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Intelligence-Based Urban Operations: Intelligence Preparation of Battlefield Methodology in Urban Settings

  • Published
  • By Umer Khan



If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering on an undertaking, I have meditated for long and foreseen what may occur.


Napoleon Bonaparte, 1831

Urban Areas as Future Battlegrounds

A decade after the end of the Cold War, military thinkers started to realize the prospects of urban areas as future battlegrounds. This ideology was mainly influenced by the rapidly increasing population in cities, along with their political, economic, and cultural aspects.1 A United Nations report predicted that the world’s urban population will be increased another 2.5 billion by 2050 due to urbanization and immigration.2 In 2014, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command highlighted in its study that as cities grow due to urbanization, many governments fail to provide adequate security, employment, infrastructure, and services. Local armed groups can exploit this uncertain situation; consequently, urban areas become safe havens and support bases for terrorists, insurgents, or criminal organizations.3

Currently, the Army seems concerned about the operational implications in urban areas, particularly the megacities. Notably, factors like survivability, logistics, and a slower pace of operations in urban areas encourage adversaries to exploit them as battlegrounds. The insurgents manipulate restricted urban spaces and the presence of civilians to shield against friendly forces’ superior maneuver and firepower. Living among the population and using deleterious propaganda provide opportunities for insurgents to discredit the legitimacy of friendly forces’ operations. The urban residents also create conditions for restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) that increase stress on soldiers amid terrorism and impromptu violence. The conditions affecting ROE include weather, terrain, population groups, media, and infrastructure.4 Despite these limitations, friendly forces will inevitably have to get involved in urban warfare, as in fighting adversaries in urban areas such as towns and cities.5

The methods of operating in urban areas will vary depending on local history, culture, climate, and state of economic development. The human dimension and its effects on urban operations are much more difficult to assess and understand than the dimensions of terrain. Success smiles on the side that better understands and exploits the effects of the population in an urban environment.6 Jeffrey C. Schrick quotes Roger J. Spiller’s article, “Urban Warfare: Its History and Its Future,” which states that: “the very human composition of the city could pose yet another set of difficulties. A city full of terrified civilians or a city swelled with equally terrified refugees could produce a corps’ worth of friction without ever firing a shot.”7

Urban warfare is intelligence and surveillance-intensive. Thorough knowledge of buildings, alleyways, tunnels, and rooftops may have to be acquired, through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sources and human intelligence (HUMINT), to operate in cities.8 After reviewing US Army Field Manual (FM)-2 (Intelligence) from a maneuver officer’s perspective, Schrick opines that: “the manual lacks details on employment of military assets in support of tactical operations in urban terrain.” He furthers that the most critical ISR assets in an urban environment are HUMINT. In his view, FM 2-22.3 (Human Intelligence Collector Operation) educates the maneuver officers on the organization and structure, support requirements, and employment considerations of HUMINT assets in an urban environment. However, the explanation of capabilities, limitations, and employment considerations of the remaining military intelligence disciplines are vague.9 Schrick also highlights that the maneuver doctrine FM 3-90.6 (The Brigade Combat Team) elaborates on the need for actionable intelligence in an urban environment. This step requires a maneuver officer to understand how intelligence operations support the ISR process.10

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in Cities/Metropolis

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) is defined as a systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and environment in a specific geographic area.11 IPB is the method of collecting, organizing, and processing intelligence to help provide timely, accurate, and relevant intelligence to the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP).12 The vulnerability of population hubs makes customary for a military force to carve our operating environment (OE) in megacities and urban centers in the lines of the already known methods of IPB and intelligence preparation of the environment.13 True dominance can only be achieved when ISR and HUMINT resources are so placed during peacetime that they provide duplicated and triplicated intelligence for prompt intelligence-based operations (IBO) without any social upheaval or media hue and cry.14

