‘Cunctator’ – Logistics, hostile environments and war in cities

By Erik A. Claessen.

In 216 BC, a Carthaginian army, commanded by Hannibal, crossed the Alps and invaded the region now known as Italy. In a series of spectacular victories, Hannibal annihilated the Roman armed forces. Military academies worldwide still cite his victory at Cannae as the textbook example of decisive battle. However, they rarely emphasize the fact that Hannibal lost the war. Few people know the name of the real victor of the Second Punic War: Fabius. Faced with the lack of sufficient field armies to destroy Hannibal’s forces, Fabius reverted to a strategy of retrenching in walled cities – Rome itself and the fortified settlements allied to it – while simultaneously harassing Hannibal’s foraging parties on the countryside. Unable to force his adversary to a battle in the field, lacking siege equipment, and unable to draw sufficient food and subsistence from the territories under his control, Hannibal ultimately withdrew his troops to Carthage in 203 BC. That the Romans nicknamed Fabius Cunctator (Delayer) points to the key role of strategies that hinge on forcing the opponent to perform logistics in a hostile environment and taking time out of the war equation.

Western military thinking puts a premium on rapid, decisive victory. After a thorough study of the Napoleonic Wars that brought almost all European kingdoms and empires between Madrid and Moscow under French rule, Clausewitz came to the conclusion that “combat is the only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy’s forces as a means to a further end”.[i] The Prussian Army quickly adopted Clausewitz’s ideal of the decisive battle. They achieved this ideal in 1866 when they destroyed the Austrian forces in one single battle at Königgrätz. Under this theory, victory went to the general most able and quick to mass his forces against his opponent’s center of gravity.

This straightforward picture is somewhat blurred by the fact that, up until the First World War, logistics was not as significant a determinant of strategy, or of the ‘concept of operations’ development of militaries. Even during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, infantry and cavalry, once detrained, mostly moved on hooves and feet, ate what the land could provide and fired no more rounds than the amount they carried in their rucksacks.[ii] Thus it could be argued that logistics had very little to do with the ‘staying power’ of combat forces.

The ammunition crisis of November 1914 completely changed this situation. For the first time in history, the fighting power of conflicting armed forces depended on a massive and uninterrupted flow of ammunition between their home base and the front. Simultaneously the notion of the term “front” changed from a geographically constrained and temporary line of encounter between opposing forces during a battle into a strategic line of separation between the conflicting powers’ territories of influence on which each one organized a total war effort. The total war effort was clearly divided between a military effort at the front aimed at the destruction of the opponent’s fighting power and a civilian effort in the rear aimed at the sustainment of one’s own fighting power. In sharp contrast to the extremely hostile environment at the front, the environment in the rear was largely benign.

The First World War led to the situation that the expansion of the armed forces’ fighting power (tooth) took the shape of a mechanization of warfare that required an ever increasing industrial and logistical apparatus (tail). Moreover, that logistical apparatus could only generate the necessary output in a relatively safe and uncontested environment. The concept of the tooth-to-tail ratio and the need to optimize it has since then never really disappeared from western military thinking. However, the underlying assumption of the tooth-to-tail concept is the idea that it is possible to threaten the opponent with your teeth while simultaneously keeping your tail out of the opponent’s reach. Conversely, the assumption also implies that it is possible to defeat the opponent by cutting his tail with your teeth. Indeed, ‘pincer’ movements, encirclements and air interdiction have proven to be very effective ways to defeat entire armies without the need to attrite their combat units.

This assumption is now more than a century old so it is necessary to verify its relevance in light of major developments that have taken place since its inception. One such major development is urbanization. In 1800, 3% of the world population lived in cities. That ratio now stands at 50%. Taking into account the growth of the world population from one to seven billion in the same period, this means that the number of city dwellers increased a hundred-fold in just over two centuries. It is therefore necessary to study the relationship between population density on the one hand and the size and vulnerability of the logistic tail on the other.

As the density of the population increases, the source of power changes. Control over territory is important in sparsely populated areas. Territorial control makes it possible to generate state revenues from activities such as agriculture and mining. In more densely populated areas, the availability of skilled labor allows governments to derive power from industrial and commercial development and expansion, on the condition that politics can find the right socio-economic balance between capital, labor, taxes, education and other crucial elements to sustain this expansion. The situation is fundamentally different in megacities. It is my opinion that in large areas with a very high population density, the only source of power is popular support. It is important to emphasize that urban popular support has nothing to do with democracy (or with any other political system for that matter). In an urbanized environment, popular support depends on administrative effectiveness. As will be explained hereafter, urbanization severs the link between military superiority and administrative authority.

The effectiveness of military capabilities as well as the feasibility of their logistic support also depends on population density. In the uninhabited naval and aerial environments, technological and operational superiority yields a decisive advantage. In land environments, the same holds true in sparsely populated areas, as illustrated by the outcome of conflicts such as the Six Days and Yom Kippur Wars as well as Operations Desert Storm and Allied Force. The Vietnam War illustrated that cover and concealment can be used to mitigate this advantage, but advances in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance annulled this mitigation in any but the most densely populated areas.

The battles for Grozny during successive Chechen wars showed that large cities not only continue to offer cover and concealment, but offer additional operational advantages as well. They level the playing field by limiting the range and field of fire for technologically advanced weapon systems. They allow belligerents who lack armored vehicles to derive protection and mobility from bunkers and tunnels as well as firepower from IEDs on main avenues of approach.[iii] Yet, as recent armed conflicts in urbanised environments have shown, more sophisticated belligerents derive strategic rather than operational advantages from urbanization. Urbanization provides the opportunity to fundamentally change the belligerents themselves as well as the way they wage war.

