RAND Explores Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments

War-torn Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of USAF.
War-torn Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict
(courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

The recent spate of urban operations in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia has motivated the Department of Defense to put considerable effort into identifying and correcting shortcomings in the U.S. ability to successfully conduct urban military operations. A recent General Accounting Office report noted that U.S. forces currently lack certain guidelines and techniques, such as joint urban training and new urban training facilities, that are necessary to prepare troops for carrying out combat operations in cities. The role of air forces in urban operations, however, has been largely ignored.

Project AIR FORCE undertook a year-long investigation of the role that aerospace forces can play in joint urban military operations.  This study sought to help the USAF better understand how the urban physical, social, and political environment constrains aerospace operations.  The research team also identified key operational tasks that aerospace forces can help accomplish and developed new concepts of operation, including enabling technologies, to enhance the contribution that aerospace forces make to joint urban operations.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Among the study's key findings are the following:

  • Urban areas, with their physical and social complexity, are extremely difficult to operate in. Where possible, U.S. forces should avoid them. Aerospace forces can help reduce or eliminate the need for some urban military operations through deterrence, early warning, and rapid humanitarian or military intervention. Along with ground-based long-range fires, aerospace forces can also interdict adversary forces, potentially preventing them from reaching urban areas.

  • Where urban operations cannot be avoided, aerospace forces can make important contributions to the joint team (air, land, sea, and space forces working together). Aerospace forces can, for example, detect adversary forces in the open, attack them in a variety of settings, and provide close support to friendly forces.

  • The development of tools such as offboard sensors for manned aircraft, three-dimensional urban mapping, Global Positioning System relays on unmanned aerial vehicles, and limited-effects weapons should be encouraged. These tools have the potential to enhance the ability of aerospace forces to detect and attack adversary forces when rules of engagement are highly restrictive, such as in peace operations, noncombatant evacuations, and humanitarian assistance.

  • Automated integration and pattern analysis of inputs from large networks of sensors (sensor fusion) that use acoustic, infrared, seismic, chemical, and radar detectors will be necessary to interpret the massive volume of activity found in most urban areas.

  • Practical limitations of automated sensor fusion, coupled with political concerns about collateral damage and civilian casualties, will require at least one human decisionmaker to remain in the loop between sensor and shooter, making human-machine interfaces a critical information-architecture issue.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

The recently released report, Aerospace Operations in Urban Environments, should be of interest to Air Force personnel in operations, plans, intelligence, and acquisition organizations, and to aviators in the sister services.