Army doctrine views intelligence as a means to reduce uncertainty in urban operations: “A thorough IPB of the urban environment can greatly reduce uncertainty and contribute to mission success.”15 According to FM 3-06 (Urban Operations), the urban environment influences the intelligence function by degrading the reconnaissance capability, increasing the difficulty of the IPB process, increasing the importance of credible HUMINT, and increasing the need for intelligence reach.16 The IPB process consists of four steps: defining the battlefield environment, defining the battlefield effects, evaluating the threat (enemy), and determining the threat courses of action.17 IPB intends to give the commander and his staff information on the conditions that could affect the outcome of his mission within his operational area comprising the area of operation (AO), area of interest (AOI), and the combat zone.18 Applying the IPB process helps the commander selectively apply and optimize his resources at the critical points.

Intelligence-Based Operations in Modern Cities

The complexity of modern cities and metropolis has been identified as a major concern in recent engagements. Richard Wolfel determined that the complexity of operations in modern cities are based on three fundamental concepts. First, modern cities are multidimensional (subterranean, surface, and vertical). Second, cities are interconnected through globalization, social media, and modern communication methods. Third, cities are uncontrollable due to interconnectivity, the rise of the black market, an informal economy, and a lack of government control over slums.19 Structures inhibit maneuvering, reduce the application of firepower, restrict the field of fire, and degrade command and control capabilities. These operations become dangerous due to cluttered three-dimensional spaces posing logistical and navigational challenges.20

The population has been identified as one of the most important factors of urban areas as it immensely affects the conduct of operations within it. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky defines population-centric warfare from the insurgents’ point of view: “If the guerrilla derives support from peasantry/farmers, he will prefer rural guerrilla warfare; however, if the support is from working-class, then urban guerrilla warfare is desired.”21 In the present day, the increasing connectivity of the urban population with the world through social networks provides the avenue of approach for a certain narrative to gather popular support.

According to a research study, intelligence operations have always remained important in increasing knowledge about the enemy and identifying ways to shrink the problem. Against multiple sectarian factions, the Battle for Baghdad exhibited the value of the targeted capturing or killing of high-value targets. The tactics of physical isolation used in the 2008 Battle of Sadr City was enabled due to excellent intelligence analysis. In urban warfare, the problem that must be solved is locating and creating conditions where the adversary can be killed, captured, or made irrelevant, rather than controlling the city.22

Schrick argues that FM 3-06 describes the possible effects of the urban environment (UE) on urban operations but does little to address the solutions. The manual proposes that unified action with the host nation military, local police forces, civilian organizations, and joint forces can mitigate the risks associated with urban operations. Risks arise from operational factors like the incorrect balance of forces, increased military casualties, unavailable resources, unavoidable collateral damage, lack of time and loss of momentum, increased vulnerability, potentially destabilizing escalation, and inadequate force strength.23 FM 3-06 suggests that proper risk management based on an informed decision can balance the risk versus cost in urban missions.24

Defining Battlefield Operating Environment Using Contemporary Methods

Assessing the battlefield environment of cities using traditional approaches is usually insufficient due to the complex nature of cities. The problem in the modern dense urban environment is that the operating environment, including the area of operation, often extends much further than in the past.25 The impact of connections and linkages, facilitated by globalization, advancement in communication technology, and media access challenge the traditional idea of a fixed OE for analysis by an intelligence team.26 Some contemporary models cover tangible and intangible variables to address these challenges. Peter W. Wielhouwer suggested a topographical model that overlays the population and manmade infrastructures on natural terrain.27 Whereby Harry R. Yarger suggested modeling the challenging and complicated nature of the strategic environment using US Army War College’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) model.28 For IBOs, both the models are applicable and useful. Topographical models made with pie charts (fig. 1) on urban terrain can map population characteristics like sectarian distribution in a troubled area, and the VUCA model can help ascertain the magnitude of the difficulty in tacking a crisis within that area (fig. 2).

