Small Wars Journal

Surrounded, Yet Unaware: Achieving Isolation in Future Urban Terrain

Wed, 05/30/2018 - 10:09am

Surrounded, Yet Unaware: Achieving Isolation in Future Urban Terrain

Ryan Orsini

Future operating environments project a rapid increase of contested urban space and technological connectedness providing a convergence of threat capability for tactical commanders to negotiate. This article identifies future complications in achieving physical and psychological isolation, which both historically and doctrinally are so essential to successfully achieving military objectives in urban terrain. Furthermore, this article outlines tactical leader application of a new urban operational framework to understand and achieve both physical and psychological isolation in this future environment.

The Urban Terrain Focus

David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains identified four key world-wide megatrends—urbanization, population growth, littoralization, and connectedness—that will place overwhelming demands on scarce city and country resources, thereby increasing the likelihood and difficulty of conflict in urban areas.[i] In this future environment, US ground forces are likely to see employment across and below the threshold of armed conflict from humanitarian disaster relief and peace support to great power conflict. This likelihood is reflected in US Army Chief of Staff GEN Milley’s 2016 AUSA Conference statement “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas.”[ii]

Multi-Domain Battle Concept codifies these conclusions. The December 2017 concept identified a future operating environment (OE) featuring staples of urban terrain: accelerating information technology; hybrid threats synchronizing conventional, irregular, criminal, and terrorist cells; increasing urban terrain convolution and global network collection.[iii] Ground forces must prepare for this latent convergence of threat, complexity, and connectedness.

Our Focus Must be on Achieving Isolation in Urban Terrain

History and doctrine both point to isolation as the decisive operational effect in urban terrain. Lou DiMarco’s Concrete Hell is a study of modern urban warfare. DiMarco writes that across the spectrum of conflict “the history of urban conflict makes plain that when the enemy is isolated then success follows.”[iv] Concrete Hell identifies the German Army’s inability to isolate Soviet forces across the Volga as ultimately decisive in their loss of momentum and resulting entrapment. Further, he points to the Allies’ isolation of Aachen as essential to city seizure while outnumbered 3:1. He attributes US success at Hue came only after the isolation of enemy elements from northern sanctuary and the innovative use of lethal mobile protective firepower with non-lethal TTPs such as CS gas to physically isolate one urban objective after another. Finally, DiMarco reports the success of French 10th Para Division’s Quadrillage system in Algiers and 3rd ACR’s clear, hold, and build strategy in Ramadi due to isolating threat groups from support physically and psychologically in stability operations.

These historical examples and future concepts of war ground the importance of isolation in current ground force doctrine. US Army and Marine Corps December 2017 joint publication ATP 3-06/MCTP 12-10B Urban Operations labels isolation as essential across the spectrum of Unified Land Operations. In the offense isolation disrupts the advantages of the urban defense labels and manipulates combatant maneuver.[v] Furthermore, in the defense “failure to prevent isolation of the urban area rapidly leads to the failure of the entire urban defense. Its importance cannot be overstated.”[vi]

Future war will stress the ability of leaders at all echelons to operate detached and create these isolative effects at increasingly lower echelons. The Multi-Domain Battle Concept describes a changing battlespace whereby strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war are compressed due to converging adversary capabilities that shorten commanders’ decision cycles.[vii] Unit leaders must be prepared to create these small effect windows on their own because they may find themselves operating with degraded capabilities without secured flanks.[viii] Thus in future urban terrain leaders at all echelons must focus resources on creating pockets of isolation, regardless of objective size, to control the absolutely essential and be successful.

Defining the Problem and Components of the Solution

Isolation is “…a tactical mission task that requires a unit to seal off—both physically and psychologically— an enemy from sources of support, deny the enemy freedom of movement, and prevent the isolated enemy force from having contact with other enemy forces.”[ix] As a result, isolation is a two-part task, physical and psychological, that must adapt to the dynamics of both urban terrain and future conflict. As a result, we arrive at the following problem statement: how do ground leaders achieve isolation in urban terrain given increasingly complex OEs which creates a convergence of physical and psychological threat capability across the spectrum of conflict?

