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Significant characteristics of the urban environment.

The special considerations that must be taken into account in any operation in an urban environment go well beyond the uniqueness of the urban terrain. JP 3-06, Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations identifies three distinguishing characteristics of the urban environment:

* Physical terrain,

* Population, and

* Infrastructure.

Similarly, FM 3,06, Urban Operations, identifies three characteristics of the urban environment:

* Terrain and weather,

* Society, and

* Infrastructure.

These characteristics (see Figure 1) provide a useful framework for intelligence personnel to begin to focus and organize the huge undertaking of providing intelligence support to operations in the urban environment. They should not be considered as separate entities but rather as interrelated entities. Understanding the interrelationship of these systems characteristics provides focus for the intelligence analyst and allows the commander a greater understanding of the urban area of operations.


This article will briefly discuss some of the many aspects of the socio-cultural and infrastructure characteristics of the urban environment. At the tactical level, these considerations can be extremely complex and require a structured, detailed analysis of large amounts of information.

Socio-cultural Characteristics

To effectively operate among the various population groups within an urban environment and maintain their goodwill, it is important to develop a thorough understanding of the society and its culture. This understanding includes such aspects as their needs and values, history, religion, customs, politics, and social structure.

Failure to understand respect, and when possible, to follow local customs and societal norms can rapidly lead to an alienation of the population from U.S. forces and lead to the erosion of the legitimacy of the U.S. mission in the percept on of the local population. Accommodating the social norms of an urban population is potentially one of the most influential factors in conducting operations in an urban environment. (1)

A population group may be significant as a threat, an obstacle, a logistical support problem, or a source of information and support. The impact of the population on operations in an urban environment is often greater than that of the terrain. During the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) process, it is important to analyze population density; population concentrations by ethnic, linguistic, tribal or clan, and other cultural distinctions; living conditions; political grievances and affiliations; educational levels; and attitudes towards friendly and enemy forces.

In order to be effective, military planners must understand and consider the social and cultural impacts resulting from military operations in the urban environment. Critical nodes such as culturally or socially significant sites (e.g., historical locations, monuments, museums, etc); people such as tribal leaders, leader of social movements, political leaders, and religious leaders; and customs must be recognized and considered when planning and conducting operations.

Key Components of Urban Infrastructure

The infrastructure of an urban environment consists of the basic resources, communications, support systems and industries upon which the population depends. The key elements that allow an urban area to function are also very significant to military operations, especially Stability Operations and Support Operations. The force that controls the water, electricity, telecommunications, medical facilities, and food production and distribution will virtually control the urban area. The infrastructure upon which an urban area depends may also provide human services and cultural and political structures that are critical beyond that urban area, perhaps for the entire nation.

Military planners must understand the functions and interrelationships of these components to assess how disruption and restoration of the infrastructure affects the population and, ultimately, the mission. To understand how the infrastructure of a city supports the population, it needs to be viewed as a system-of-systems. Each component affects the population, the normal operation of the city and the potential long-term success of military operations. By determining the critical nodes and vulnerabilities of an urban area, U.S. forces can delineate specific locations within the urban area that are vital to overall operations.

During Stability Operations and Support Operations, the maintenance of law and order (to include prisons) becomes vital to the welfare of the general population. Success in ensuring that law and order is maintained or reestablishing law and order will directly affect the general population's perceptions and possible support for U.S. operations.

Some of the key elements of urban infrastructure are transportation, communications, fuel, electricity, water and waste disposal, resources and material production, food distribution, medical facilities, local police or paramilitary units with law enforcement authority, firefighting units, and crisis management and civil defense structures.

The transportation network includes roads, railways, subways, bus systems, airports, waterways, and harbors. Securing air and seaports is imperative for follow-on forces and supplies, but there are many possible repercussions involved with securing all the transportation nodes and stopping or permitting all inter- and intra-city movement. Stopping transportation can have the greatest effect. While the U.S. mission may be immediately facilitated, critical needs of the noncombatant population could go unmet.

Communications play a vital role in many aspects of any urban environment. In modern cities, there are often complicated networks of landlines, radio relay stations, fiber optics, cellular service, and the Internet which provide a vast web of communications capabilities. Developing countries may have a significantly less technologically based communications infrastructure. In urban areas in those countries, information flow can depend on less sophisticated means such as couriers, graffiti, rumors and gossiping, and the local printed media. Even in countries with little communication infrastructure, radios, cell phones and satellite communications may be readily available. Understanding the communications infrastructure of an urban area is important because it ultimately controls the flow of information to the local population and the enemy.

