U.S. Army: We Have No Idea How to Wage War in Megacities

A U.S. National Guard Black Hawk helicopter flies over New York after Hurricane Sandy on Nov. 4, 2012. National Guard photo.

A U.S. National Guard Black Hawk helicopter flies over New York after Hurricane Sandy on Nov. 4, 2012. National Guard photo.

by Robert Beckhusen. Robert Beckhusen is a freelance writer who contributes regularly at War is Boring. He’s also written for publications including C4ISR JournalWiredThe Daily Beast and World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter.

If you want to picture the characteristically 21st century living environment, imagine cities like Lagos and Shanghai; or Sao Paulo, New York and Cairo. Now double the population, and you have a pretty close approximation of what the world’s largest urban areas will be like by mid-century.

Now ask: How does the Army control a city of that size? How does an infantry force of thousands cut off and surround and city of 10 million? What about 20 or 30 million? The answer is that the United States can’t, at least not yet.

That’s the conclusion of a study released in June from the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Group. Researchers from the group’s Megacities Concept Team spent a year visiting the world’s megacities — defined as having a population greater than 10 million people — to study how the Army might conceivably fight a war inside them.

“The Army, and the [Department of Defense] community more broadly, neither understands or prepares for these environments,” the report states. The result is that the Army’s fundamental assumptions about urban warfare will collapse when it’s tasked with intervening in the growing megacities of the future.

Emphasis on when. The Army does not have experience fighting in megacities, but sees conflict in these cities as an inevitability due to their strategic importance. Even the Army’s experience in Baghdad — population 6.5 million — is of a smaller scale compared to the really massive and growing megacities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. As a comparison, the Army notes there will be an estimated “37 cities across the world that are 200-400 percent larger than Baghdad” by the year 2030.

Brazilian riot police take aim in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 2014 (Photo: Gabriel Cabral).

Brazilian riot police take aim in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 2014 (Photo: Gabriel Cabral).

To simplify why the U.S. is having trouble, it’s because the way the Army normally plans for urban war is similar to how it plans for war everywhere else. This is generally by having the approaching — or attacking — element attempt to shape its environment in order to gain tactical, operational and strategic surprise and advantage over its foe. This forces the enemy to react to your moves, rather than the other way around.

A classic example is for the advancing force to maneuver around a city in order to threaten the defending force’s lines of supply — which are simultaneously targeted with stand-off weapons such as artillery and air strikes. The attacking force also targets the defenders and the civilian population with propaganda and psychological warfare. The U.S. military’s 2003 “shock and awe” campaign towards Baghdad is an example of this strategy, the main exception here being the tank-driven “thunder runs” into the heart of the city as the Iraqi army collapsed.

Megacities totally disrupt this strategy for a load of reasons. “The scale of megacities, in essence, defies the military’s ability to apply historical methods,” the report states. To use one example, Lagos, Nigeria contains more than 20 million people packed into 910 square kilometers of rickety urban sprawl. This environment is so huge, it cannot be feasibly surrounded with any force the U.S. could reasonably expect to deploy. Were the U.S. to intervene in a conflict, it couldn’t realistically control the flow of people, goods or communications — everyone has cell phones. There’s no element of surprise. The military could barely even maneuver inside the city, for the simple fact that there’s too much traffic and many of the streets cannot support heavy logistics vehicles.

“The congestion of ground avenues of approach, combined with the massive size of the megacity environments, makes even getting to an objective from the periphery questionable, let alone achieving an operational effect,” the report states.

Lagos, Nigeria (Photo: Stefan Magdalinski).

Lagos, Nigeria (Photo: Stefan Magdalinski).

Another problem for military planners is that each megacity is very different from one another, which undercuts a lot of the military’s assumptions when creating doctrine. To use a comparison, let’s say you’re in charge of leading troops up an enemy-controlled hill. The hill could be in Vietnam, Panama or Afghanistan. In any case, the attack will generally follow a set of similar rules. One hill — while having its own unique characteristics — will be a lot more like another hill than one megacity is to another.

Just compare the differences between Lagos and — to use another example — Sao Paulo. Or the difference between either of those cities and Bangkok and New York. Transportation infrastructure, social inequalities, social conflicts, the capabilities of city administrators, the presence of ad-hoc militias — all of these factors vary so much that you require an entirely unique doctrine for operating in each city.

Another problem is that megacities can make conflict more likely. This is less likely in a relatively smoothly-operated place like New York, but the same social pressures that exist there — gentrification, rising inequality and over-crowdedness — are on overdrive in a seething metropolis like Sao Paulo, with its millionaire elites riding to work in helicopters above AK-47-toting drug traffickers who control the streets.

