Interview with Major Spencer about the future of urban warfare in megacities: „Stalingrad was a very rare episode!“

von Ralf Ostner

Global Review had the honour and great pleasure to have an interview with Major John Spencer, military expert on urban warfare. He also commented the report of the US Army War College “ Military Contingencies In Megacities and Sub-Megacities” written by Dr. Phil Williams and Werner Selle and gave us well-informed insights about the future of urban warfare.

Major John W. Spencer currently serves as the Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.  He is the Course Director of the Strategic Studies Research course and instructor for Introduction to Strategic Studies course. Prior to his assignment to the United States Military Academy, he served as a year-long fellow with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group.

He enlisted in the US Army in 1993 and served as an enlisted Soldier in the Infantry for eight years, reaching the rank of Sergeant First Class, before attending Officer Candidate School in 2001 where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry.

He served as a strategic planner in the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, G1 Strategic Initiatives Group and as an Action Officer in the Joint Staff Joint Force Development, J7 Joint Exercise and Training Division.

His past assignments include two combat deployments to Iraq as both an Infantry Platoon Leader and Company Commander. He also served as a Ranger Instructor with the Army’s Ranger School.

He holds a Master of Policy Management from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from University of Maryland University College. He is also a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College.

His writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, NY Daily News, Wired Magazine, Politico, The Hill, Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense One, Army Magazine, and many other publications.  A full list of his publications and interviews are available at:

He looks forward to connecting via Twitter @SpencerGuard.


Global Review: Major Spencer, you are an expert on urban warfare and you are demanding an urban warfare school for training and megacities urban warfare combat units.  Why doesn´t such a school already exist and are there no special urban warfare units? Has the US military till now not fought in cities or megacities?

First I would like to point out the views expressed in my answers are mine alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Yes. The United States military has a long history of fighting in cities – from battles such as Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863 to Sadr City, Iraq in 2008.  The U.S. military does have sites for training smaller tasks relevant to urban warfare.  Almost every military base in the United States has a site for practicing missions against everything from single houses to small villages with over two hundred buildings.  These sites are often filled with people acting like residents.

As you know, I have written that these small sites are nothing like what is needed to prepare for the very military operations we have conducted  since World War I, if not before.  These sites do not have the density and variety of buildings or people.  I have argued that if we want to prepare for military operations and warfare in cities, we have to train in cities.  There are many reasons why we don’t have an urban warfare school with a realistic site for training.  First and foremost is the cost of building a mock city and filling it will a sufficient quantity of people.  This is a valid reason.  It would cost millions of dollars, if not billons.  There is also the risk to civilians if military units were actually practicing combat skills.  We have jungle, desert, and artic schools, but nothing specific to large urban areas.  I believe there are alternatives to building cities to practice warfare and even ways to practice certain missions in abandoned and unused parts of cities.  Countries like Israel have invested heavily in urban warfare.  If a single site was created, I believe alternatives could be explored to replicate the civilian populations.  I believe augmented reality could actually help do that.

Why the United States does not have an organization for megacities or even general urban training units is easier to answer.  This is because the United States Army is designed to be a general purpose force, not specific to any environment.  This is the major debate raised with my urban warfare writing.  Some argue we should never have specialized units.  Even our Special Forces units conduct specialized missions, but are still supposed to be adaptable to any environment – whether mountain tops in Afghanistan or cities in the Middle East.  But this rebuttal fails to recognize that the Army is actually designed for specific environments and specific enemies (other nation state militaries).  The plans which inform how the U.S. Army builds their forces do consider geography, yet they don’t include cities.  But, more important is that army formations are built to be adaptable to any environment.  Army units are supposed to be able to be deployed globally to any environment and morph themselves rapidly to any specific regional requirements.  This is the main reason for the lack of large resources or units preparing for military operations in cities – they just don’t want to operate in them.  Military theorists for decades, even centuries, have advised that military forces stay out of cities.  To be blunt, the military does not want to fight in cities and for valid reasons.  I argue that the urban environment is the toughest and most difficult environment in the world that pushes Army formations beyond what they are designed to adapt to. Make no mistake, urban warfare is hard.

