The Future’s Urban Spaces: Sun Tsu and the Analysis of the Terrain

by Lt. Col. Alessandro Rappazzo (originally published in German), a career officer in the Swiss army, Group Chief Leadership Course II / Staff Course I and author of “Mein Weg: Vorwärts” (only in German). This article is part of his book.

Potential battlegrounds are changing, partly as a result of geopolitical factors and global threat patterns. Ongoing environmental developments are forcing every leader to consider new perspectives. We all know this. The size of future trends, including megacities, demographics, technology and a new generation of people, will have an increasing effect on our society. Verticalization in high-rise buildings, density, vulnerability, globalization, cultures, etc., will affect our analyses more than ever. This article aims to motivate the reader, when assessing the military situation – and in particular when assessing the environment – to abandon tried and trusted thought processes and pursue new ways of thinking.

A ruined fictional town from “Fallout Universe” – what a megacity devastated by war might look like.


Initial situation

Geopolitics: Cause for concern
It is a fact that the world is constantly changing. From a geopolitical point of view, Europe faces a resurgent dualism, between an ever more cynical Russia and an increasingly more chaotic West. Strategic antagonism in politics, the economy and the military has crossed a threshold into a new era (see “Switzerland’s Security 2015“, Federal Intelligence Service, May 2015, p. 7f). Today, the violence of terrorism has given it access to the geopolitical stage. This is also assisted by the targeted use of social media, which are manipulated by a so-called “caliphate”. We see here a reality that is in a constantly changing state of flux.

The jihadist type of terrorism, which can affect the entire West, is undoubtedly an inseparable element of these changes. This geopolitical development includes terrorism, latent extremism, modern forms of espionage and the proliferation of weapons. These factors are also a cause for concern in Switzerland. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, security policy became a lower priority. In Switzerland, due to the current geopolitical situation, security issues were taken up and brought to the fore in the draft 2016 Security Policy Report. The recasting of this document was based on political, economic and social developments. This shows that the previously stable long warning times have tended to become increasingly shorter (“Switzerland’s Security 2015“, p. 8).

Reality: The twin towers Momo and Uzeir burn in downtown Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia on June 8 1992.

Reality: The twin towers “Momo” and “Uzeir” burn in downtown Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia on June 8 1992.

Terrain: A changing factor
Mastery and knowledge of the terrain is still firmly established as fundamental to military thinking and is often referred to in Sun Tzu’s book “The Art of War“, where he attaches great importance to knowledge and use of the terrain. Today, an in-depth analysis of the terrain should be carried out, based on the diversity of the different types of terrain and the development of these spaces. Population growth, especially in urban areas and its verticalization in high-rise buildings, also leads to changes in individual analysis and evaluation criteria. These criteria are not only linked to urban development, but also to the development and progress of society, living conditions as well as economic and political resources. This analysis raises the question of whether it is not time to make a new assessment of the old analysis criteria (in Switzerland: Mission, environment, opposing resources, own resources and time). Apart from these criteria, the make-up of the forces to be used in these areas is an important question to be considered from the outset. The totality of these new analyses and the in-depth technical and tactical knowledge of the players in these new areas must lead to new developments in military operations in urban areas.

Threat: Basically hybrid in character
Today, the current form of the threat is determined by a component that can be classified as “hybrid”. It covers “any threat to the country, where, at the same time and partly in the same area, governmental and non-governmental players, acting alone, in coordination or under joint leadership, wish to achieve certain objectives and in doing so combine and use regular and irregular as well as conventional and unconventional operations and means” (Swiss Army, “Terms on Command and Control Regulations 17”, May 2015, not publicly available). The military analysis depends on factors that are increasingly networked with each other, where the distinction between “red” and “blue” no longer exists. As a result of the hybrid threat, a new approach must be found in cases of conflict today. Liang and Xiangsui write in their book that “future wars will demand things, for which the majority of soldiers are not prepared: to win unconventionally waged wars and fight battles outside the battlefields” (Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, “Guerra senza limiti: L’arte della guerra simmetrica fra terrorismo e globalizzazione“, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2001, p 25, Italian version). This quotation makes us aware that in the hybrid threat we are actually dealing with something that is an established part of modern conflicts. The solution to the conflict no longer lies only with the military, but also with other forces, which are integrated into other security systems.

Reality: The strategically important Donetsk International Airport was completely destroyed during the fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.

Reality: The strategically important Donetsk International Airport was completely destroyed during the fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.


Dealing with the “terrain”

High-rise buildings and the population
In the light of the preceding discussion of the factors and analyses brought about by the new development of the environment, we can see that these criteria of verticalization and the development of urban areas correspond to the reality on Swiss territory. The control (in a security political sense of meaning) of cities such as Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Basel, Lucerne, Zurich and St. Gallen can no longer take the same form as in the Cold War period, but they must be constantly adjusted to meet new forms of hybrid threats and continuous change in urban areas. Factors such as globalization, technology and the development of the population are in a constant state of flux that have an impact on the elements of analysis for the military and civilian authorities.