To explain the disruptive effect of urbanization, it is useful to explain the difference between the Latin words oppidum and urbs. Both translate as “city” in English, although they featured notable differences in character in the Roman Empire. An oppidum was a fortified settlement. In essence, it was a protected socio-economic system that traded a food surplus from the surrounding countryside in exchange for skills, services and opportunities. The population rarely exceeded ten thousand citizens. Moreover, because of its rudimentary infrastructure, an oppidum frequently suffered from epidemic outbreaks that kept the population below a certain level. As the numbers of citizens increased, the demand for potable water quickly exceeded the supply provided by local wells. Moreover, as the capacity of these wells dwindled, the risk of contamination by sewage and refuse increased.

An urbs is much larger, but size is not the main difference between an oppidum and an urbs. In other words, an urbs does not come into being by enlarging an oppidum.[iv] An urbs is a large area with a high population density where life depends on administration. In fact, urbanization does not merely mean that cities expand but rather that the urban character of the environment becomes the defining parameter of life itself. An urbs is only viable when it can rely on an infrastructure and an administration that assures public health at extremely high population density while simultaneously managing the population’s contention level. Each element of the mega-urban infrastructure and administration can be characterized by the Latin word for the corresponding feature that allowed Rome to be the only urbs in the world for several centuries.

OSTIA: a permanent and direct access to the global economy because a megacity is too large to draw its subsistence from the surrounding countryside.

AQUADUCT: utilities like running water, electricity and gas because water and energy cannot be produced locally without risking smog-like air pollution or water contamination.

CLOACA: sewage and trash collection

PANEM: social security

CIRCENSES: mass entertainment

FORUM: a public space for socio-political expression to manifest contention. At present, the concept is more often referred to as “maidan” which happens to have the same meaning in Arabic and in many Slavic languages, namely “city square”.

VIGILES: first responders.

PRAETORII: a military capability that can guarantee the governmental monopoly on violence at low to medium contention levels.

The Roman socio-political model hinged on the ability to keep the urban contention level low by optimizing these nine elements of the mega-urban infrastructure and administration. The Roman emperor did not derive power from military superiority, but from the effectiveness of the administrative apparatus that kept the million Romans living around his palace healthy and satisfied. In an urbanized environment, the municipal level of government is not the lowest level of government. It is the fundamental level of government. The importance of municipal policies resides in the fact that they foster, or squander, popular support which is the only source of power in megacities.

That these two thousand years old rules of the urban power game are still valid, becomes obvious when one observes events on the current equivalent of the forum: the maidan. As shown during the Arab Spring in northern Africa and during the successive color revolutions in eastern Europe, a determined crowd can annihilate the staying power of a vested and militarily superior regime by taking control of the most important piece of real estate in the mega-urban environment – the maidan – even though this surface represents less than 0.01% of the national territory. Conversely, recent events in Turkey proved that a regime threatened by a military coup can assert its staying power by transforming popular support in mass mobilization on the maidan.

An urbanized environment is extremely hostile to any belligerent who enters it without securing popular support first. Unpopular belligerents generate contention levels that are impossible to contain. Force requirements for population control measures range from two lightly armed police officers per thousand of population at low contention levels to twenty heavily armed and adequately supported soldiers per thousand of population at high contention levels.[v] The implications of this force ratio arithmetic are staggering. To maintain its presence and assert its power in Baghdad against the countervailing efforts of the three million Shi’a citizens living there, the USA would have needed a force of sixty thousand infantry soldiers. Such numbers were never available. Therefore, the US forces only displayed staying power in the Green Zone and the international airport. The rest of Baghdad – and what would become known as Sadr City – was under control of Moqtada al Sadr. Because Moqtada enjoyed popular support, he only needed a small and rudimentary militia to police the area under his control.

Recent operations in Iraq demonstrate that a belligerent who succeeds in creating a situation in which urban areas are only temporarily accessible to combat units and logistical forces can take time out of the conflict equation. He is able to exploit his opponent’s lack of staying power – their long-term strategic and operational sustainability – in a waiting game that he can afford to play while his opponent cannot.

The question then becomes how this gridlock can be broken. What makes it possible to defeat a cunctator? What are the nowadays equivalents of encirclements, pincer movements, and interdiction operations in the 21st century urban battlespace? More specifically to this audience, what are the logistics concepts that enable success in such environments? Recent events and Roman historical conceptual approaches to the problem of contention level management at high population density point to the assumption that the solutions revolve around a balancing act between fostering prosperity and guaranteeing security in the major cities of a conflict area. In this balance, armed force is not an instrument of decisive battle, but merely a creditor of last resort in an economy of power based on administrative effectiveness under fire. In later contributions to this blog I will explore the different types of balancing acts – and their associated logistical concepts – in more detail.

Colonel Erik A. Claessen is a Belgian Army logistics officer who publishes regularly on contemporary armed conflicts. Claessen is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, where he earned a master of military arts and sciences degree. He writes here in a personal capacity and can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/erik-claessen-87341530/

Image by Israeli Defence Force, Operation Protective Edge, July 2014

[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret

(Princeton, NJ, 1976), Book 1, p. 97

[ii] Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2nd edition, p. 102

[iii]See for example : Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001).

[iv] For a more detailed study on this subject, see Vladimír Salač “Oppida and Urbanisation Processes in Central Europe” in Paths to complexity, Centralisation and Urbanisation in Iron Age Europe ed. Manuel Fernández-Götz, Holger Wendling, Katja Winger (Exeter UK, Short Run Press Ltd, Oxbow Books, 2014).

[v] Quinlivan, James T. “Force Requirements in Stability Operations.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1996. https://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP479.html.

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