No U.S. Army formation has fought in what we now call a megacity (a population of 10 million or more).  I believe that we will see combat in a megacity in the near future and we should be doing more to both understand these large and growing cities and preparing to operating in them – and that includes being ready to fight.

Global Review: What do you think will be the key elements of urban warfare in megacities in the future?

I think the ultimate key to urban warfare in a megacity will be dealing with the population and the complex web of social, political, economic, and information connections to local, regional, and global systems.  There are two major assumptions military forces have for fighting in cities: first, that the civilian population can be removed or will leave once fighting starts; and second, that when fighting actually begins, there are no limits to the destruction of the physical terrain. While I may disagree with these two assumptions, history actually supports them. After the industrial age and the subsequent increase in the destructive nature of warfare, fighting in cities became very costly.  I recently wrote an article discussing how the military destroys cities to save them as we’ve seen the enormously destructive effects of military forces trying to liberate cities such as Aleppo, Raqqa, and Mosul.  Past urban battles such as Stalingrad, Aachen, Hue, Grozny, and Fallujah further validate these assumptions.

I think a military battle or operation in a megacity will put these assumptions to a new test.  First, it is unrealistic to move millions of people out of a megacity.  Even if attempted, you would need another army to setup and run camps for the displaced personnel.  If fighting gets into a megacity, the number of civilian casualties would be so high that it will change the political resolve, objectives, and support for the war.  The level of casualties would cause the two forces to adjust their actions significantly. This was seen in the first battle of Fallujah where international pressure caused a halt to operations until political objectives and different conditions could be implemented.

Another difference between a battle in a megacity and past urban wars will be the impact to these cities’ complex webs of systems. Thanks to rapid urbanization, population growth, and globalization a megacity’s connection of the global economy, information network, and many other systems is hard to know. The impact of warfare in one megacity could have a disastrous impact on the world. This is why understanding megacities is so important.  If a military or government force is going to take action in these environments, the more they know about the connections and the impacts of their actions, the more it will inform better decisions.

Global Review: My grandfather fought in WW2 for the German Wehrmacht in Stalingrad which was the most prominent example for urban warfare at that time. If you compare Stalingrad with the present and the future urban warfare– what are the main similarities and the main differences?

Stalingrad was a very rare episode in the history of warfare in general.  It is considered by many as the largest and bloodiest battle.  I often hear people using Stalingrad as the example to discuss urban warfare without understanding how rare Stalingrad was.  Most people don’t know the size of the armies that fought the battle or the carnage the battle cost – they just know it was big, bloody, and urban.  The Germans alone lost over 400,000 men.  There are only 500,000 in the active US Army today.  There were an estimated 600,000 civilians living in Stalingrad at the beginning of the battle and only 1,500 at the end.  Most of the city was destroyed in the initial air attack, to include over 40,000 civilians killed.  I just don’t think we will see warfare on this scale in the future.

I think there are little similarities to the broader military operation at Stalingrad to modern day urban warfare.  But I do think there are many tactical similarities. The fact that the defender has the advantage and the extent of the attacker’s difficulty is mostly the same today as it was then. The ability for the defender to turn every building into a fortified position, every window, doorway, alley into a death trap for attacking personnel is the same today.  The destructive means available to attack a defender that chooses a city today are very similar to those used at Stalingrad.  Namely, infantry forces coupled with armor (tanks) and supported by artillery, and air support.  While the precision of our air support has increased, the destructive effects of operating in cities is very similar.

Global Review: The US Army War College published a report „Military Contingencies In Megacities and Sub-Megacities” written by Dr. Phil Williams and Werner Selle. It claims that urban warfare in megacities will be the main theatre of war in the future. Had this report any effects and reactions from the Pentagon or the White House or Congress or are there other important thinkers about urban warfare in the USA which promote the subject?