As the Army’s Multi-Domain Battle Concept explains, components of this solution will include force posture, resilient formations, and convergence. Tactical formations will need proficiency in wide ranges of force posture to include forward deterrent presence, sustainable expeditionary capacity, and compatibility with partner forces. They will require resilience to operate interchangeably across domains and survive persistent enemy detection and contact. Finally, tactical units must be able to converge capabilities creating windows of advantage by synchronizing scarce resources in time, space, and purpose to overwhelm a threat.[x]

Achieving Physical Isolation for Tactical Leaders

The Challenge of Physical Isolation in Urban Terrain

Physical isolation begins with a fundamental understanding of urban terrain’s ultimate physical challenge: the ubiquity of unfamiliar subsurface, intrasurface, and supersurface structures. From conventional subway and skyscraper to unconventional urban rubble and congested alleyways, the pervasiveness of four dimensional (4D) features makes terrain analysis difficult. Future conflict presents contested airspace and cyberspace domains. This includes threat air capability and reduced friendly access to satellite technology like GPS and image intelligence, thereby limiting many of the tools historically leveraged to overcome the urban terrain’s challenges. Together this limits a tactical unit’s operational reach resulting in compartmentalized efforts, canalized movement, attrited combat power, and degraded command and control (C2).

In this physical environment advantage goes to the actor that can best disaggregate, disperse, and re-aggregate repeatedly in synchronized force within the urban terrain. Disaggregation provides tactical units flexibility moving over complex terrain minimizing the problem of canalization. Dispersion provides the ability to control only the essential and bypass threats countering attrition. Finally re-aggregation gives the ability to synchronize efforts mitigating compartmentalization and C2 degradation. Given the ubiquity of urban terrain, operations will only be effective through an iterative process from urban objective to urban objective. Units spread across great distances must quickly orient, consolidate, and attack to limit susceptibility to emerging threats within the urban terrain. This requires cycles of disaggregation, dispersion, and re-aggregation.

New Operational Framework for Urban Terrain: The Breach Mindset


Facing these emergent urban challenges and opportunities, formations require a new operational framework. These are cognitive tools used to visualize and direct the allocation of combat power.[xi] A new operational framework to achieve isolation is the breach mindset. Urban terrain’s complexities form a seemingly endless cumulative obstacle offering threats both continuously and precipitously over time. To overcome this obstacle, tactical units must be able to prioritize and control only the essential and quickly disaggregate, disperse, and re-aggregate to mass effects and gain isolation. As a result, we must continually breach or be ready to breach. The minimum force guideline is a vital piece of the commander’s intent. Fortunately, these are tactics our fighting force knows. In the breach mindset, leaders use the doctrinal acronym SOSRA (suppress, obscure, secure, reduce, assault) to iteratively evaluate minimum force. This sets conditions against the 4D and multi-domain threat wherever they find themselves in the spectrum of conflict: in the offense, defense, or stability. Tactical leaders use the SOSRA minimum force mental model to set isolative conditions prior to clearing a room, initiating an engagement area, or starting a street level engagement in a crowded market. This drives troops to consolidate based on situation and requirement, rather than organic structure or hardened courses of action. Each objective has a minimum force requirement to set conditions for attack initiation. As long as the tactical conditions are set the ground tactical plan begins in an iterative process as more objectives are seized and new resources arrive.

Creating Windows of Physical Isolation

Leaders can enable this urban operational framework through certain tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) focused on infiltration, exfiltration, communications and enablers to create small windows of physical isolation. First, effective graphical control measures such as assembly area, axis of advance, attack position, assault position, and direction of attack enables disciplined initiative in the movement and assembly of men, weapons, and equipment (MWE) as units disaggregate, disperse, and re-aggregate within urban terrain through iterative urban objectives. Units can designate critical points to re-aggregate in successive infiltration and exfiltration movements around their decentralized movement. Critically, these control measures nest with anticipated friendly, enemy, or civilian reactions to physical isolation to account for the iterative processes in both the offense and defense.[xii]  Finally, formations employ flexibility in infiltration and exfiltration through task organization or cross training to create a mobility or counter-mobility advantage to create or deny surface, intra-surface, and subsurface avenues of approach. [xiii]

