Civil Information Management in Urban Environments

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Civil Information Management in Urban Environments


James P. Micciche


Issue Summary:

Urban terrain is an inherent part of the modern operating environment due to ongoing demographic trends. Urban operations present the Joint Force a series of complex challenges often directly related to large populations inhabiting urban environments. Operational success within the urban domain is predicated on developing a complex understanding of the systems and networks that manifest in the human domain of an urban population. Civil Affairs Operations and specifically Civil Information Management are key capabilities that analyze civil considerations, map human terrain, and assess the social impact of operations within a dense urban environment. To support urban operations, Civil Affairs forces must improve their capacity to conduct multidimensional mapping, develop advanced network analysis for large data sets, and design a force structure to manage civil information in large urban areas. Despite technological advancements, Civil Information Management capabilities are still dependent on personnel developing regional and cultural expertise and maintaining baseline knowledge of the social sciences.


A Dense and Urban World:

ADP 3-0 states, “War is inextricably tied to the populations inhabiting the land domain” therefore demography is a quintessential instrument for understanding both current and future operational environments. A demographic trajectory that is vital in defining the emerging complex operating environment of the twenty first century is urbanization. World Bank data shows the percentage of the world’s urban population has steadily increased over the past 60 years and as of 2018 over 55% of the world’s population lives within an urban environment. A United Nations studypredicts that this trend will continue estimating by 2050 over two-thirds of humanity will reside within the urban domain. A second demographic variable that amplifies the impact of urbanization trends is global population growth, according to the Pew Research Center the world’s population will continue to increase until the year 2100 when it reaches 10.9 billion. The current world population is around 7.8 billion for comparison purposes. The combination of urbanization and population growth will continue to create urban areas that are physically larger (both vertically and horizontally), denser in terms of population, and increasingly diverse often manifesting in the ever-increasing number of megacities that have populations over 10 million inhabitants.



FIG 1 – Urban and rural population as a percentage of total and projected population growth 1500-2050, chart is from OUR WOULD IN DATA and utilizes UN data



Urban Operations and Civil Affairs Operations:

Urbanization and the complex environments it creates presents a series of unique challenges across all aspects of the competition continuum and throughout multiple operating domains that the Joint Force cannot ignore. Joint Publication 3-06: Joint Urban Operations provides the following as general challenges within any urban environment:


  • Cities may reduce the advantages of the technologically superior force;

  • Ground operations can become manpower-intensive;

  • Operations are time-consuming;

  • Combat operations in urban areas may result in large ratios of civilian to military casualties; and

  • Operations conducted in urban areas may have more restrictive operational limitations than operations elsewhere.

Despite the inherent risks and challenges, ignoring urban operations is just not feasible in the increasingly urbanized world of 2020. Many of the world’s megacities are coastal making them prone to natural disaster and creating a need to develop Human Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) plans for some of the most complex human systems ever to develop. U.S. dominance in Information Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike capabilities have incentivized state and non-state actors alike to relocate facilities and resources into densely populated areas to avoid detection and increase the potential cost of kinetic strikes mitigating a comparative U.S. advantage. Large scale demographic shifts to urban centers via climate migration potentially create mass instability as local and arriving groups clash over restructured political power dynamics and limited recourses while governments struggle to provide services, generating a demand for understanding how even slight changes can alter the intricate social network of a dense urban area. As the three cases above highlight, the urban domain is an inherent part of the modern operating environment and one in which the human domain and hence Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) plays a vital role in success or failure, a point that JP 3-06 specifically highlights:


“Understanding local cultural, political, social, economic, and religious factors is crucial to successful JUOs and becomes central to mission success. Relationships between groups might be congenial, hostile, or dependent. Understanding this diversity and complexity requires a significant amount of mental effort and flexibility”


Civil Information Management (CIM) is both a function and output of CAO as the CIM process analyzes information and reporting generated from Civil Engagement (CE), Civil Reconnaissance (CR), data mining/research, and information sharing with unified action partners assessing the reciprocal feedback loop between populations and military operations within an operating environment. The assessments generated from the CIM process should both inform decision making and staff processes while also measuring the effects and performance of Joint Force action (or in action) within a population. This process becomes increasingly important during urban operations as both a population and the infrastructure needed for it survive heavily influence and impede the options available to a Joint Force commander. Joint Publication 3-57 Civil Military Operations articulates the prominence of developing an understanding of the human domain in urban operations:


“Effective urban CMO requires knowledge of the ethnic, cultural, religious, and attitudinal characteristics of the populace. Civilian populations in urban areas are rarely homogenous; therefore, effective CMO will require the understanding of neighborhoods, tribal relations, and the basic allegiances and daily life of the inhabitants.”


In order to support Joint Force urban operations, Civil Affairs must increase its Civil Information Management (CIM) capabilities across three lines of efforts (1) multidimensional mapping, (2) enhanced network modeling and assessments, and (3) Urban CIM force structures.


A Three-Story War:

In an influential 1999 article USMC General Charles C. Krulak described a hypothetical scenario where Marines were simultaneously engaged in combat action, peacekeeping operations, and an HADR mission within the span of three city blocks to describe the complex operating environment faced by modern military forces, a concept now universally known as The Three Block War. General Krulak’s concept becomes far more complex when one adapts if to the vertical dimensionality of dense urban terrain in which the same three operations described by Krulak in 1999 can occur within the same block but at different levels of urban terrain. When operating in dense urban environments ground forces can concurrently be engaged in any combination of offensive, defensive or stability operations across the three levels of urban terrain, surface, subsurface and supersurface, all within a single point on a map. Krulak’s Three Block War concept is still relevant to the modern operating environment but it must be adapted to the multidimensional nature of urban terrain rather than the linear blocks it is based on. The effects of the stratified nature of urban terrain is not limited to decisive action and becomes critical to understanding the multidimensional multi-domain social networks that aggregate to become an urban area.


To support operations within urban terrain CIM must incorporate a three dimensional model to illustrate the stratification of sociocultural elements across a given city. The standard two-dimensional model utilizing a combination of MGRS grids and/or GIS shapefiles to display CIM data on a two-dimensional map would fail to support operations in a city like Seoul, South Korea, which per a 2019 Guardianreport, has over 16,000 structures taller than 12 stories and an extensive subsurface transportation network. This simple data can help understand potential collateral damage to various levels of urban terrain due to surface, subsurface, or supersurface operations. Simply developing a platform to map multidimensional terrain is not sufficient alone to support CAO within urban environments. Civil Affairs personnel are experts of the human domain and must become familiar with regional, cultural, and geographic variables that shape the growth and structure of various population centers within an area of operations. Regional context and expertise transform data points on three-dimensional plane to pertinent analysis identifying potential indicators of rising trends in stability/instability based on changes to vertical power structures.


There is extensive multi-disciplinary literature ranging from the fields of urban planning to sociology describing both vertical and horizontal stratification of power and cultures within comparative urban environments. For example, Athens and Paris have opposite vertical segregations of social hierarchies, in Athens social and economic elites occupy the higher levels of the urban domain while their counterparts in Paris tend to live far closer to the surface[i]. The combination of mapping and understanding the sociocultural stratification of multidimensional urban terrain greatly enhances the understanding of the operating environment, improves the ability to identify trends, estimate ex-ante effects of operations, and measures ex post outcomes of Joint Force action or inaction especially on complex interdependent systems and networks commonplace within urban terrain. It also allows commanders to understand the location of key terrain and infrastructure relative to operations within a three-dimensional construct.



FIG 2 – A representation of the Multidimensionality of Urban Terrain from