I am not fully aware of the effects and reactions to the report, but I know that it contributed to the larger body of work that has been conducted on megacities in the past few years.  The US Army alone has conducted multiple large conferences, published other megacities reports, and initiated actions to better prepare for operating in large cities.  While the U.S. Army has not created an urban warfare school or megacities combat unit, they have done a lot. We at the Modern War Institute have a multi-year research agenda on urban warfare that can be found at our Urban Warfare Project (  There is an impressive collection of military urban operations publications at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command website (

The two important thinkers that come to mind are Dr. Russ Glenn and Dr. David Kilcullen.  Dr. Glenn has been researching and writing about military operations in cities, urban warfare, and many other related topics for over 20 years.  He leads many of the US Army’s intellectual projects on urban operations.  Dr. Kilcullen is one of the leading scholars I know in understanding both complex urban areas and warfare.  His book Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla was a major spark to intellectual efforts on the increasing relevance of cities in military operations.  It is rare to find someone that understands both the way military organization view the world and the complexity of the urban environment.  I hold both thinkers in high regard.

Global Review: The US AWC report claims that urban warfare “ensures that the battlefield will be densely populated. Civilians will no longer be mere bystanders able to be circumvented or avoided, but an integral component of the battlefield.” Does it mean that urban warfare will cost more civilian lives than nowadays warfare?

Potentially, yes.  As discussed above, as our cities become bigger and more densely populated, the risk of civilian causalities only increases.  There is also a risk that rogue states, non-state actors, or just bad people will use this to their advantage by continuing to use civilians as shields and choosing to draw conflict into densely populated areas.  This is the trend that worries me.  If people that do not follow the law of armed conflicted or international humanitarian laws use these environments more and more to their advantage, militaries will be challenged to restore security or achieve political ends.

Global Review: In the US AWC report the authors explain that such “contemporary Stalingrads” would occur primarily in poor cities—what the military refers to as “fragile” or “feral” cities as opposed to more developed, “smart” cities. The destruction of the poorer neighborhoods will be a necessary component of “pacifying” the population.

“Given the trends in urbanization, especially in the global south and the concomitant problems of instability and fragility, it is more likely that the US Army will find itself in a fragile or feral megacity than in a smart city (…) Megacities and dense urban areas also contain numerous slums or ‘sheet metal forests,’ which are very different from ‘concrete canyons’…These areas can provide significant concealment to the adversaries and even become strong operational bases. Apart from moving the population out and bulldozing the slum, there is very little that can be done.” In Vietnam the US military evacuated and moved the rural peasant population into so called pacified villages in order to drain the Vietcong support swamp and to control the population. Would the future urban warfare copy this model for megacities? Where should the inhabitants of the slums go? Isn´t the bulldozing and the destruction of slums sparking mass resistance against the military and filling the rank and files of the insurgency?

No, I do not think this will be the model for future warfare in megacities.  Yes, the bulldozing and destruction of slums would be outside the laws of land warfare and international humanitarian law.  I believe the military is fully aware that any action that does not consider the population could turn hundreds of thousands of people against the host nation or military force conducting the operation and push them to view the insurgency or other bad actors as better options.  I do not think the authors of the report were arguing for bulldozing slums or relocating people.  I think they were emphasizing the few options military forces would have to operate in these environments.  The relocating of Vietnamese citizens to what was called “strategic hamlets” was an approach to separate the insurgency from the population and protect the people by moving them out of their villages and into protected communities.  The effectiveness of this approach has been argued but one of the criticisms was the lack of understanding of the people and their communities.  While this was something that was done in largely rural environments, it also highlights the demands of understanding local environments.  Every city is different.  There have been cases of governments bulldozing slums in an effort to address the uncontrollable growth of slums, such as Mumbai in 2004, but this is separate than questions raised about military actions during war.