Effective communications planning also enables the breach mindset. Units create redundant communications with planned internal retransmission nodes as well as predictable leader placement at designated critical points guiding MWE. Furthermore, leaders achieve effective communications with a shared operating graphic ready for the expansive urban landscape. Overlay techniques such as the British military’s DOT map combine a simple letter and color scheme to quickly orient a force over a wide area, expanding understanding across a large area where an American-style grid reference graphic is insufficient. Finally, units utilize graduated response matrices such as those detailed in the US Army ATP 3-39.33 Civil Disturbance to provide a decentralized collective escalation of force based on crowd threat assessment, giving more tactical options for physical isolation given collateral damage risk.

Finally, leaders must carefully manage their enablers within the breach mindset. Urban conflict consistently requires combined arms integration from echeloned ground and aerial fires. This creates redundant sensor to shooter capabilities needed for adequate suppression and maneuver.[xiv] This requires proficiency in a training environment. Ground units without organic armor such as Army IBCTs can seek interoperability opportunities with local armored National Guard elements. Similarly, units should seek out opportunities with short range air defense artillery elements and cyber-electromagnetic activities teams to prepare for ground force multi-domain capability. Furthermore, future conflict particularly with competitive powers will bring partner nation operations possibly on shared encrypted communications. This force integration requires thorough rehearsals over shared communications platforms using easily translatable pro-words. A leader’s plan must be simply planned and well-rehearsed to allow combined small units to meet on a third successive urban objective and quickly establish a SORSA-based minimum force to achieve physical isolation.


In future four-dimensional urban terrain competitive in multiple domains the physical advantage goes to the actor that can best disaggregate, disperse, and re-aggregate repeatedly in synchronized force. Tactical leaders can optimize their physical isolative effect against this converged urban obstacle and creative windows of advantage by leveraging a new urban operational framework focusing on a shared breach mindset.

Achieving Psychological Isolation for Tactical Leaders

The Challenge of Psychological Isolation in Urban Terrain

Psychological isolation begins with the recognition of urban terrain’s ultimate psychological challenge: ground forces lack the technical combat power and authorities necessary to effectively shape the speed of human interaction due to internet technology (IT) proliferation as well as competitors’ cyberspace domain proficiency. IT proliferation benefits both general consumer and competitor alike with communication devices that outpace ground force capability in terms of weight, range, bandwidth, speed, innovation rate, encryption, and price per unit. IT proliferation connects information with the power of social groups to streamline both slow, large scale movements and fast, small scale action. This presents a powerful incentive to manipulate the information a community absorbs—influencing the information’s distribution and content to serve an actor’s own interests. Thus, if the dominant effect in future urban terrain is isolation and the physical advantage belongs to can best repeated disaggregation, dispersion, and re-aggregation cycles, then the psychological advantage goes to the actor that can manipulate information.[xv]

However, ground forces lack the technical combat power and authorities necessary to manipulate information. Through enablers, ground forces have the capacity to jam utilities or combatant communications. However, these resources are scarce and can result in excessive damage to city systems for limited tactical gain. As a result, the tactical unit’s ability to psychologically isolate in an era of pervasive connectivity is likely limited to the seconds of organic suppression and obscuration on the urban objective. This provides ample opportunity for competitor psychological connection supporting C2 and information operations before, during, and after contact. This gap is in part due to task organization. The current ground force is still modeled after Air-Land Battle, not yet Multi Domain Battle.[xvi] By placing fire supporters and air space coordinators down to the platoon level our ground forces can lethally synchronize ground and air-delivered fires. However, with information and civil affairs coordinators at the brigade level, our attempts at psychological isolation fail due to lack of contextual understanding and centralized decision making. As a result, ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan continually ceded psychological momentum to our adversary. This negative trend will likely continue until tactical units at the battalion and below are prepared and authorized to effectively act within the information domain.

