US Army War College

Dr. Michael Desch – Soldiers in Cities: Military Operations on Urban Terrain

Released 6 April 2022.

This podcast is based on a compendium that resulted from a conference on “Military Operations in an Urban Environment” cosponsored by the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce in conjunction with the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs, the U.S. Army War College, and the Association of the United States Army. At the time of the conference, the concept of homeland defense was emerging as an increasingly important mission for the U.S. military.

Click here to read the compendium.

Episode Transcript: Soldiers In Cities

 Stephanie Crider (Host)

Decisive Point introduces Conversations on Strategy, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who explore timely issues in national security affairs. The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the podcast guests and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Michael C. Desch)


Conversations on Strategy welcomes Dr. Michael Desch, editor of Soldiers in Cities: Military Operations on Urban Terrain, published by the US Army War College in 2001. A graduate of Marquette University, he holds master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago.

I’m so glad you’re here, Michael. Thank you so much for taking time to go through this with me today.


My pleasure.


Military Operations on Urban Terrain: Please briefly walk us through the basic concepts of this monograph.


Military operations in cities is not a new topic. But the period of time in which we put together this collection of papers saw a renaissance of interest in the topic. It really was connected with a series of high-profile, urban operations that sort of reminded us all that operating in urban areas presented great challenges—challenges much greater and unique to those of military operations on other sorts of terrain.

You know, the big thing on the American side, of course, was the famous Battle of the Bakaara marketplace (Battle of Mogadishu), chronicled in Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down: (A Story of Modern War). But there was also the First Battle of Grozny, in which the Russian military tried to suppress the Chechen uprising and felt that they had to do so, in part, by assaulting the capital of Chechnya, Grozny. Neither of these operations was pretty. And neither of them, I think it’s safe to say, was fully satisfactory to the respective militaries involved.

And so military operations on urban terrain became a hot topic. There was a lot of doctrinal attention to it. But also, at least in the United States, there was an effort to build or improve the infrastructure for (military operations on urban terrain or) MOUT training at various Army combat training centers and other Army facilities. I was at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, Kentucky, at the time, and one of the US Army facilities that was investing in a significant upgrade of its MOUT training facilities was the (US Army) Armor School at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Why Kentucky and why MOUT? That was the reason that we undertook this study.


Let’s talk about military operations on urban terrain today. What did the monograph get right?


Well, military operations on urban terrain have been a pretty much consistent part of military operations in recent conflicts. So, most famous, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, were the operations in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Today, we’re seeing military operations in conjunction with the Russian special military operation in eastern Ukraine. And the Russian case is interesting both for instances in which the battle is taking place in urban areas, particularly in the southeast, in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, but also where, at least so far, they’re not being undertaken, which is the capital city of Kiev or Kyiv, as the Ukrainians call it.

And so, in looking back over the collection of papers in the volume, I’m pretty happy with a lot of things that we said. I think that they continue to read well. But what didn’t we get right; what would I rethink? I think is what you really want to know. I think there are at least three things that, on the basis of all that’s happened since then and reflecting on it, I would have done differently.

First of all, in our discussion of technology and urban military operations, we talked hardly at all about drones. And of course, drones have been the most important military innovation since 9/11 (the September 11 attacks). And I think, as we’re seeing in Ukraine, airborne, unmanned vehicles continue to be an important weapon system and one that could have a lot of direct effect on military operations in urban terrain. So why we talked so little about drones in terms of the technologies that might shape or affect MOUT operations, I can’t really say. But certainly, if we were rewriting that paper today, drones would have a bigger place.

Another time-bound element of the essays was military operations in American cities were an important, potential mission at the time the original volume came out and, sadly, are continuing to be a topic that has relevance, particularly to the National Guard. We talked about it very much in the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks in terms of the role of the US military and, particularly, the various state National Guard units in terms of (weapon of mass destruction or) WMD consequence management. And that, thankfully, has not been a major issue. And frankly, I don’t think that, with the standpoint of 20 years, that particular urban threat is as pressing as it once seemed to us.

Conversely, civil support to local authorities unfortunately is, it seems to me, a growth industry. And of course, in the racial justice protests and the associated violence after the George Floyd incident, you saw a lot of local law enforcement and other local civilian authorities somewhat overwhelmed and needing to call on the Guard and (US Army) Reserve for support. And I think that’s going to continue, for the foreseeable future, to be a big, domestic MOUT mission that we didn’t talk enough about.

I guess the third and final thing that I would have thought about differently with 20 years’ hindsight is we sort of had this distinction between different levels of intensity of urban military operations, from all-out combat to (counterinsurgency or) COIN to stability-and-support operations. And I still think, as points on a spectrum, they make sense. But we didn’t treat it enough, in the volume, as a spectrum—and particularly appreciate the fact that urban counterinsurgency can easily go to all-out combat. This is sort of the lesson of Fallujah. And it should have been the lesson, for example, of the Israeli incursion in Beirut in 1982.

So those are the three things sort of off the top of my head that I think if we didn’t get them right—but, certainly, the emphasis was not what I would give them today.


You touched on this a little bit earlier when you were talking about Russia and Ukraine and how this applies to today’s world. Any final thoughts on how this piece of work is still relevant?


I think it’s relevant in two senses. Barry Posen from (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or) MIT wrote a really terrific wrap-up conclusion in the book that was characteristically incisive and thoughtful. And he talked about military operations in urban terrain in two particular contexts: the tactical context and the strategic context. And I think both of those elements are evident and will remain evident in terms of Russia’s special military operation in eastern Ukraine.

At the tactical level, Russian military forces are fighting inside—or trying to fight inside—a number of cities. And I think that the basic message of the book, that urban operations heavily favor the defender, is being borne out at the tactical level in spades. But the other thing that’s interesting is what Posen called the strategic level. And by that, I think he meant whether you decide to go into urban areas or not. And there, I think, we’re going to see this play out in Ukraine as well in two ways.

One is, in the northeast, Russia ran into pretty stiff resistance in Kharkiv and a couple of other towns close to the border. And after getting a bloody nose, Russian forces made the decision to bypass those urban areas. And the key question is: What were they thinking, aside from getting punched hard in the nose? And I think what they were thinking is there was some modification of the overall strategy in eastern Ukraine. I had thought then and still think now that the Russian military is pivoting toward a notion of trying to isolate and maybe reduce the Ukrainian forces that are engaged along the line of contact with the Donbas (Donets Basin) and Luhansk republics. So in a sense, the strategic decision was to avoid built-up areas and focus on a different strategy.

So that’s one strategic decision. The second is, I think that the Russians made a strategic decision not to go into Kiev immediately. And part of that was probably based on tactical concerns or considerations that it would have been a pretty tough fight. But I think it also may have reflected a particular theory of how they wanted to wage the war. You know, you always want to try to strike at the enemy center of gravity. But on the other hand, if the center of gravity is an urban area, and, tactically, the defense is favored, then maybe what you want to do, by way of reducing the center of gravity, is surround and isolate it rather than trying to go in and reduce it by force. And that, I think, is a strategic decision.


This was a lot of fun and very informative. Thank you again for your time. I really enjoyed myself.


My pleasure. Thanks for your questions.


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