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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 TC 2-91.4 Intelligence Support to Urban Operations. Civil Affairs must adapt Civil Information Management processes to function within the multidimensionality of urban terrain in order to support urban operations.

The City as a Network:

In addition to its physical multidimensionality, urban terrain and the societies that it exists within are inherent aggregations of multiple dynamic networks and systems ranging from physical infrastructure systems to incorporeal social networks that all intersect at a given point, the city[ii]. The complexity and volume of networks within an urban environment makes any action or inaction at a single point in time and space have a far greater probability to change the trajectory of various networks potentially impeding or enabling the Joint Force from achieving objectives. The interconnected nature of urban terrain makes network engagement paramount to Joint Force success. Joint Publication 3-25 Countering Threat Networks defines network engagement as “the interactions with friendly, neutral, and threat networks, conducted continuously and simultaneously at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, to help achieve the commander’s objectives within an operational area.” Per ATP 5-0.6 Network Engagement the primary steps in conducting network engagement is developing a complex understanding of the operating environment and then mapping the various networks that exist within it.

Urban operating environments present unique challenges in network engagement as a myriad of networks and systems interact with each other across multiple domains creating complex dynamic structures of ever evolving interdependence. The co-dependence between infrastructure and inhabitants within a city creates a need to merge social networks and physical networks in a bidirectional manner. Furthermore, the networks present in urban areas are enormous and nearly unsustainable to maintain, update, and analyze at the node level of an individual thus requiring upward aggregation of agents and actors.

Finally, the regular movement of individuals into and out of a polity creates dynamic network structures affecting both the environment itself and the ability to conduct network analysis. One needs only to imagine a college town in which 60,000 demographically similar individuals depart every summer and how this variance affects economic and infrastructural systems and alters the town’s social network. Further adding to the complexity of urban network engagement is that a city is not a standalone construct and is heavily influenced by both physical systems and social networks that exist outside its physical boundaries.

CIM doctrine as outlined by ATP 3-57.50 Civil Affairs Civil Information Management provides only brief descriptions of link, nodal, and systems analysis with little attempt to standardize or operationalize these key types of civil analysis and the examples provided are limited in the number of nodes and links. In fact, the ATP specifically downplays the importance of network analysis by promoting subjective and qualitative alternatives, “Most civil analysis falls into either civil considerations analysis or systems analysis. Both processes exercise simple logic and employ inductive and deductive reasoning.”

Additionally, ATP 3-57.50 makes no mention of centrality measures, network modality, homophily/hetrophily, and network directionality, all key features to creating, understanding, and analyzing networks within complex operational environments. The simplified version of civil analysis outlined within the ATP will be insufficient in building and understanding the network of dense urban environments where centers of power are often untraditional, not easily identifiable, and constantly changing to internal and external externalities. To support CIM within urban environments CA elements must adopt a uniformed network assessment framework that incorporates centrality measures, is transitional to a multimodal construct, and aggregable from multiple micro networks (districts) to a macro network (city) without losing functionality.

Centrality measures are mathematical equations that use information flow and network positionality to answer the key question of “Who is important in this network and Why?[iii]” There are multiple centrality measurements but four specifically enhance CIM within an urban environment, each of which illuminates a different type of actor or agent within the human domain and their potential role. These roles are not limited to individuals and trained personnel can aggregate the unit of analysis to organizations, groups, commercial enterprises, and even subdivisions of a given polity.

  • Eigenvector Centrality– Orchestrator/Informal Leader

  • Closeness Centrality – Mobilizers/Communicators

  • Betweenness Centrality – Connectors/Coordinators

  • Degree Centrality – Popular Figures/Influencers

Additionally, to account for the relationship between infrastructure systems and social networks any framework needs to incorporate an aspect in which social agents can be linked to key services and infrastructure systems allowing CA personnel to know which networks are affected by potential damage to services or structures. Inversely this relationship allows analysts to identify which human networks have influence and control over critical services needed to provide stability within a given population center. This can be potentially done by creating a mirror network with two modes, in which actors and agents are connected through services and resources or by creating standardized attribute traits within nodes in the primary network. Finally, due to the large nature of urban terrain networks there needs to be established standards that allow higher CA echelons to aggregate networks produced at the district level into a larger citywide network that retains the capacity to analyze, update, and then subsequently disaggregate back down to subordinate units. Database management and specific platforms coupled with standardized doctrine enables this function to occur but it must be standard across the force.

Similar to integrating multidimensional mapping platforms the unitary implementation of a network analysis framework is insufficient in supporting urban operations through CIM and must include investment in human capital. Network analytics requires formal training, regional/cultural expertise, and an understating of social sciences that are currently not part of initial CA training. Network engagement courses like TRADOC’s Advanced Network Analytics and Targeting (ANAT) or coursework in social network analysis taught at academic institutions would easily establish institutional knowledge with in CA for network mapping and engagement but success is still dependent on developing regional and cultural expertise with an area of operations. Without contextual understanding, CA personnel cannot establish network parameters, identify deviations from the norm, and properly advise the joint force commander on network engagement operations within the population centric domain of urban terrain.

