Small Wars Journal

The Future of Warfare Will Be Urban, Coastal, and Irregular

Wed, 09/25/2013 - 5:25pm

The Future of Warfare Will Be Urban, Coastal, and Irregular - New America Foundation.

On Wednesday, September 18, the New America Foundation hosted Dr. David Kilcullen, founding President and CEO of Caerus Associates and a former Lt. Col. in the Australian Army, to discuss his most recent book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla.  Peter Bergen sat down with him to discuss the main points of the book and the changing landscape of conflict.

Dr. Kilcullen noted that since around 1846 until today, the U.S. military has very rarely become involved in state-on-state conflicts. Instead, the United States has engaged with non-state armed group adversaries, a trend completely independent of presidential political preference and one that is growing globally. In the past 60 to 70 years, wars between states have been declining while conflicts between non-state groups have remained consistent.  Dr. Kilcullen said that although his book does not address why the United States continues to engage in conflicts with non-state groups in complex situations, it does look at the environment in which these operations take place to predict how  future strategy will need to evolve to fit a new, irregular warfare landscape.  In his book, Dr. Kilcullen analyzes conflicts in cities such as Benghazi, Libya; Kingston, Jamaica; and Mumbai, India to predict how changes in environment will affect the face of warfare.

According to Dr. Kilcullen, there are four environmental “mega- trends” that will be critical in planning future operational strategies. First, the continuing increase in the world’s population in the next generation will change the global landscape. Dr. Kilcullen noted that most studies that record this data predict that the world’s population will accelerate until it reaches around 9.5 billion around the year 2050, meaning that another 3 billion people will arrive before then. Second, the urbanization of that population means that these people will not be evenly distributed over the globe. Based on his research, Dr. Kilcullen believes that around two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, and notably, that population will be aggregated in the developing world. Third, the littoralization (the movement of people from rural, inland areas to the coast) of those densely populated cities will be critical in terms of conflict patterns. Today, around 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast and Dr. Kilcullen predicts that this number will only increase. Fourth, and perhaps most significant, the connectivity of the world’s population is rapidly changing, enabling greater access to information and a higher ability to organize among non-state groups.  

In applying these four environmental mega-trends to conflict patterns, in an effort to predict future situations, Dr. Kilcullen found that upcoming conflicts will likely be against better organized non-state armed groups in coastal, urban theaters that will not respond to a pure military strategy like the current counterinsurgency framework. Instead, he predicts that the only way to effectively deal with conflict in these areas is to combine local insight with outside objectivity and cross-discipline expertise. He suggests that instead of continuing to operate in a mere military realm, future strategies should draw from the fields of urban planning, mediation, grassroots organizing, alternative energy technology, and conflict resolution. A more balanced, co-designed approach will allow counterinsurgency strategies and peace and security operations to adapt and cope with the evolving landscape of conflict in the future.

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla.



Mon, 09/30/2013 - 12:59pm

The concluding paragraph of this article was a little infuriating to read. Imagine that, the solution to future problems with non-state actors is not extermination to the last man. Whodda thunk?! That just really upsets our historical genocidal approach to things.

Even the very genocidal Rome governed by, you know, governing. If we want to be the world's police (yes, that is what you are when you go in to 'solve problems' without owning the land and governing the people involved) then we need to either become the Spartan general sent to enlighten the Syracusans on their wall building (our efforts in Columbia might be a modern analogy), or get back into the colonial business and be done with the theory that we can accomplish governance without ever governing. We would have just as much success opening a college for governance and giving free attendance to our allies than we will with going there and spending manpower and money on this fool's errand.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 3:08pm

In reply to by SWJED

Actually the original FM 3-24 was not about countering insurgency at all. It was about how a major power goes to some weaker power where the stronger believes they have interests at stake, and then either creates or adopts a government made up of men willing to serve those interests (and their own)over those of the people of that region, and then protecting that system of governance against all comers, foreign or domestic.