Figure 1. Topographical model for sectarian distribution in a troubled Green Belt of an urban area

Figure 2. US Army VUCA Model and its implementation for sectarian crises in urban areas

Contemporary military intelligence concepts like areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events (ASCOPE), political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII), and sewage, water, electricity, academics, trash, medical, safety, and other considerations (SWEAT-MSO) offer some reliable intelligence and analysis tools to define the OE of megacities and dense urban areas.29 According to FM 2-91.4, Intelligence Support to Urban Operations, ASCOPE factors provide a useful structure for intelligence personnel for IPB and intelligence to operations in the urban environment.30

ASCOPE can be drawn 3-D for two opposing sides and the population in three different planes. The population plane is kept in the center as it is the common operating ground for the other two. The plane helps friendly forces to optimize their resources by studying the possibilities of different outcomes. Let’s take an imaginary example of perhaps “Celebrations of Ganesh Festival in Paris.” The ASCOPE 3D model will be prepared for friendly forces, an adversary force, and the population. Each plane will be filled. Following, for example, (fig. 3), is for the population plane only; the other planes can be filled based on the resources available with the friendly forces and the adversary in a similar manner. Let’s say in Paris (area), the Hindu community (people) is planning a religious ceremony of about 10,000 people (capability) at a local temple (structure) from 4–9 p.m (event), and the event is arranged by Ganesh Festival Planners (organization). This scenario gives birth to several possible opportunities (for the adversary), vulnerability (of the population), and the threat (to friendly forces). By carefully mapping all such possible scenarios in the AO, urban security planners can dispose of their forces optimally. These factors should not be considered as separate entities but rather as interdependent, as intelligence analysts of their interrelationship provide the commander with a greater understanding of the urban area in question.31

Figure 3. ASCOPE 3-D example—a local festival in an urban area

Defining the Battlefield Effects

The process includes identifying avenues of social and geographical approach, mobility corridor of social networks, intelligence agencies, and religious factions; go, no-go, and slow-go areas, and society for any change or influx of new perception, idea, or behavior. It also includes identifying public gathering places, shopping centers, websites, social pages, and political meetings as named areas of interest (NAI) and certain other areas where military and nonmilitary action can be taken as target areas of interest (TAI). Larger connectivity, smartphones, 4G/LTE, and broadband services have increased the coverage of events and provided outreach to urban inhabitants. Citizens normally spare no chance to break news, become a whistleblower, or a social super blogger or Youtuber.

Commanders operating in unrestricted terrain normally address their AO and AOI in terms of air and ground. However, operations within the urban environment provide numerous manmade structures and variables not found in unrestricted terrain. Commanders conducting urban operations must broaden the scope of their thinking, looking not only at the air and ground but also at the threats that may appear from a structure’s top, exterior, or interior, as well as subsurface areas.32 In an urban environment, a 2 km mobility corridor requirement for a battalion-size force may not be achievable; hence nonstandard mobility corridors like subsurface and overhead may be the only possibility. Also, line of sight analysis will be limited, and visibility will be obstructed. Buildings will obstruct view, limit the range of weapons, and restrict the field of fire. On the other hand, the analysis will provide numerous opportunities as well, such as providing cover from view and fire, defilade siting of small range weapons, and the use of roadblocks and obstacles. NAI, TAI, and decision points are easy to identify in cities but are difficult to approach. Figure 4 below maps some of the IPB factors in an urban area on a 2D plane. The intelligent plotting of these factors on a 3D urban map on a larger scale or space can also be done to include all avenues of approaches that may influence urban populations like social media, linkages, and networks.