The Army’s Strategic Studies Group doesn’t make many specific recommendations about what to do — except for the Pentagon to start thinking seriously about it. It simply poses questions, such as showing a photo of the crowded skyline of Dhaka, Bangladesh with the words, “How many soldiers does this require?” It also asks how Special Operations Forces and how the military’s own institutions can start figuring out the nuts and bolts of controlling the unimaginably huge cities of the future.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Robert Beckhusen, Security Policy.

10 Responses to U.S. Army: We Have No Idea How to Wage War in Megacities

  1. Aubrey says:

    One word: Stalingrad

    Each army lost more men than the entire current US army possesses.

    How does the Army control a city of that size?
    Then answer is either obliterate it with artillery and airpower, or look on in dismay as the city goes about it’s usual business.

  2. davidbfpo says:

    Maybe the research is forward thinking about a ‘worst case’ situation. After all the US Army has found itself fighting in cities before, since 1945 in Hue & Saigon in Vietnam, Mogadishu (Black Hawk down incident), Panama City and Baghdad come to mind.

    Each example was very different. It is easy to speculate that the US military will have to plan and prepare for fighting – as distinct from war – in megacities. To rescue a SOF operation that goes wrong, after all negoitation is unlikely; to defend or evacuate diplomats and nationals trapped. Just imagine trying an evacuation of diplomats and US nationals after a botched SOF operation in Karachi or Lagos or Manila.

  3. ZzeeGerman says:

    My first reaction was; simple, you destroy the city, or to use Aubrey’s term obliterate it. I was going to mention the urban fighting of World War II as well, Stalingrad being the prime example. Everyone knows that urban warfare is extremely difficult and costly in man power. That’s why I’m somewhat surprised by this report. There are conflicting opinions of whether one actually needs to bother taking major cities, or whether it is enough to surround them and cut them off from supplies. Personally I’m a proponent of the later. Perhaps one can even ignore them completely.

    Regardless, obviously trying to surround, take or fight in a city of 10, 20 or 30 million is a different challenge to a city of 2-10 million. The answer to the question “How does an infantry force of thousands cut off and surround a city of” that size is simple, it doesn’t. It surprises me that it required a report to come to that conclusion. Isn’t it obvious? As Aubrey above points out the losses on both sides during Stalingrad were larger than the current man power of the US Army. Of course one has to point out that that was during a major war and that in such a case a states army would obviously be significantly enlarged due to mobilisation. Also both sides tried to take the city, or rather fought each other in it, quit different from simply trying to surround it and control access. And the point here seems to be to control the population/access as oppossed to facing another army. But the point is that as historical experience would suggest, it requires a huge army.

    One can naturally assume that surrounding/controlling a city twice the size (population and/or area) would roughly require twice the forces. I’m also somewhat surprised by the claim that historical experience, or even recent experience like Baghdad are irrelevant. I would disagree. Personally I think they are over complicating the matter, or rather the differences. The same issues would apply only on a larger scale. As Baghdad would suggest it is essentially impossible to control/pacify a hostile city. And as the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadischu, Somalia suggests even small extraction operations will be difficult, especially in third world cities with large chaotic shanty towns.

    Another term that popped into my head was “urban jungle”, a city of that size is essentially comparable to a jungle. Especially a third world one. Fighting in one is comparable to jungle warfare. You do not surround or control a jungle, you fight your way through it or in it. Using defoliants as the US did in Vietnam was the equivellant of obliterating the city. And as everyone knows from World War II that doesn’t actually solve the problem because ruble is as good a cover as a standing building. There’s a reason why during the cold war people developed chemical/biological weapons or came up with the idea of using radiation to kill the population while retaining the infrastructure. It’s not a new problem as the report would suggest. I don’t want to over stress the jungle analogy, but there comes a point when a city is so large that it essentially becomes a geographic feature or terrain type equivallent to a forest or mountain range. So essentially the same rules apply as for controlling a geographical space. And everyone knows how hard it is to control a stretch of land/boarder. The efforts in counter-insurgency campaigns to control infiltration come to mind.