And when one builds such an illegitimate system of governance, or converts governance into something so illegitimate, those challengers will inevitably come.

Strategically, urban insurgency is no different than rural insurgency. City mouse, country mouse. Both are mice. Before we get too far down the road of developing a whole new COIN industry around these futuristic "city mice," I recommend we first simply spend a little time thinking about what a mouse is in geneeral and where it comes from. Our current doctrine is about stabilizing some colony or containment ally. The doctrine is about sustaining a status quo of governance that suits the major power and defeating internal challengers to that external solution. The lessons are corrupted by the purpose, intersts and perspectives of the stronger nations from where the authors of the many contributing sources (Galula, Kitson, Fall, Tranquier, etc, etc)came from.

I agree completely with the strategic environment Dave describes. It will require unique tactics. But first it will require a better fundamental understanding of the nature of the problem of insurgency itself. We haven't made much headway on that.



Thu, 09/26/2013 - 2:43pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Yep Bob, but we seem to move on without taking serious lessons with us. So we need an expertise reminder from time to time. No need to "dust off" FM 3-24 - the new final draft is now being staffed. Moreover, even with the "old" FM 3-24 the theme was this doctrine was published as a loose guideline on how to think about COIN (not what to think and, most certainly, not a doctrinal checklist to success) and it encouraged adapting its principles in time and on the ground situation. That's the part COIN bashers seem to conveniently overlook.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 11:59am

"...he predicts that the only way to effectively deal with conflict in these areas is to combine local insight with outside objectivity and cross-discipline expertise. He suggests that instead of continuing to operate in a mere military realm,..."

In other words: just like today, and 1000 years before today.

We should not take our current COIN Doctrine, or the "Big COIN" operations we allowed that doctrine to lead us into, to cause us to believe that insurgency has changed much in any fundamental way since man first formed in tribal groups with some form of governance to submit the conduct of many to the governance of a few. I suspect this will be true an equal distance in the future of mankind - if we make it that far.

I just hope we aren't dusting off FM3-24 and lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan in this 2050 world that Dave describes. Because then, like now, we would be setting ourselves up for a long, expensive, unsolvable problem.


Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 11:39am

In reply to by davidbfpo

Why should anyone listen when the previous theories proved less than robust on the ground? Is celebrity all that anyone cares about anymore?

<blockquote>We need to do four things -- what we might call "essential strategic tasks" -- to succeed in Afghanistan. We need to prevent the re-emergence of an Al Qaeda sanctuary that could lead to another 9/11. We need to protect Afghanistan from a range of security threats including the Taliban insurgency, terrorism, narcotics, misrule and corruption. We need to build sustainable and accountable state institutions (at the central, provincial and local level) and a resilient civil society. Then we can begin a phased hand-off to Afghan institutions that can survive without permanent international assistance. We might summarize this approach as "Prevent, Protect, Build, Hand-Off". Let's call it "Option A".</blockquote>

Is that all?

Urbanization is growing around the world, this is no secret or anything.


Wed, 09/25/2013 - 6:08pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

Thanks much David, you seem to be more on top of our efforts at times than SWJ's Editor-in-Chief (which would be me). Heard from Dave K. today. Expect more here in the future. The Urban Operations Journal - started as the MOUT Homepage in 1998 - and then morphed into the Small Wars Journal is acknowledged on the first page of Dave's book.

PS: You are doing a Herculean effort on the Council. My most sincere thanks.

--Dave Dilegge


Wed, 09/25/2013 - 5:46pm

There is a SWC thread 'The David Kilcullen Collection', which covers his scholarly and practitioner contribution to small wars, dating back to 2006: and a separate thread for his early work 'Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency':

I have ordered a copy of the book and will add my thoughts one day. 'Red Rat' also has a copy to read.

Now whether if anyone in power is listening to such a writer is a moot point, especially as intervention is rather unpopular domestically. Prince Harry today was in a London audience today, when David Kilcullen spoke - maybe he will have some influence?