Figure 4. Mapping NAI, TAI, AA, mobility or social corridor, no-go, and slow-go areas in an urban area

Topographic teams can provide both standard urban IPB products and operational decision aids. They can create or assist staffs in creating no-fire area overlays (hospitals, schools, and churches), trafficability overlays, target packages, refugee tracking products, line-of-sight surveys, reverse line-of-sight overlays, slope overlays, and critical infrastructure overlays.33 Air Defense Artillery personnel may be assigned multiple missions in the urban environment, such as performing observation of NAIs, or conducting urban patrols.34

Evaluating the Threat and Threat Profiling

According to the US Army Field Manual, insurgents will pose an asymmetrical threat in urban warfare—a threat that uses dissimilar weapons or force (e.g., sniper attacks, improvised explosive devices (IED), ambush, insider attack, drone attack, suicide bomber, hostage situation, etc.) to offset US superior military force and technological advantage.35 Placing a strong opponent in a hostile territory blunts his information, surveillance, and command and control capabilities by confronting him with an unfriendly and uncooperative population.36 This kind of complexity of urban areas is ideal to achieve balance of power—just like operations against the US forces in Mogadishu and the Russian forces in Grozny.37

In urban warfare, the adversary achieves surveillance and point targeting through cheaper asymmetric means (like snipers, target killers, and killer drones) and exploits the vulnerability of an urban population in markets and public places. A recent use of a flying IED quadcopter by the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) is one such case.38 In 2017, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Mosul used drones to drop 40 mm grenades and used advanced vehicle-borne IEDs to deter Iraqi forces.39

FM 100-6 identifies that in the future, the threat to US forces will emanate from a range of individual sources (like nonstate actors, substate actors, and nongovernment organizations) to complex national organizations (foreign intelligence services and adversary military). Boundaries among these sources are indistinct, difficult to discern, and sometimes intermingled. In such conditions, tracing the origins of an incident is cumbersome. For example, actions that appear as the work of hackers may involve foreign intelligence service or a cyber-attack team.40

In the case of a near-peer threat, the modern adversary possesses advance capabilities like artificial intelligence, unmanned aerial and ground platforms, swarm drones, cyber, and robotic warfare. The adversary may also covertly or overtly supply these capabilities to insurgents or use these in the supporting role. These capabilities in urban areas can be employed against friendly force deployments vary easily from ventilation windows, tunnels, slums rooftops, and underground terrorist dugouts. These technologies can also be used to target civilians to make them wary of friendly forces. The enemy will be planning all these asymmetric attacks behind a curtain whereas the friendly forces will be unable to pin war crimes on a robot, swarm, or an AI system.

Threat profiling is done by counting number of vulnerable spots / structures (e.g., churches, mosques, schools, airports, police stations, jails, and government buildings etc.) that have significant psychosocial or political value. Threat profiling also involves analyzing the ethnic and sectarian distribution of populace in various areas of the city and quantifying their vulnerability. Historical crime and terrorists’ incidents held in the past are also analyzed area-wise and given due weightage. The outcome of this exercise is a city profiled with high-, medium-, and low-threat areas or zones. Figure 5 below shows an example of such profiling for an urban area where Zone 3 and a local university are classified as high-threat areas after vulnerability analysis, its potential propaganda effect, and the availability of local support.

Figure 5. Threat profiling in an urban area

Threat line of communication (LOC) overlays can also be made that identify major communication means within and around an urban area like roads, airfields, waterways, railroads, and foot paths. These overlays can provide mobility information to assist planners and operators in determining what equipment can move along the city’s mobility corridors. Pertinent data would include street widths, their load capacity, sharp turns, potential ambush positions, potential sniper positions, and overhanging obstacles.41 Topographic teams can also contribute by creating enemy decision support templates in conjunction with the intelligence staff, for example, an IED defeat overlay.42 Threat overlays like sniper, suicide bomber, drone attack, hostage sites, sabotage sites, and so forth, can also be made in a similar manner.

Determining Threat Courses of Action

Threat COAs are determined after identifying likely objectives and the desired end state. The most likely and most dangerous COA is identified based on enemy appreciation of own dispositions; that is, reverse IPB. COA is refined by passing time and acquisition of latest information.43 COA descriptions are plotted on map overlays, and forces are deployed against the most likely COA and contingencies developed for other COAs. For the employment of friendly forces, a close liaison with local national government organizations is fruitful to refine the COA.