Furthermore, ground forces find themselves in OEs with competitors that are doctrinally and materially equipped to manipulate information in the cyber domain. Unlike our ground force, these potential adversaries long recognized its debilitating psychological effect across the conflict spectrum. The Russian Gerasimov Doctrine and the Chinese 2025 Strategic Plan outline efforts to achieve social control through the cyber domain.[xvii] Russia’s 2014 Ukraine intervention featured synchronized ground maneuver with a larger cyber campaign of disinformation, economic manipulation, and intimidation effectively fixing Ukrainian forces at the tactical level.[xviii] The Russian NotPetya cyber-attack in June 2017 crippled Ukrainian critical infrastructure, select corporations, and private citizens’ computers in mass.[xix] Our competitors, both near-peer and irregular, consistently show proficiency, intent, and low-risk threshold to achieve local social control and psychological isolation by manipulating information. This is a staggering discrepancy in the focus, authorities, and capability to manipulate information between our ground force and potential adversaries.

Remaining Competitive by Understanding Information Manipulation

Faced with IT proliferation and a competitive information cyber domain with limited and restricted organic multi-domain capability, tactical units must first put a renewed emphasis on understanding the information environment to maximize the available isolative effect. While outgunned psychologically, ground force understanding of information manipulation is the first irreplaceable step to remain competitive in the information environment and flexible enough to create needed windows of isolation advantage.

Understanding information manipulation requires analysis of how an interconnected community finds, consumes, and reacts to information. In this new competitive information environment, the typical PMESII-ASCOPE crosswalk of civilian analysis is insufficient. However, Wardle and Derakhsan’s Information Disorder framework is such an analytic tool. They stratify information into three types known as mis-information, dis-information, and mal-information. Dis-information is false and deliberately distributed to cause harm to an intended target. Mis-information is false but created with unknowing intent. Finally, mal-information is true, but deliberately distributed to cause harm to an intended target. By distinguishing between true and false as well as harmful and peaceful we can understand the influence and reaction of competitors in the environment.[xx] This framework also allows tactical leaders to look critically at our own balance of information distribution efforts.

Wardle and Derakhsan also analyze the three elements of information: the agent who creates and distributes, the message which has particularly formatted information, and the interpreter who receives, interprets and takes action. This framework provides an intimate understanding of emotional responses, cultural identity, and existing world view that are so powerful in creating or manipulating information. [xxi] However it also provides tactical leaders awareness of important transmission mechanisms such as key mediums, vulnerabilities, and effects. This analysis reveals important pockets of resistance and vulnerability in the ground or cyber domain such as a leader or idea that has magnified effect within the community for subsequent tactical targeting to disrupt, destroy, or bypass.

This requirement to understand information networks is fundamental to remain competitive in the urban IO environment given limited organic capability. Since we can no longer prevent information manipulation, we must get better at harnessing its energy and understanding its tendencies. Ongoing information manipulation within the OE is the psychological obstacle that we continually breach, knowingly or unknowingly, in urban terrain from direct action to peace support operations. By understanding local contexts of information manipulation, leaders can achieve two critical effects. First, they can anticipate overly impactful resources and ideas either vulnerable to or under the influence of competitors to direct scarce psychological resources against, thereby demoralizing the enemy. Instead of reacting to the destruction of a community’s shipping infrastructure from cyber-attack, we can preposition and reorient forces to deter its occurrence. Second, this understanding can shape higher headquarters’ willingness to release assets and approve effects as targets are refined decreasing risk to macro city systems. For example, instead of knocking out a neighborhood’s electricity, we can temporarily prevent its access to a particular YouTube channel, disrupting information manipulation. As a result, units are in better position to quickly identify information effects within the urban terrain’s system and disrupt competitors’ multi-domain actions.


Creating Windows of Psychological Isolation

Armed with an understanding of local information manipulation, leaders can execute targeted psychological disruption and exploitation supporting urban terrain’s breach mindset operational framework. These windows of psychological isolation are not limited to ground, air, and cyber domains. Rather, tactical units match organic capability—platoon leaders, blocking positions, or host nation partners—to best harness the desired effect. These efforts are decentralized to tactical units, synchronized as technical triggers complementing the tactical maneuver, and tailored to the tempo of the conflict. Our psychological disruption and exploitation can help set conditions to achieve or prevent isolation in urban terrain.