Military factor
The future Territorial Formations (military units that serve as regional links between the military and civilian decision-makers, and which have specific knowledge about their areas) must reflect the fact that the main demands will primarily arise in the urban areas. The fact that the focus of military operations will be mainly in urban areas makes it necessary to develop analytical instruments that take account of this reality. In summary, the following quotes make it clear what the next steps will be in future missions and operational methods in urban areas.

From a military point of view, we must have the mind-set that “ignoring megacities, means ignoring the future” (Chief of Staff of the Army, “Megacities and the United States Army: Preparing for a complex and uncertain future“, Strategic Studies Group, June 2014). For the sake of our security, we must pay attention to the following considerations: “An adversary can achieve its strategic objectives by an impairment of the central infrastructure that is critical to the functioning of the state’s governance, economic processes and social life. […] Such an attack is aimed not – as in the past – […] primarily against the integrity of the national territory, but directly against the proper functioning of the country and its institutions up to and including the undermining of national sovereignty and social cohesion “. (Swiss Security Network, “Auslegung des Begriffs Verteidigung”, Report of the Working Group on Defence, Internal and External Security, draft of 31.03.2015, p.4, not online; see also Col. Markus van Wijk, “Operative Schulung (III): ‘Defense’ in einem modernen Szenario“, Allgemeine Schweizerische Militärzeitschrift 09, September 2015, only in German).

Observation of a modern urban terrain requires a new perspective and a more specific analysis than observation of a classic terrain. The need for a description of the terrain, with a detailed list of the various areas, is still the same as it was for Sun Tzu, but it should be done with the urbanized areas of today. If we understand the DNA of the urban centres, we can better identify the threat factors with which we might be faced. These factors can be found in various forms, such as classical threats, religious threats, ideological disputes, economic constraints, power struggles, natural disasters, man-made disasters or simply the implosion of a society.

View of Tokyo from the roof of the Skytree tower. Tokyo, with its surrounding agglomerations, is currently the largest of the megacities (37.8 million inhabitants; about 4.5 times bigger than Switzerland). By contrast, Zurich is tiny (Photo: Yodalica, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

View of Tokyo from the roof of the “SkyTree” tower. Tokyo, with its surrounding agglomerations, is currently the largest of the megacities (37.8 million inhabitants; about 4.5 times bigger than Switzerland). By contrast, Zurich is tiny (Foto: Yodalica, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Large urban agglomerations
The population density in Switzerland is high. There are not only cities but also urban agglomerations: Zurich (1.28 million inhabitants), Basel (823,000), Geneva (819,000), Bern (398,614) and Lausanne (389,614). The agglomerations of Basel and Geneva have certain special features: “Switzerland has a diverse urban structure which contains large agglomerations with an international spread but also smaller agglomerations which tend to be of regional importance.” (Federal Statistical Office, “Raum mit städtischem Charakter der Schweiz 2012: Eine neue Dimension der Agglomerationen und weiteren städtischen Raumkategorien“, BFS Aktuell, 18th December 2014, p 3, only in German). The special economic and social features of the five largest agglomerations consist of the high percentage of the population working (79%) and living (73%) there. This will in the future require clear and detailed answers to questions about their degree of resilience and resistance to fragility (Federal Statistical Office, “Raum mit städtischem Charakter der Schweiz 2012”, p.2). To get these answers, the past must be explored, the present understood, and the future planned. It is therefore a matter of determining the DNA, that is, to capture the specific features and characteristics of each city or agglomeration. Once the DNA has been determined by means of an audit, scenarios for the future can be drawn up. These scenarios are the basis for working out the consequences for the different areas of intervention in individual conflicts.

Let us confine ourselves to considering some of the main factors of the previous discussion in more detail and explaining them briefly:

  • DNA: individual character: Every city has its own history, its own dimensions of existence and life. This forces us to differentiate. The starting point is the ability to interpret the essence, the very heart, of the urban agglomeration. To do this we need to analyse their genes, which consist of the following factors: population, movement / flows, threat, territory, housing density, culture and leisure, city organization (e.g. municipal borough, district).
  • Urban audit: Resilience and resistance to fragility: The next phase involves a comparison of the individual factors. The pre-established audit variables of demographics, welfare, commuting flows, environment, economy, infrastructure, mobility and transport, hybrid threats, education, resources, growth, and social aspects, environment, political leadership can change depending on the situation and help us to determine the current state of the agglomeration in question. The results flow into a matrix (area of tension: Value creation – community – habitat – identity) to provide a general picture of the situation that corresponds to current circumstances.
  • Scenarios: Drivers of change: The analysis of the DNA and the results from the audit allow us, by means of the factors of resilience and resistance to fragility, to develop several scenarios to deal with the various conflicts.
Reality: Destroyed buildings in Beirut after the Lebanon War of 2006.