Local politicians in the urban areas can provide detailed sociocultural information on the populace within their constituencies (for example, infrastructures, economic strengths and weaknesses or religious, ethnic, and tribal breakdowns). Police can provide information on local criminal organizations, local ethnic breakdowns, and key terrain within their AOs. Local national security forces might be already conducting operations in the UE before the commitment of friendly forces. These forces would have divided various zones within the city into manageable sections based on the number of personnel available. Usually, the zones are already sorted into high, medium, and low threat based on high criminal activity or unrest, and, where applicable, religious, ethnic, sectarian, or tribal breakdowns. Fire department personnel have access to blueprints of the structures within their zones and information on fire escapes, and other building safety-related information could be gathered from them. Similarly, public works personnel are familiar with the infrastructure of the city. They can provide information on the critical points in the city that must be secured for public services to be maintained; they can provide key information on AAs throughout the city (especially underground service passages, sewers, and drainage systems). City halls in many parts of the world are also repositories of key records on the infrastructure of the city. They may contain detailed maps of the city, key city infrastructure information, and blueprints of the buildings in the city.44

Urban warfare is characterized by the use of innovative tactics by both the adversary and the friendly forces. During Israeli operations against the Palestine Liberation Organization in the summer of 2002, Israel Defense Force commanders found that casualties were reduced, and operations were conducted more efficiently when soldiers breached the outer walls of structures and entered buildings on their interior floors. This is an example of reducing an obstacle and creating a mobility corridor.45 COA is largely determined by the option that promises quick effects, the least collateral damage, and minimum casualties. After conducting the IPB for an urban area as discussed in the article—the correct configuration of force, psychological hardening and resilience training of troops, adaptability, the use of innovative tactics and weapons, and finally the fluidity of the mind of officers and commanders are vital to efficient urban operations.


The growing trend of urbanization, population growth, and migration are increasing the values of cities as hubs of economy, knowledge, propaganda, and power. These cities afford great advantages for adversaries employing asymmetric capabilities to counter friendly forces. US forces in conflict will find themselves fighting in urban areas to evade or neutralize their adversaries from their power centers. IBOs are carried out to create desired military and political effects in urban areas in a focused manner with minimum collateral damage, the least disruption to services, and negligible effects on the livelihood of the population. IPB is done before IBO to give the commander and his staff information on the conditions that could affect the outcome of his mission within his operational area. A thorough IPB of the urban environment can greatly reduce uncertainty and contribute to mission success. Intelligence operations have remained important in increasing knowledge about the enemy and identifying ways to shrink the problem. However, in a modern dense UE, the OE, including the AO, extends much further than in the past. Some contemporary models cover tangible and intangible variables to address the challenges of IPB. Models like topographical overlays, VUCA, and ASCOPE have been applied in the article for urban areas. Threat profiling is done in IPB to analyze ethnic and sectarian distribution, historical crime and terrorists’ incidents, proximity of troubled and conflict areas, religious places, and so forth, and given due weightage. The outcome of the threat profiling exercise is an urban area profiled with high, medium, and low threat areas and zones. For employment of friendly forces, a close liaison with local national government organizations is fruitful to refine the COA by utilizing local information and blueprints. Urban warfare is characterized by innovation by both the adversary and the friendly forces. COA is largely determined by the option that promises quick effects with the least number of casualties. Applying the IPB process helps the commander selectively apply and optimize his resources at critical points. The IPB process tailored to urban settings in this article will render effective planning and execution of IBOs in urban centers.

Umer Khan

Mr. Khan (MSc, BE, National University of Science & Technology) is presently associated with the University of Buckingham for research in modern war studies and contemporary military history.


1 Gian Gentile et al., Reimagining the Character of Urban Operations for the US Army (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2017), 1,

2 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects, 2018,, 1.