Psychological disruption supports the typical “suppression” of the breach mindset’s SOSRA minimum force requirement to simplify the complex tactical problem at hand. This suppression should focus on the key elements of competitor infiltration, exfiltration, communications, and enablers to best compliment physical isolation. For instance, leaders can achieve psychological disruption over infiltration and exfiltration by directing civilians over known mediums along advantageous dispersal routes to lower collateral damage. Leaders psychologically disrupt communications by denying identified key mediums of support such as important social media channels during tactical operations or intermittently over time. Finally, units can psychologically disrupt competitor enablers denying access to important support nodes—such as an NGO or neighborhood—by leveraging local engagement or proper positioning of blocking positions and traffic control points to seal them off.


Psychological exploitation supports the breach mindset’s SOSRA “assault” minimum force requirement to intensify the effect and enable future operations. Units utilize targeted mal-information and dis-information to achieve psychological exploitation in both the ground and cyber domains. Mal-information is relayed over known powerful information mediums and nested with an understanding of key cultural ideas, harnessing the truth in real time to support ground maneuver. For example, units can release tailored battle damage assessments and discovered cultural norm violations by competitors. Mal-information is especially important during stability and peace support phases due to its impact on important local and regional public opinion. Tactical units utilize targeted dis-information to disguise friendly efforts or cause confusion within critical competitor nodes when there is military necessity for surprise. Enabled by an understanding of information manipulation, units can overcome IT proliferation and mitigate competitor cyber proficiency, setting conditions to achieve or disrupt psychological isolation through targeted use of mal- and dis-information.  

Facing Tomorrow’s Problem Today

Future urban conflict presents a convergence of threat capability that tactical leaders must negotiate. War never waits for militaries to be ready and the next one will be no different. Future urban conflict will require not just high proficiency in combined arms maneuver the across the conflict spectrum. It will require proficiency and authorizations across domains including space and cyber to include information manipulation—at echelons below brigade. Until the ground force generates a framework for employing needed capabilities to combat these changes, tactical leaders will require a renewed operational framework—the breach mindset—to achieve or prevent physical and psychological isolation in urban terrain.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.


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End Notes

[i] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 25.

[ii] Michelle Tan, “Army Chief: Soldiers Must Be Ready To Fight in Megacities,” Defense News, October 5, 2016, (accessed May 16, 2018), in paragraph 9.

[iii] U.S. Army, Multi-Domain Battle:  Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2017), 5.

[iv] Louis DiMarco, Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq (Oxford: Osprey Group, 2012), 7.

[v] U.S. Army, Urban Operations, ATP 3-06  (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2017), 4-14.

[vii] Multi-Domain Battle:  Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 8.

[viii] Ibid, 35.

[ix] U.S. Army, Terms and Military Symbols, ADRP 1-02 Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2017), 1-33.

[x] Multi-Domain Battle:  Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 23-25.

[xi]U.S. Army, Doctrine Primer, ADP 1-01 (Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2014), 4-8.

[xiii] Ibid, 5-8.

[xiv] Urban Operations, 4-15.

[xv] David Maxwell, “David Maxwell on Unconventional Warfare,” The Security Studies Podcast, Podcast audio, November 7, 2016,

[xvi] David Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle,” US Army TRADOC, October 7, 2017, (accessed May 16, 2018), 9:00.

[xvii] Stefan Banach, “Virtual War—A Revolution in Human Affairs,” Small Wars Journal, February 2, 2018, (accessed May 16, 2018), in paragraph 16.

[xviii] Janis Berzins, “Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine,” National Defense Academy of Latvia Center for Strategic and Strategic Research, April, 2014, (accessed May 16, 2018), 4.

[xix] Dustin Volz and Sarah Young, “White House Blames Russia for Reckless NotPetya Cyber Attack,” Reuters Cyber Risk, February 15, 2018, (accessed May 16, 2018).

[xx] Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhsan, “Information Disorder,” Council of Europe, October 2017, (accessed May 16, 2018), 21-22.

[xxi] Ibid, 23-29.

Categories: urban operations

About the Author(s)

CPT Ryan Orsini is an infantry company commander in 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, pending assignment to Georgetown University for advanced schooling. He has previously served in 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT), and has three operational deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Freedom Sentinel, and Joint Guardian.