revealed that dry runs to verify target identification create an unacceptably high risk to aircraft. The challenge of visually identifying a target in an urban complex is compounded by the standoff distance required to avoid excessive risk to FACs and airmen.

23. Vick, 60.

24. Notably, Operation Uphold Democracy would have included the A-10 in an urban CAS role for the first time as part of deliberate planning. According to pilots of the 55th Fighter Squadron, Shaw AFB, S.C., the urban terrain posed challenges few of them had experienced, including the greatly compounded difficulty of positive target identification in and among the sprawling urban slums of Port-au-Prince. Capt Robert Givens, A-10 pilot, 55th Fighter Squadron, interviewed by author, October 1995; and Aviation Combat Element (ACE) Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) Manual, 8th ed. (Yuma, Ariz.: MAWTS-1, March 1999), B-3.

25. A definition of a system is “any organized assembly of resources and procedures united and regulated by interaction or interdependence to accomplish a set of specific functions.” J-7, Joint Staff, DOD Dictionary, Joint Electronic Library, February 1999. Note, however, that the term system is not included in Joint Pub 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001, on-line, Internet, 12 December 2001, available from http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf . The seminal work of Col John A. Warden III, USAF, retired, is acknowledged as promoting this kind of systemic thinking in airpower theory. 

26. Not all of the urban airspace is usable because much of it is cluttered with buildings, towers, wires, and so forth. Joint Pub 3-06, I-7.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Los Angeles, for example, has over 200 miles of storm sewers, which could actually be used for movement. Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-35.3, Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, 1998, 1–3.

30. Joint Warfare Analysis Center (JWAC), Air Power in MOUT: A JWAC Experiment, CD-ROM, Science Applications International Corporation, August 1998, slide 4.

31. For a thorough discussion of the impact of terrain zones on aerospace functions and weapons effects, see Vick, 83–117. Urban CAS training at the Urban Training Facility, “Yodaville,” in Yuma also reveals the difficulty of acquiring targets, such as tanks and armored personnel carriers, nestled between tall buildings. The results are captured in the ACE MOUT manual (see note 24). The author’s own walking tour of the facility on 25 July 2000 reinforced the training results.

32. Vick, 77.

33. This assessment is based upon the author’s driving and walking tour of central and east Karachi during a three-day period in 1994.

34. Adapted from the work of Lt Col Ralph Peters, USA, retired, “The Human Terrain of Urban Operations,” Parameters, Spring 2000, 4.

35. Ibid., 5.

36. Ibid., 4.

37. Ibid., 8.

38. Ibid., 5.

39. MCWP 3-35.3, 2–3.

40. Briefing slides, Col Robert Stephan, subject: The Role of Aerospace Power in Joint Urban Operations, 3 November 1999, 4.

41. Ibid.

42. Briefing slides, Alan Vick, Conference on the Role of Aerospace Power in Joint Urban Operations, subject: Aerospace Forces in Urban Military Operations: Images, Missions, Environments, March 1999, 5.

43. AFDD 2, Organization and Employment of Aerospace Power, 17 February 2000, 3.

44. In one urban zone, airmen “will provide food, care and comfort for an emaciated child.” In the adjacent zone, airmen will be separating angry mobs or warring clans. In a third zone, airmen will engage in intense fighting with a hostile force. Accordingly, airmen “will need the flexibility to address a wide variety of crises.” Adapted from a quotation by General Krulak in Lt Gen Paul K. Van Riper’s “A Concept for Future Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1997, A-2.

45. According to AFDD 1, “attempts to fragment the control and planning of air and space power will ultimately cost blood and treasure by diverting effort and impact” (23).

46. Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, III-13.

47. The Handbook for Joint Urban Operations offers a solid discussion of the principles of war and MOOTW on pages II-3 through II-14. My intent is not to recount these in detail but to suggest that members of all services should start looking at fusing principles for a single operation.

48. AFDD 2-3, Military Operations other than War, 3 July 2000, speaks to the need for the restricted use of force in the “judicious and prudent selection, deployment and employment of forces most suitable to the operation” (9).

49. AFDD 1, 25.

50. Example from Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, II-14.

51. AFDD 1, 12.

52. AFDD 2-1 states that “controlling the battlespace means exercising the degree of control necessary in all media (land, sea, and aerospace, in both their physical and information domains) to employ, maneuver, and engage forces while denying the same capability to the adversary” (4).

53. Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, II-10.

54. MCWP 3-35.3, 1–17.

55. Airmen dropped leaflets, broadcast messages over loudspeakers, and conducted a direct attack on the radio station to disable the adversary’s information operation. Maj J. Marcus Hicks, “Fire in the City: Airpower in Urban, Small-Scale Contingencies” (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: School of Advanced Airpower Studies, June 1999), 84.

56. Handbook for Joint Urban Operations, II-18.

57. AFDD 2-1, 7.

58. Interviews with numerous experts support the great need to focus doctrine, training, and technologies on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance as well as counterland. Advocates include Capt Kevin Psmithe, USAF, Headquarters USAF/XP; Alan Vick, RAND Project Air Force; and the J-8 Dominant Maneuver Assessment Division.


Capt Troy S. Thomas (USAFA; MA, University of Texas; MA, George Washington University) is an assistant professor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado. He previously served in the 607th Air Intelligence Squadron, Osan AB, Republic of Korea; the Air Force Intern Program, Pentagon, Washington, D.C.; and both the 55th Fighter Squadron and 609th Air Intelligence Squadron, Shaw AFB, South Carolina. Captain Thomas is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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