3 US Army (USA), The Mega City: Operational Challenges for Force 2025 and Beyond, 2014,

4 Jamison Jo Medby and Russell W. Glenn, Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2002), 25.

5 M. W. Fletcher, Project Reaper (Max Storm Book 3) (London: Andrews UK Limited, 2018).

6 USA, Field Manual (FM) 3-06. Urban Operations, 2006, p. 2-2.

7 Spiller, 440, as cited in Jeffrey C. Schrick, Effective Intelligence in Urban Environments (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015), 11.

8 USA, FM 3-06.11 Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain, 2002, H-13.

9 Schrick, Effective Intelligence in Urban Environments, 67.

10 Schrick, Effective Intelligence in Urban Environments, 68.

11 Riaz A. Toor, IPB [Intelligence Preparation of Battlefield] Basic Book (Quetta, Pakistan: Command and Staff College, 1994), 11.

12 Toor, IPB Basic Book, 11.

13 Jamison Jo Medby and Russell W. Glenn, Street Smart: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield for Urban Operations (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2002), 25.

14 Toor, IPB Basic Book, 11.

15 ADRP 3-0, B-2, as cited in Gentile et al., Reimagining the Character of Urban Operations for the US Army, 16.

16 USA, FM 3-06, Urban Operations, 2006, 4-3.

17 Steven P. Winterfeld, “Global Information Assurance Certification Paper,” GSEC Practical Requirements (v.1.3) (December 2001).

18 Toor, IPB Basic Book, 13.

19 Richard Wolfel et al., “It’s in There: Rethinking(?) Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield in Megacities/Dense Urban Areas,” 2016,

20 Scott Gerwehr and Russell W. Glenn, The Art of Darkness: Deception and Urban Operations (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation Report 1132, 2000) 1,

21 Mia: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of People, s.v. “Lev Semenovich Vygotsky,” accessed 6 February 2020,

22 Gentile et al., Reimagining the Character of Urban Operations for the US Army, 123–24.

23 Schrick, Effective Intelligence in Urban Environments, 70.

24 Schrick, Effective Intelligence in Urban Environments, 71.

25 Wolfel et al., “It’s in There: Rethinking.”

26 Margaret E. Kosal, ed., Technology and the Intelligence Community: Challenges and Advances for the 21st Century (New York: Springer Publishing, 2018).

27 Peter W. Wielhouwer, “Preparing for Future Joint Urban Operations: The Role of Simulations and the Urban Resolve Experiment,” Small Wars Journal (July 2005): 2.

28 Harry R. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (DIANE Publishing, 2006).

29 Leon Hall, Strategic Intelligence and The Decision to Go to War,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 2 November 2018,

30 USA, FM 2-91.4: Intelligence Support to Urban Operations, 2008, 9.

31 USA, FM 2-91.4, 9.

32 USA, FM 2-91.4, 17.

33 USA, FM 2-91.4, 65.

34 USA, FM 2-91.4, 68.

35 USA, FM 100-6, Information Operations (Arlington, VA: Department of the Army, 1996),

36 Gerwehr and Glenn, The Art of Darkness, 1–2.

37 Maj Christopher S. Forbes, In Order to Win, Learn How to Fight: The US Army in Urban Operations (New York: Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015).

38 Ryan Jokl Ball, The Proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Terrorist Use, Capability, and Strategic Implications, Report No. LLNL-TR-740336 (Livermore, CA: Lawrence Livermore National Lab, 2017),

39 Todd South, “The Future Battlefield: Army, Marines Prepare for ‘Massive’ Fight in Megacities,” Military Times, 6 March 2018,

40 USA, FM 100-6, Information Operations, 1–6.

41 USA, FM 2-91.4, 119.

42 USA, FM 2-91.4, 66.

43 Winterfeld, Global Information Assurance Certification Paper.

44 USA, FM 2-91.4, 72–73.

45 USA, FM 2-91.4, 20.

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