Small Armies, Big Cities: Rethinking Urban Warfare

  • Published

Small Armies, Big Cities: Rethinking Urban Warfare edited by Louise A. Tumchewics. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2022, 328 pp.

As this review is being written, hundreds of thousands of Israeli troops are positioned along the border of Gaza, foreshadowing a massive urban military operation that pits Israeli forces against Hamas militants. Although the forces arrayed on each side are considerable, they pale in comparison to history’s best-known urban fight at Stalingrad, where millions of men clashed over control of the southern Russian town. Still, the scale and nature of the Gaza fight make Louise Tumchewics’ collection of essays, Small Armies, Big Cities: Rethinking Urban Warfare, timely.

The work approaches urban fighting through the lens of militaries who had significantly fewer troops to fight than the Germans and Soviets at Stalingrad—militaries defined by the book’s categorization as division-sized or less (< 10,000 troops), in counterinsurgency operations and major combat operations that occurred within the past 75 years. Small Armies, Big Cities looks at the logistical constraints, firepower problems, and military-civilian relations issues that bedevil modern urban operations. Its pages examine several lessons on how and why small armies fight in the urban environment.

The book is a sound contribution to the growing literature on urban warfare. Tumchewics is a senior research fellow at the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research and specializes in aiding the UN and international non-governmental organizations with military-civilian interfaces in urban areas. Her expertise is on display as she guides the reader through 13 essays investigating theoretical discussions on what a city is and how to influence it during a war, as well as case studies into more obscure urban battles that can provide insights for military leaders and national decisionmakers.

An early essay by Paul Latawski provides a basic primer on the evolution of urban warfare, but the overall work is not meant to be a history of urban conflict and assumes that readers already have a basic understanding and context of urban warfare. The work is also ground- and army-centric but provides valuable lessons and “food for thought” for anyone interested in broader martial issues. The work acknowledges the axiom that modern armies should avoid urban conflict but also recognizes that the world continues to urbanize, and combat will take place in cities whether or not militaries wish it. As Tumchewics notes, “Armies may find themselves confronting the myriad difficulties of urban operations more often because urban battles may become more common as a greater percentage of the world’s populations moves to cities and towns” (2).

The content, structure, and writing of each essay naturally differs, so readers are free to pick and choose the content that is most appealing to them. The work is at its best when Alex Neads describes how cities and locations may take on “totemic” significance to combatants that far outweighs the actual strategic, political, or even cultural importance of the place. He uses the battle for the Donetsk Airport in the initial period of Russia’s war in Ukraine as a fascinating case study where both sides fought for the passenger terminal long after the airport served any tactical or strategic purpose. Another highlight comes from Tyrone Groh’s examination of “surrogate warfare,” where he examines the promises and pitfalls of the US-led coalition support of Iraqi forces to remove ISIS from Mosul. John Spencer of the Modern War Institute at West Point also provides a highly relevant look at the US Army’s need to rapidly adjust its forces from countering insurgents in Baghdad to conventional operations that could support the construction of a concrete wall around Sadr City. Each of the essays provides lessons that will likely be witnessed or relearned in Israel’s upcoming Gaza campaign.

The ground-based approach to the book leaves the overall work lacking in a few areas. There is too little discussion for the “support” side of urban operations. There are few references to artillery or air support except for when the operations caused unnecessary damage or where their use was critical to success. The simple fact that only extreme examples are mentioned reveals how much the essays overlook such support. A more nuanced approach could provide readers, particularly Air Force readers, with new considerations for how to support all aspects of operations in the urban environment.

One essay regarding drones written by Paul Lushenko and John Hardy contributed to the larger discussion on drone warfare but did little to apply it to urban combat with any satisfaction. Drones and other autonomous systems are likely to change the tactics of urban operations, yet their discussion focuses more on targeted killings and disruption operations carried out by expensive systems like the US Predator, while failing to address the growing proliferation of smaller systems that are changing battlefields around the world. In the authors’ defense, the book was published in 2022, which left little if any time to consider applicable lessons learned from Ukraine; however, their analysis still seems outdated by nearly a decade.

The collection also does not attempt to fully address space or cyber considerations in the urban environment. Several authors note that the two domains are critical, but none elaborate on how to exploit or defend either. Those domains may have landed outside of Tumchewics’ intended scope, but the book suffers from their exclusion. The contributors often point out that small armies need to be creative in the urban environment to fight, win support, and meet political objectives, so serious thought is still needed on how to apply all of warfare’s domains.

Still, the book is interesting, and the authors provide little-known and often overlooked case studies that any serious practitioner of war should consider. Anyone interested in urban combat should read it to help evolve their own thinking or at least understand urban operations when conducted with limited resources. Perhaps the best praise that could be given to this collection is that Tumchewics should pursue a second volume of the work and expand the scope to seriously consider how small armies can use airpower, fire support, cyber, and space support to achieve their objectives. In the meantime, readers will not regret the time they dedicate to the existing work.

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Bertram, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."