    Anyways, I would look to policing for insights or solutions. It has not been the duty of modern armed forces to control populations. This is the job of the Police, and as such one must look there. Especially anti-gang warfare operations will be of interest, as would be the experience of gangs themselves who fight for control of the streets on a daily basis. Ironically the US only has to look across the boarder to Mexico for an example of a state struggling to control law and order in it’s cities. Using the example of riots, I would argue that it is essentially impossible to control a city against the will of the inhabitants. At least not without draconian methods to break the will of the people. The failure, or long term strategy needed to combat gang warfare/crime suggest that even if the population is passive or largely friendly it will be difficult. One faces all the problems inherent to counter-insurgency operations only compressed into a megacity. This means that a siege is the only viable option, and as sealing off such a large city will be difficult one can assume that it will take months, maybe even years if at all before success. Leningrad held out for years. Gaza just came to mind, and that was essentially abandoned and sealed off by the Israelis. In fact I’m reminded of all those dystopian Sci-Fi films.

    The issue of how to control/police megacities is indeed one that needs to be considered. The preemptive solution would be to retard their growth, i.e. avoid them being formed in the first place. Wishful thinking. The solution is essentially good governance, which includes active social programs to prevent the formation of poor/crime ridden ghettos where even the police don’t venture. People only turn to crime if there are no alternatives. Urban planning, especially in terms of infrastructure will be even more important. But that is not a military issue.

    davidbfpo, I think you misunderstood, they’re not talking about rescuing a botched SOF operation or a handful of diplomats/nationals. You wouldn’t try to surround a city in such a case, you’d attempt extraction, preferably by air.

    • Robert Beckhusen says:

      Hey, just want to say this is a fascinating comment. Thanks!

    • Great comment – thanks a lot!
      I like your comment!

    • RGD says:

      Thanks for your comments. One of the assumptions in the report was that the National Command Authority would not allow the military to “obliterate” the city. Part of achieving national strategic objectives is avoiding creating humanitarian disasters when you are the country that has to clean them up.

      A lot of historical cases the study considered then become irrelevant. Many other historical cases (particularly WWII) involved evacuating the city. This is not feasible in a megacity as there is nowhere to put 20M people.

      The report doesn’t suggest ways of controlling the city: it suggests that the military needs to re-think its idea of control. It also suggests that cities need to be considered holistically, not just a reducible collection of neighborhoods. This is a change in thinking, not technique.

      I won’t address your jungle analogy except to say that people are not trees and you can’t defoliate a city. Trees are also not armed with cellphone cameras or explosives.

      You make a great point about policing. The report suggests the same thing. A problem the military faces is that many of them are prohibited from working with indigenous police forces. The government might need to change its thinking on this (as the report suggests).

      Your point about looking at Mexico is also a good one: there are competing control structures in every city and the military would do well to understand them. Current doctrine doesn’t discuss this much, but future doctrine should.

      One of your final statements, that urban planning is not a military issue, may be exactly what this report is after: maybe urban planning is exactly what the military needs to understand if it hopes to operate in the future urban environment.

      Thoughtful post, Zz.


  4. The End Game says:

    Why does the Army think they need to control everything? The question should be, how do you defend a city? And how do you control your own Army? Answer: Disband it, and greatly reduce its budgets and financing to the point of rubble. 95% of the world’s populations just want peace and prosperity. Its the other 5% that enjoys creating chaos and dispare onto the other 95%. Take the incentive of profit out of war and you create the great utopia as it was meant to be.

    • ZzeeGerman says:

      I’m not even sure if there is a point in writing a reply to your comment. However, I agree with your first point. Militaries have the tendency to try and control everything, perhaps a natural urge for a generally conservative institution as well as human nature. Risk reduction and all. Despite war’s natural tendency towards chaos. A Zen Master would tell the Army to embrace the chaos, to use it to their advantage. Or to use the path of least resistance, like water. Refer to Sun-Tzu.

      The problem of defending a Megacity throws up similar questions and problems as trying to take/control it does. Controlling your own Army is a very well discussed topic.

      There is a reason why Armies exist, and no it is not so that the 5% can terrorise the 95%. There is generally no longer any profit in war for modern states. You can’t annex territory and population like you could in the medieval ages or generally before 1850/1900. So you can’t aqcuire tax paying populations or resource rich territory. War is bad for business. Violence might be good for criminal gangs, but not for a state. While I agree that 95% want peace and quit and that it’s the other 5% who make trouble, those 5% are the reason why you need an army or police. The profit motive is a major human motivation factor, hence it will remain part of human society for the forseable future.

      Utopia by the way actually means no-place, because the ancient Greeks already understood that the search for a “great utopia” is a futile one. The correct spelling would actually be eutopia, from euphoria, happy-place. Got to love their sense of humour.

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  6. Paul McLeary, “US Army Sees ‘Megacities’ As the Future Battlefield“, DefenseNews, 30.08.2014.

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