Some of the most limiting constraints on future U.S. military actions in urban environments are not going to be technological or operational; they are going to be legal and political. Recent U.S. and coalition operations in the Balkans and elsewhere have been marked by heated controversy over target selection and have demonstrated the difficulty of balancing the often competing concerns of avoiding collateral damage, minimizing risk of U.S. casualties, and maximizing military effectiveness.
Urban environments pose enormous difficulties for those planning and conducting military operations within the boundaries of international law and self-imposed political constraints. The speed and agility of air power, combined with its ability to deliver firepower precisely and with relatively low risk to U.S. personnel across the spectrum of conflict, often make it the military instrument of choice for policymakers. However, the heightened risk of collateral damage when operating in urban environments partially offsets U.S. technological superiority. The features of urban environments also provide adversaries with expanded opportunities to exploit U.S. adherence to certain norms by using human shields and propagandizing civilian injuries. As a result, the urban combat options available to planners and decisionmakers are generally far narrower than the domain of the feasible.
Continued technological advances in critical areas such as precision guidance and target identification may help alleviate some of the conflicting legal, political, and operational pressures facing planners.