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‘Holding the Door Open’ - Securing a Point of Entry to Facilitate Littoral Manoeuvre in the Near Region - Part One

‘The Primary area of Military Interest’ – Understanding the Urban Littoral Environment in the Near Region

Australian Defence Force and Indonesian National Armed Forces conduct an amphibious demonstration at Dabo, Singkep, a remote island in Indonesia, during Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2022.


The 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) states that ‘Australia’s army must be transformed and optimised for littoral manoeuvre’ as part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) transition from a balanced force to one focused on applying a strategy of denial. The ADF’s primary area of planning interest is to be the ‘immediate region encompassing the north-eastern Indian ocean through maritime Southeast Asia into the Pacific the near region’ and it is to ‘develop the capacity to deny adversary’s attempt to project power against Australia through the northern approaches’.[1] Therefore, the ‘primary area of military interest’ is a littoral region. In parallel, the archipelagic regions of Southeast Asia and islands of the western Pacific are becoming increasingly urbanised. As this urbanisation is overwhelmingly on or near the coastlines, the area in which the Australian Army will operate is an ‘urban littoral’ environment.

Defining the Littoral

‘Littoral’ is both a geographic/oceanographic term and a military one. Deriving from the Latin word for ‘shore’, littoral relates to coasts and coastal regions. For the purposes of this discussion, the definition of littoral that appears in the Royal Australian Navy’s Australian Maritime Doctrine is particularly relevant:

The areas seaward of the coast which are susceptible to influence or support from the land and the areas inland from the coast which are susceptible to influence or support from the sea.[2]

In seaward terms, the littoral is the ‘brown water’– a confined and congested space occupied by friends, adversaries and neutrals. It contrasts with the ‘blue water’ of the open seas, the traditional and preferred milieu of navies. In landward terms, the littoral has at times encompassed riverine military operations that have extended their reach well inland. This style of operations is set to escalate as technology rapidly increases the range and reach of weapons and insertion platforms both out and in from the coastline. In this context, the notion and size of the littoral area is beginning to evolve, even as we grapple with the growing challenges of controlling and contesting the littoral space.  These challenges include the increasingly crowded nature of the littoral space, with all manner of land, sea, sub-surface and air vehicles vying to conduct business, military, leisure and personal activities.

The open seas seem to offer unfettered access to the world’s littorals – indeed in a maritime strategy such as that held by Australia, the sea is seen as a ‘manoeuvre space.’ Nevertheless, in certain regions, most notably the Indo-Pacific, the sea serves as both the pathway and the barrier between the coastlines. The vagaries of geography dictate that certain littorals have geo-strategic importance. In our region, those littorals that are based on straits and archipelagos form chokepoints on some of the world’s most important maritime trade routes and similarly constrict maritime manoeuvre. Between landmasses, features such as shoals, reefs, sand bars, coastal inlets and promontories constrain the scope for maritime transit and shore access. Indeed, within Australia’s region, many of the long, narrow islands lack geographic depth, which means that there is no part of the island that cannot be affected by the sea.

Forces projecting power from the sea must traverse these dangerous spaces; spaces made more dangerous if adversaries hold the surrounding islands or landmasses.  This is because the advent of long-range precision missiles has the effect of negating the gaps within archipelagos where surface ships cannot be affected from the land. In fact, an inversely proportional relationship will occur: the smaller the geographic space between littorals, the greater the strategic importance such space holds. Countries on either side of these commercial and military chokepoints hold a profound geographic and strategic advantage. During hostilities, these strategic spaces must be defended against use or interdiction by enemy forces.

Although the DSR directs the ADF to focus power projection into near region littorals, the primary task remains the defence of Australia. With a coastal road and rail network of limited capacity and redundancy, and one that is increasingly vulnerable from the sea, the ADF must consider ‘littoral defence.’ As such, Army must retain the option to use littoral manoeuvre to redeploy forces along the Australian coastline.  At any rate, in our region, control of the littorals will be strategically decisive.

The Urban Nature of the Littoral

In macro geographic terms, littorals are urban areas because that's where the people live. An estimated 75 per cent of the world’s current population and 80 per cent of capital cities are located along coastlines. Everywhere, cities, towns and settlements have developed adjacent to the coast or navigable rivers. In the Indo-Pacific region, for example, better agricultural land has often been situated along low-lying coastal plains, populations have relied on seafood as a dietary staple, and there is an ancient history of inter-island maritime trade and export of spices.  These factors have anchored people, and therefore urban areas, to harbours, coasts and coastal inlets. Seaborne trade expanded greatly during the colonial period driven by valuable rubber and copra exports and port cities became the hubs of the post-Second World War economic explosion that occurred across Southeast Asia. Low manufacturing costs and convenient access to cheap sea transport saw regional industry thrive, with populations shifting from rural areas to towards employment in the coastal cities. These centres became wealthier and denser, their structures growing not only upwards but also spreading rapidly along the coastlines and prompting the creation of vast urban conurbations. With 90 per cent of global trade moving by sea and much of it through Southeast Asia, the effect has been to create urban ‘gateways, corridors and peripheries’. Prime examples are the trading gateway megacities of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are connected by air, sea and information technology corridors that spawn further urban nodes, while the coastal peripheries are steadily built over.[3]

In Australia’s near region there are only a few megacities such as Jakarta and Singapore, but many adjoining conurbations with populations over 100,000 people and huge numbers of towns with tens of thousands of inhabitants. As David Kilcullen argued a decade ago, ‘conflict in Australia’s region will increasingly occur in littoral, urbanised, connected environments, simply because there will be few strategically significant areas left that are not littoral, urbanised and connected.’[4] In Australia’s region, few shorelines have no habitations and where there is a road to the shore, there are usually structures. Even in areas where construction is discontinuous, there is often a highly connected population linked by fibre-optic and mobile telephone networks. The significance of this situation is that it diminishes the number of areas where a military force may come ashore undetected, and even fewer where there are exits from a beach that are unobserved. A force manoeuvring in the littoral can an rarely expect to avoid observation.