All societies require fuel, such as wood, coal, oil, or natural gas for basic heating and cooking. Fuel is also needed for industrial production and is therefore vital to the economy. In fact, every sector of a city's infrastructure relies on fuel to some degree. Violence may result from fuel scarcity. From a tactical and operational perspective, protecting the urban area's fuel supplies prevents unnecessary hardship to the civilian population and, therefore, facilitates mission accomplishment. Refineries and pipelines that provide fuel for the urban area may not be located within the urban area. Fuel facilities are potential targets in an urban conflict. Enemy forces may target these facilities to erode support for the local authorities or U.S. military forces.

Electricity is vital to city populations. Electric companies provide a basic service supplying heat, power, and lighting. Because electricity cannot be stored in any sizable amount, damage to any portion of this utility will immediately affect the population. Electricity services are not always available or reliable in developing countries. Interruptions in service are common occurrences in many cities due to a variety of factors. Decayed infrastructure, sabotage, and conflict can disrupt electrical service. As a critical node of the overall city service sector, electrical facilities are potential targets in an urban conflict.

Water is an essential resource. As populations grow, demand for potable water increases. In some areas of the world, the supply of fresh water is inadequate to meet these demands. By 2025, between 2.7 and 3.5 billion people may live in water-deficient countries. In developed nations, water companies provide the population with clean water. In much of the developing world, no formal water authorities exist. Sewage, industrial waste, and pollution pose threats to the water supply. Deliberate acts of poisoning cannot be overlooked where access to the water supply is not controlled. U.S. forces may gain no marked tactical advantage by controlling this system, but its protection minimizes the population's hardship and thus contributes to overall mission success.

A buildup of garbage on city streets poses many hazards to include health threats and obstacles. Maintenance and restoration of urban waste removal to landfills can minimize this threat and improve the confidence of the civilian population in the U.S. mission.

Understanding the origination and storage sites of resources that maintain an urban population can be especially critical in Stability Operations and Support Operations. These sites may need to be secured against looting or attack by threat forces in order to maintain urban services and thereby retain and regain the confidence of the local population in the U.S. mission. Additionally, military production sites may need to be secured to prevent the population from gaining uncontrolled access to quantities of military equipment.

A basic humanitarian need of the local populace is food. During periods of conflict, food supplies in urban areas often become scarce. Maintaining and restoring normal food distribution channels in urban areas will help prevent a humanitarian disaster and greatly assist in maintaining and regaining the good will of the local population for U.S. forces. It may be impossible to immediately restore food distribution channels following a conflict, and U.S. forces may have to work with non-government organizations (NGOs) that specialize in providing these types of services. This may require U.S. forces to provide protection for NGO convoys and personnel in areas where conflict may still occur or be occurring.

While the health services infrastructure of most developed cities is advanced, medical facilities are deficient in many countries. International humanitarian organizations may represent the only viable medical care available. The rudimentary care provided in most developing world cities is not up to Western standards. Compounding this problem is the presence of deadly parasites and diseases. HIV can be particularly devastating in the urban centers of the developing world and therefore the local blood supply must be looked upon with great suspicion. Infectious disease, famine, and natural disasters can overwhelm a city's medical infrastructure and create immense suffering. Offering support to an existing medical system may augment the U.S. mission, as well as foster its legitimacy.

Local police, military units with police authority and missions, and firefighting units can be critical in maintaining public order. Their operations must be integrated with U.S. forces in U.S. forces-controlled areas to ensure that stability and security are restored or maintained. Additionally, the precinct structure of these organizations can also provide a good model for the delineation of unit boundaries with the urban area.

Local crisis management procedures and civil defense structures can aid U.S. forces in helping to care for noncombatants caught up in areas of ongoing or recent military operations. Additionally, the crisis management and civil defense leadership will often be local officials who may be able to provide structure to help restore or maintain security and local services in urban areas under U.S. forces control.


All of the factors of the significant characteristics of the urban environment discussed in this article will play a role regardless of the specific mission to which your unit is assigned. Focusing on the most critical aspects that are relevant in the specific urban environment in which you are operating and based on your mission is the challenge that you, as intelligence professionals, must master.


(1.) See Dr. George VanOtten's article "Culture Matters" in the January-March 2004 issue of MIPB for a discussion of societal norms and values.

Michael Brake, a USAIC&FH Doctrine Directorate writer, authored FMI 2-91.4, Intelligence Support to Operations in the Urban Environment. He is currently mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Readers may contact him via E-mail at mil.
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Title Annotation:military operations in urban settings
Author:Brake, Michael A.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Previous Article:Technical perspective.
Next Article:What do we mean by urban dominance?

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