Investing in understanding cities is investing in national security

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Large, dense urban areas are both the engines of our economic prosperity and the locus of future national security challenges. As the world continues to grow more and more urban, challenges to the political stability and security in many cities around the world increases our own national security concerns. As members of Congress get closer to approving a National Defense Authorization Act, they will continue to make tough decisions on what we as a country will invest in to protect our national interests. Military capabilities optimized for urban areas needs to be high on that list.

According to the United Nations, over 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In North America we are over 80 percent urban. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cites. Projections show this urbanization, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population, could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas in less than thirty years, with close to 90 percent of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa.

{mosads}New research released just this month, which used geospatial technology rather than self-reported demographics statistics relied on by the United Nations, shows that global urbanizations figures may be much higher than previously reported. According to the research, over 80 percent of the world’s population, or almost 6.4 billion people, live in urban areas.

Whatever the true global urbanizations figures are, the rise in importance of cities cannot be argued. From 2014 to 2016, the 300 largest metro areas in the world accounted for 67 percent of global gross domestic product growth. China’s enormous urban growth will soon produce clusters that will be home to 110-150 million people—three times the number of people, 40 million, who live in Tokyo, the world’s largest current cluster. This has caused the Chinese government to consider reorganizing their national governance structures into urban centered super-regions.

Cities have also become vulnerable to political violence. While governments struggle to govern and secure today’s rapidly growing and complex urban environments, insurgent and terrorist organizations have learned the advantages they can gain, negating the advanced technologies and weapons of military forces by fighting among the dense populations and structures of cities. This is most recently demonstrated by the fierce urban battles against ISIS in cities across Iraq and Syria.

It is surprising that with the rise of urban conflict and importance of cities, the U.S. military does not have any schools, research institutes, or major organizations solely focused on the study of and preparation for the full range of military operations in dense urban areas. The U.S. Army has jungle, desert, and arctic warfare schools that focus on how to fight, survive, and adapt in those special environments, but none for cities. One of the last major organizations in the Department of Defense focused on cites was the Joint Urban Operations Office, once the department’s Executive Agent for urban operations, which went away when its parent command, the Joint Forces Command, was disestablished in 2011.

Recognizing the priority of preparing for the future of military operations in dense urban areas, the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities has asked the Army to do more. In its markup to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the subcommittee says the “Army should more aggressively prepare for urban warfare and explore the construction of an urban warfare training center that focuses on basic and advanced skills to fight, survive, and win in urban operating environments.” It also directs the secretary of the Army to brief the House Armed Service Committee on a description of the requirements, shortfalls, and costs of urban warfare training and the feasibility of constructing an urban warfare training center.

But a realistic training area or center is just a part of the overall need for our military to be capable of operating in urban environments. The military needs the ability to understand the continuing evolution of global cities. The complexity of these dense urban areas requires a commitment to long-term study and research on the military and broader security implications of cities, which would inform training and preparation—from the unique tactical warfighting requirements to the strategic political approaches.

Partnerships with major academic institutions are one way the military could bolster its ability to build a body of knowledge and tap into research capabilities previously not available. Major schools like Arizona State University (ASU) have recognized the national security implications of the rise of global cities. Through ASU’s newly established Arizona State University Research Enterprise, created to advance scalable solutions for applied, classified and midrange technology-level challenges, ASU has begun developing a dense urban area curriculum that will allow military, government, law enforcement, and many others to study the social, political, economic, and national security issues specific to cities. Programs like ASU’s and others at places like Columbia University and New York University have the ability to not only build a body of knowledge, an “urban science,” that is needed by the U.S. national security enterprise, but also to continue to grow the urban experts that will inform all of government.

Cities are the future—the future of prosperity and, unfortunately, the future of war. It is time to start investing in the future with military, government, and educational resources. We need more organizations and partnerships focused solely on the national security implications of our urban world.

Claudia ElDib is a logistics program manager at Arizona State University Research Enterprise and a SOLE Demonstrated Logistician. John Spencer serves as a senior scholar with the Modern War Institute and Co-Director of the Urban Warfare Project. He is a retired Army major who served 25 years as an infantryman, including two combat deployments to Iraq. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government. Follow him at @spencerguard.


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