FIG 2 – (L) Illustrated Network Engagement Concept from ATP 5-0.6. & (R) Systems Perspective of a Threat Network in the Operational Environment from JP 3-25. CIM is vital for a joint force commander to understand how operations affect the trajectory of the complex networks within a urban operating environment as well as what are the systems level effects of action or inaction.


The amount of civil information CAO will produce during urban operations will be overwhelming to most CIM cells in their current manifestation[iv]. Both an active component Bridge CIM Cell and reserve component Civil Affairs Command (CACOM) CIM Cell currently have less than a dozen personnel assigned, an inadequate number to direct and manage CIM activities in a large urban environment. The force structure of Civil Affairs elements supporting urban operations needs to account for multiple Civil Affairs Activities and staff functions beyond CIM and there will be numerous competing requirements. CIM remains a key component of any CAO support element as it both drives and assesses operations and intelligence processes. To ensure this capability is present in future urban operations CA must first look to establish a multicomponent multiservice solution drawing personnel from the active, reserve, Army, and USMC CA forces while concurrently looking to build a capability outside of both CA and the DOD.

Civil Affairs should advocate creating a modularized urban CIM fusion cell that includes elements from across the joint force, interagency, and unified actions partners that leadership can customize based on the mission and size of the urban center. The fusion cell would incorporate a wide range of skills and disciplines that would develop the civil components of the common operating picture based on CAO, measure the effectiveness of ongoing operations, share and collate information with unified actions partners, and build institutional capacity within host nation officials. Recommended skill sets within the cell are as follows: economists, engineers, emergency services (fire/police/ems), information operations, PAO, PSYOP, civil aviation specialists, transportation and logistics, subterranean experts, cultural advisors, historians, sociologists, psychologist, JAG, urban and city planners, health science and preventive medicine officials, maritime affairs and commercial shipping personnel, and local legal experts. This list is far from exclusive and Civil Affairs leadership can build the cell based on the parameters of the mission and operating environment.

While designed to support armed conflict and stability operations within an urban area, the cell could easily train and build cohesion supporting other elements of the competition continuum. During exercises promoting cooperation, the cell could work OCONUS with exercise partners to share best practices and integrate urban scenarios in real world urban terrain. Within competition below levels of armed conflict, the cell could receive and analyze urban-based Civil Reconnaissance and Civil Engagement reporting from deployed CA elements continually updating analysis and estimates on strategically important urban centers; as well as serve as CONUS based advisor to forwardly deployed teams operating within urban terrain. To ensure regional and cultural expertise needed to support CAO within urban environments it is recommended that Urban CIM Fusion cells reside at either within a GCC or at least within a regionally aligned CACOM headquarters.


If one is to revisit the assertion from ADP 3-0 that “War is inextricably tied to the populations inhabiting the land domain” and then apply the understanding that more and more populations are living in urban terrain it becomes clear that the Joint Force cannot ignore urban operations. Key to urban operations is developing a complex understanding of the complex social structures and systems that influence and shape urban terrain. Due to the inherent influence a population has on urban operations, Civil Affairs’ ability to map and analyze the human domain is paramount to mission success within an urban environment. To better support urban operations across the entire competition continuum Civil Affairs must develop multidimensional mapping capabilities, improve network engagement techniques, and develop a force structure that enables CIM within large populations. Regardless of any technological or personnel innovations implemented, the core competency of conducting CIM within an urban environment is developing or maintaining cultural understanding and regionally familiarity.

About the Author

James P. Micciche is a U.S. Army Strategist (FA59) and former Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He is currently a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and can be found on Twitter @james_micciche

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.


  1. [i] Maloutas, Thomas, and Stavros N. Spyrellis. "Vertical segregation: Mapping the vertical social stratification of residents in Athenian apartment buildings." Méditerranée. Revue géographique des pays méditerranéens/Journal of Mediterranean geography 127 (2016): 27-36 [ii] Pflieger, Géraldine, and Céline Rozenblat. "Introduction. Urban Networks and Network Theory: The City as the Connector of Multiple Networks." Urban Studies 47, no. 13 (2010): 2723-735. [iii] Prell, Christina. Social Network Analysis: History, Theory and Methodology. SAGE, 2011. [iv]For additional discussion on alternative efforts to redesign CIM force structures please see One CA Podcast from 21FEB2020 featuring MAJ Ian Duke.

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1 Comment

Nathan Adrian
Nathan Adrian
Jul 07, 2022

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