Reality: Destroyed buildings in Beirut after the Lebanon War of 2006.

This analytical process (DNA, Audit, Scenarios) is the result of interdisciplinary work between the various players operating in the field of integrated security. Based on these periodic analyses – made, for example, every five years – it is possible to draw clear consequences for all areas of integrated security. In this context, the following considerations come first to mind (not complete):

  • Territorial Formation – regional, but not local: As a partner of the cantons, the Territorial Formation remains a fixed reference point. First of all, the presence of this formation, depending on the analysis of the terrain, is an important factor when it is considered that their use is mainly focused on urban areas and agglomerations. The typology of the terrain (urban) and the conflict are decisive for the choice of the military units to be used in dealing with the situation. Finally, the role of the Territorial Formation of the future should be to analyse the major centres periodically and to do this in cooperation with the various players who are present on the ground. It is therefore all about the ability to achieve goals by interacting in an even more efficient and innovative manner than was done previously. Analysis of the three elements mentioned above (DNA, Audit, Scenarios) is the factor that allows a small country like Switzerland, which is increasingly forced to adopt a policy of urban verticalization in high-rise buildings, to anticipate and manage future conflicts.
  • Defence – some new thinking: Finally, we must be aware that this is a hot topic, because the analyses penetrate deeply into various aspects of our society. The development of the scenarios will surely give rise to criticism from every angle and from different areas. This probability is also referred to in the above-cited report on the concept of defence, which speaks of “overriding governmental and legal considerations, which lead to scepticism about a new, broader understanding of defence” (Swiss Security Network, “Auslegung des Begriffs Verteidigung”, p. 2).
  • New and old challenges – readiness to act: If we want to overcome future challenges, we must be open and intellectually prepared for new scenarios coming from the hybrid spectrum. We must be ready to deal with a conflict that – precisely because it affects every aspect of life in our society – could be addressed in an area which is not governed by classical military thinking: “In order to get beyond their mind-set, today’s military leaders must therefore be more penetrating and more specific in their approaches” (Liang and Xiangsui,” Guerra senza limiti”, p 156). Although the conventional war is no longer at the centre of our fears, it must still be reckoned with. This means that each of the brushfires (various forms of threat) must imperatively be brought under control. “International armed conflict can begin with violence within the state.” (Swiss Security Network, “Auslegung des Begriffs Verteidigung”, p. 2). Because if we think of war as a fire, we must recognise that a spark is enough to ignite it.
Reality: Aleppo in October 2012.

Reality: Aleppo in October 2012.



This short essay is intended to define the importance of the new areas, to understand their DNA, to identify their strengths and weaknesses using regular (urban) audits, in order to develop subsequent working scenarios. The scenarios can later be used, on the one hand for the training of the different players and, in the worst case, for handling extraordinary situations. Second, it will become increasingly important to define the co-operation set out in the proposed concepts with all the stakeholders. The last point, which also seems important to me, is to empower citizens to cope successfully with the changes that are visibly happening within our society. The aim is not to reinvent oneself, but to adapt our standards to the new circumstances in a contemporary idiom.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Security Policy, Switzerland.

2 Responses to The Future’s Urban Spaces: Sun Tsu and the Analysis of the Terrain

  1. Kevin Andrew (Facebook) says:

    Urban warfare on a large scale will require new thinking, whether leadership will accept this is a different matter entirely.

    It is unreasonable to expect any expeditionary force to dominate within the urban environment inside a traditional framework. The cities are too large, the buildings too many. The manpower too few.

    Urban terrain has the aspect of being equally difficult to move through, forces should stop treating urban combat in such a linear manner and begin treating it like Desert or Naval warfare. The position of forces relative to the opponent is more important than their position relative to the terrain. Holding ground in urban warfare is costly and time consuming. The simple solution is to not hold ground, but to fluidly move through it.

    Exploiting your opponents difficulty in holding that terrain. Disrupting his lines of supply, degrading his communications, destroying patrols and isolated forces until the enemy shrinks back to a perimeter small enough for conventional destruction.

    In this manner a well led, small and flexible force leveraging small unit tactics and distributed lethality will come out on top over a slow to react but large force.

  2. Let me first thank you for your comment. I completely agree with you. My first concern was to find a way to bring military and civil knowledge together to benefit from the developing synergies. Because knowledge is the key to success, the goal should be to better understand cities. With that knowledge, finally leaders’ thinking skills and the ability of anticipation will solve any kind of problems. In the present VUCA-World (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) leaders have to think the unthinkable — or according to the former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “there are known knowns; […] there are known unknowns; […] [b]ut there are also unknown unknowns — […] it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” (U.S. Departement of Defense, “DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers“, 12 February 2002).

    Your comment may be a good starting point for an answer on the operational level — many thanks for that.

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