Global Review: The authors of the US AWC report propose to target young poor and working class men. Growing slum populations result in “a surplus of unemployed males with little to do but join gangs or engage in crime as a source of income. Joining extremist or terrorist organizations might also appear attractive as a way out. At the very least, in the event of some kind of conflict, these young men would provide a pool of potential recruits for those opposing the United States. In short, slums would be an inordinately difficult battlefield.” The only alternative suggested by the US Army War College to razing the slums is for the US forces to ally with “forces of alternative governance,” including “criminal entities.” “A tacit or explicit agreement with the forces of alternative governance might make it possible to prevent adversaries from utilizing these ‘sheet metal forests.’ Of course, there would have to be something in return, even if only an implicit understanding that US military forces would not interfere with the illicit business of the criminal organizations.” Would this mean that if the US Army invaded Mexico City it would rely on organized crime or the drug cartels in order to prevent poor criminals to join the insurgency? Will the cooperation of the US Army with organized crime be an integral part of future urban warfare?

First, I cannot think of any scenario that would lead to the US Army invading Mexico City.  No I do not think cooperating with organized crime will be an integral part of future urban warfare.  But I do agree with the authors that understanding all the power structure, social dynamics, and cultural factors in cities becomes more important in this unique environment.  Failing to recognize and understand these unique systems of power will carry heavy consequences.

Global Review: The authors of the war college document list “civil unrest” as a main problem that will “plague the governance of such cities and play significant roles in the military operations conducted within them.”  There is a danger posed by “precipitating the collapse of a fragile city into a feral one. One only has to look at the experience of New Orleans under the impact of Katrina to see how a city can rapidly degenerate into anomie and anarchy, with the normal rules and norms of urban life abruptly jettisoned.”  The authors quote a leading industry strategist who writes: “The urban dilemma” involves “a risk of insecurity among the urban poor.” This applies beyond the global south: “Even cities like Amsterdam, London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo are not immune.” The US Army War College article quotes an academic who explains that the problem stems in large part from “class conflict,” which “might greatly complicate the post-combat, pacification, and occupation periods.” Where social opposition emerges, the authors note that “the restoration of order and stability would have to accompany if not precede major disaster relief operations. This effort could also create opposition.” Are welfare programs and relief programs part of the future urban warfare?

Yes, but it is actually a larger question about the political goals determined before the use of military force.  Future warfare will likely include military forces playing a role in post-conflict operations as we have seen in the past.  Post-conflict operations include missions and phases of operations meant to restore and help civil organizations rebuild.  These include stability, reconstruction, peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and many other military operations.

Global Review: In its efforts to crush the insurgency, the authors of the US AWC report fear the “problem” posed by transparency:  “The other problem when dealing with cyberspace in relation to megacity contingencies is that adversaries can exploit the almost automatic transparency that it creates—both to show US forces in bad light and their own actions very positively.”  As a result, invasion plans must involve efforts to shut down the internet, cell phone service, and ensure the local media publishes only US military propaganda: “Part of IPB [intelligence preparation for the urban battlefield] prior to any action in a megacity or sub-megacity must be to identify the services providers for both telecommunications and the Internet. It is also important to identify online opinion-makers who could have a major impact in any controversy over US military intervention.” The authors also note how “here in the United States, the release of videos showing killings by police has led to significant protests and political movements.” Will information warfare, media censorship and cyber control be a part of modern urban warfare?

Information and cyber operations will be a major part of modern and future warfare in dense urban areas.  I would not agree that media censorship will be a part of that future.  The U.S. military has historically done quite the opposite by embedding a full range of media with military forces during combat missions for the past twenty years.  Each battle and every city is different, but I do not think that cutting off cell phones and internet in megacities will be a fruitful course of action.  We saw how governments attempting to turn off the internet and cell phone coverage to control populations during the Arab Spring only lead to increased violence. There are many challenges with information operations that I again argue are on a different scale in the dense urban environment where the party that is faster and accurately informing the population has an advantage.