Broader Challenges of Urbanisation

Traditionally, urban areas have been regarded as military objectives because of their status as centres of political power, resource hubs and communications nodes. Throughout history, cities have predominantly been the domain of guerrillas and irregular forces. For example, during the Cold War guerrillas hid by ‘swimming amongst the people,’ and fighters contesting post-9/11 Western invasions routinely fought from amongst the people to exploit the restrictive rules of engagement imposed on conventional militaries. In the contemporary strategic environment, however, the nature of urban conflict is likely to change to engage conventional forces more directly. This change is driven by three emerging factors.

A side view in black and white line drawing of a city skyline with a comment pointing from above left to the city "Adversaries seek Physical and Political Cover", a blast symbolised comment balloon "Increasing Community Conflicts", and a text box below the image with arrows stretching left and right to the outside of the graphic with the word "Urbanisation".
Figure 1 - The three emerging drivers of Urban Conflict
  • Firstly, and inescapably, there is less available terrain that is not urban.
  • Secondly, it is inevitable that conventional armies will seek to move into urban areas because this is the only terrain with the prospect of reasonable concealment from sophisticated overhead sensors, or physical protection from tactical attack drones and loitering munitions.
  • Thirdly, there will be more conflict within the populations of the urban areas themselves. This claim warrants further examination.

It is generally expected that the rate of urbanisation in the developed world will slow down while simultaneously there will be a remarkable population increase in the developing world.  Indeed, some 95 per cent of future urbanisation is predicted to occur in the developing ‘global South’ which includes parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Cities attract people and capital; people within the cities create and use products and services made in that city. As a result, cities and towns are inevitably full of people with many cultural, political, religious and linguistic layers and connections. Unlike in the developed world, however, so-called ‘turbo-urbanisation’ within the ‘global South’ is seeing cities swell in size with no concomitant growth in infrastructure, services or opportunity. In these circumstances, opportunities, resources and services are more likely to be absent or denied, creating sources of potential conflict. This situation adds a layer of complexity to military operations conducted by the ADF within our region.


Without improvements in infrastructure and services, the notion of ‘fragile cities’ as popularised by Robert Muggah, will become more prevalent.[5] Muggah argues that it is not the city’s size per se that contributes to fragility but rather the rapidity and nature of its urbanisation. Moreover, a city need not be located in a conflict-affected region to be fragile. Instead it is the nexus of urban poverty, urban violence and urban disaster that makes a city fragile. As such, there is a correlation between the concentration of young people – specifically unemployed – undereducated males, and levels of urban violence. These young, unemployed males become ripe for recruitment into gangs and/or insurgent groups. Crime and instability prevail with some areas ‘ungovernable’ or under some type of hybrid and/or criminalised governance structure, as we might see in Haiti. The so-called digital divide, where cost and access to the internet and technology and the levels of IT literacy and online services available, and determines one’s ability to participate in the new connected global economy, exacerbates these problems. This is an effect that varies considerably between different parts of our region but is, for example, particularly noticeable in Papua New Guinea. Should climate change manifest itself in rising sea levels, the coastal fishing villages and townships of the various Pacific Islands nations could be unduly vulnerable to disaster, posing another looming security concern within the region. The Army and the ADF may be required to deploy to these climate-affected urban littorals as part of its wider commitment to regional security.


Conflict is a human endeavour. As people increasingly live in cities, so too conflict will increasingly occur in cities. The trend towards urban military operations is magnified by predictions of rapid urbanisation in the next half century and the associated fragility of the population centres created. While the DSR directs the Army to focus on operations in the strategically important littoral, the urban littoral environment poses unique operational challenges that are yet to be fully understood. Just how Army might meet these challenges is the subject of the next article in this series.


Note: The information contained herein is largely taken from the AARC Occasional Paper, ‘The Worst of Both Worlds. An analysis of urban littoral combat’ which is available on the AARC website. Where information is sourced elsewhere, it is footnoted accordingly.

Complete Series:

Part One: ‘The Primary area of Military Interest’ – Understanding the Urban Littoral Environment in the Near Region

Part TwoArmy’s Role in the Strategy of Denial: Point of Entry Security in the Urban Littoral Environment

Part ThreeThe Question of Urban Perimeter Observation Post Numbers

Part FourThe Question of Urban Position Minimum Strength

Part FiveEnhancing Capability to Secure Urban Points of Entry


[1] Australian Government, National Defence. Defence Strategic Review, Commonwealth of Australia, 2023.

[2] RAN Doctrine 1, Australian Maritime Doctrine, Canberra: Sea Power Centre, 2010.

[3]  Rimmer, P. J., & Dick, H., Gateways, corridors and peripheries. In Routledge handbook of urbanization in Southeast Asia, Routledge, 2018, pp 9-30.

[4] Kilcullen, D. The Australian Army in the urban networked littoral, Australian Army, 2012. Military practitioners should also read Future Land Warfare Report 2014, Directorate of Future Land Warfare, Canberra 2014. Although dated, this volume provides an excellent introduction to the military ‘so what?’ of the future operating environment.

[5] Robert Muggah, ‘Fixing Fragile Cities. Solutions for Urban Violence and Poverty’, Foreign Affairs, 15 January 2015, and Robert Muggah, ‘How fragile are our cities?’ World Economic Forum, 9 February 2016,

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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