Global Review: The war college authors praise an Israeli Defense Force commander who wrote that during its 2002 attack on the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank city of Nablus, the IDF “used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation,’ seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare—a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.” Besides the proposed bulldozing of the slums wouldn´t such sort of movement mean the destruction of most parts of the cities including many civilian casualties which could cause anger and fill the rank and files of the insurgency? Did the US Army use the IDF tactics in Iraq or is this a new form of mobility which only the authors of the study propose? What do you think of this proposal?

Whether the tactic of moving through buildings by making holes in walls would cause anger and fill the rank and files of the insurgency would depend on the situation in the city.  Like I mentioned earlier, one of the assumptions about urban warfare is that the civilian population can be moved or will leave when major operation begin.  I agree that if this technique is used in a densely populated area, it would also have negative effects on the civilian population.  The practice of boring holes in walls, often referred to as mouse holing, has actually appeared in most past urban fights, such as Stalingrad, Aachen, Hue, and Fallujah.  We see it being used in most fights today, in Mosul, Raqqa, and Aleppo because the advance of modern precision technology and aerial intelligence assets mean it is even more dangerous for defenders to be seen.  If they are seen, they can be quickly targeted.  The US Army does not currently train the technique described in the report.  I did not observe it in my two combat deployment to Iraq or in the major urban fight I was a part of in Sadr City, Iraq.  I do think the proposal has merit.  The tactic has worked in warfare.  I could see a valid argument that the technique actually could reduce destruction of infrastructure.  Much of the destruction in urban combat comes from having to eliminate threats from buildings with weapons such as tanks, artillery, and bombs.  Depending on the enemy situation, if a military force can avoid the streets or normal ways into the city, such as using tunnels, they may avoid the need to destroy entire buildings.

Global Review: The US Army War College report includes plans to establish a real-time map of an entire metropolis’ inhabitants, including their movements, social networks, friends, family and political thoughts. Quoting a group of European researchers, the authors state:  “The basic notion is that citizens with smartphones have become mobile sensors, reporting on events in the city with tweets, photos, messages, and the like. ‘This transforms human beings into potential sensors that not only have the ability to process and interpret what they feel and think but also to geographically localize the information (sometimes involuntarily) and spread it globally through the Internet, thus drawing people-generated landscapes.’”  At the same time, “Human intelligence assets will be able to offer far greater insight on adversaries because of their ability to capture emotions and relationships—things that will long remain outside the purview of even the most sophisticated drones.”  In other words, the US military will spy on the entire population of the cities it plans on invading, using drones and cell phones as real-time “sensors” to monitor entire populations. “Human intelligence” refers to the use of informants and government agents to infiltrate political groups and communities in order to suppress opposition. Has the US military and its intelligence already the tools for such a giant mass surveillance? Does the US military already have such algorithms and supercomputer processing capacity or is this science fiction?

I do not think the authors were specifically saying they think the military will spy on the entire population or that every future operation will be an invasion.  Human intelligence includes what you mention but the infiltration of political groups is a very narrow form of espionage.  Human intelligence is literally any information that can be gained from the population.  It can include a hotline for people to report criminal activities. There are very specific international laws and rules that control, monitor, and regulate surveillance activities.

Global Review: According to the report, key to the military’s efforts to pacify and occupy major cities is its ability to win what it calls “the battle of the story.” The authors explain:  “Presenting compelling narratives can enhance legitimacy and authority in the eyes of many stakeholders (such as the urban population). Understanding the utility and power of digital media, therefore, allows for enormous reach and breadth that can indirectly alter the battlefield. The user-friendliness of mass media and mobile technology allows adversaries to manipulate and garner favorable public opinion and recruit support. For these reasons and more, civilian and military leaders cannot afford to ignore the requirement for compelling narratives.”  This fight over narratives is especially important in cases where the military is occupying American cities: “In the final analysis, the battle of narratives and the contradictions of security are likely to be at the forefront, especially as the most likely contingencies will be humanitarian or stabilization operations. Moreover, such operations could even take place within the continental United States, as demonstrated by the Los Angeles riots and the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Presenting a positive image of the military to the American public is indispensable for continued support“. Is the US military awaiting a civil war or mass insurgency in the USA or why do the authors quote American cities as theaters of war for urban warfare in megacities? Does the American constitution allow the use of the US military within the USA?

No, the U.S. military is not awaiting or in any way preparing for mass insurgency in the United States.  The U.S. constitution has specific prohibitions and pre-requisites for using military forces in the United States.  That is a large topic to explain. Each state has a National Guard to support the state government in a wide variety of missions. And the military does has the mission of defense support to civil authorities. This is what the authors were mostly referring to. Under special circumstances, the individual states can request assistance from the federal government for military assistance.  This is most often observed in responding to natural disasters like the authors mention in Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy where civilian needs exceed the capabilities of the state’s National Guard forces. The U.S. military has a lot of resources that can aid in natural disasters. We are seeing that now in response the multiple major disasters what we are seeing today after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in a matter of weeks.  Multiple military organizations have been sent to these areas conduct rescue, humanitarian assistance, and recovery operations.

 Global Review: According to this report, no corner of the world is free from the possibility of US invasion. The document lists several cities—including many in the United States—as hypothetical targets for invasion. Among those cities mentioned in the document are Mumbai, Beijing, Rome, London, Los Angeles, Abuja, Baltimore, San Salvador, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Dhaka, Nairobi, Delhi, Aleppo, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro, Frankfurt, Zurich, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Seoul, Manila, San Francisco, Tehran, Istanbul, Guangzhou-Foshan, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Rangoon, Alexandria, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Kabul, Cairo, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Mogadishu. The article flows from the US military’s analysis of its own activities over the last several years. The authors reference the National Guard’s occupation of Ferguson, Missouri during protests against a police killing in 2014, the occupation of parts of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as foreign city operations like Kabul, Mosul, Fallujah and Baghdad. A friend of mine in the German foreign ministry said to me that this report was a horror scenario and that he was astonished that the US Army War College which he visited in the past as a guest proposes such brutal and inhuman sorts of warfare. He also was astonished that in this report the US military became more and more an instrument for internal repression inside the USA as the report also quotes US cities as battleground for urban warfare. How do you perceive the US AWC report on urban warfare in megacities? Bulldozing slums, infestation, mass surveillance, cooperation with alternative governance including organized crime, mass relief programs, control of infrastructure, media and cyberspace as well monopolizing the narrative–which elements do you support and find plausible, which elements don´t find your support and are there other important elements which are not mentioned in the report? What is your advice for a concept for urban warfare in megacities?

That is a major misinterpretation of this report, which, to my knowledge, was an academic effort to describe and understand the military challenges posed by megacities. It certainly did not advocate for “inhuman warfare.” But I’ll leave that specific assessment for your readers to decide.

The bigger, fundamental  issue at hand is that increasingly well-armed, deeply dedicated adversaries are burrowing their way into cities, among a great deal of innocent civilians, in an effort to co-opt or takeover our most important centers of social, political, and economic relationships. While this has happened all through history, it is beginning to happen with greater regularity, a trend which will only intensify as humanity’s march away from the countryside continues. As this happens, the question becomes: What will we do about it? What options will we have when Kim Jong Un hides a nuclear weapon in Pyongyang, or ISIS holds captive an important national figure, or natural disaster turns to political collapse and open warfare in a major population center?  I, and my colleagues that study these issues, didn’t invent the disease—but we are doing our best to understand, treat, and hopefully cure this affliction of the modern city—without harming the patient.  What I think those of us that study urban warfare understand intimately is that these are delicate issues, and so I appreciate, above all, the ability to have a dialogue on these issues. Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to future engagements.

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