Fighting in Megacities - The Army’s Next Challenge
When General Charles Krulak directed the Marine Corps to study the problems of urban warfare in the late 90s of the last century, he had considerable support in the Corps because many Marines were veterans of urban combat in Somalia. In addition, many Marines were aware of a brief done by a highly respected retired Marin General Officer, Mike Myatt. CHAOS IN THE LITTORALS showed how rural populations in the Third World are gravitating to cities, most of which lay on the seacoasts or close to them. When they get to the cities, many of these former farmers find their expectations dashed by the conditions they find in the urban areas; this will increasingly lead to conflict as it already has. The events of 9/11 and the wars it spawned overshadowed the Marine Corps’ urban studies and experiments as the Army and Marine Corps turned to fighting the wars they were given. Recently, the current Army Chief of Staff (General Mark Milley) has pushed the Army to study the future of combat in the world’s fast growing megacities.
Unlike General Krulak, General Milley is getting some pushback from within his own organization. Some senior Army officers have concluded that megacities are “too hard to do” and they should be bypassed. The problem here is obvious. If the enemy knows that we don’t want to fight someplace, which is where he will go. Consequently, I am squarely in General Milley’s corner on this subject.
As the Director of the Marine Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities before 9/11, I directed Project Lincolnia which looked at urban warfare in megacities in the 2025-2030 timeframe (earlier Marine Corps experiments had concentrated on the problems of urban combat in the near to mid-term in conventional large urban areas). The scenario for Lincolnia was set in a megacity that was a kluge of Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, and Shanghai. The results of these games largely went into Marine Corps vaults as we turned to the wars at hand in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I have some observations that might help General Milley and his people in their urban studies.
Most megacities consist of a modern and generally well planned urban core ringed by relatively affluent suburbs. As rural denizens flock to the cities, they tend to build shanty towns. As with immigrants to America, these people tend to nest together in familiar ethnic and religious groupings that mirror the places they came from. Most megacities are in essence, cities of villages. That is not necessarily a bad thing for western military planners as it allows them to look at the megacity in bite sized bits.
We know how to fight in the urban core from our experience in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. The Iraqi experience in Mosul is also instructive, although most of it consists of negative examples. If each unit assigned to a certain area of the outlying shanty towns, it can concentrate on gathering intelligence on the location of regular enemy units and the attitude of individual urban villages in their assigned area of operations. This type of specialized cultural knowledge and situational awareness will make it easier to determine the attitude of populations toward American presence. If one such enclave is friendly toward us and does not hold enemy fighters, it can probably be bypassed allowing us to concentrate on hard spots giving us a map of the human terrain where we will be fighting.
The Army would be well advised to hire contract expatiates from these urban villages in the build up to crisis (which the military calls phase Zero) and keep them on retainer. They can be activated and sent home on temporary duty to take the temperature of their respective urban enclaves prior to the conflict if one appears to be brewing. Once fighting starts, they can be activated and act as advisors to the commanders assigned to work in individual urban villages as well as to help with interpretation.
The army should also consider the development of advanced directed energy weapons that can immediately incapacitate everyone in a building, fighters and non-combatants alike, while minimizing the kind of fatalities we recently saw in Mosul where scores on non-combatants were recently killed in an airstrike on a building where civilians were used as human shields. There are objections to such weapons by human rights groups, but they may be more muted post-Mosul due to the horrific civilian death toll in the fighting in that unfortunate city.
Robotics is another area where fighting in the urban canyons and sewers of megacities could be helpful. These include human sized remotely controlled armed unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and micro robotic scouts. Fighting in high rises and sewers is intensely exhausting and dangerous work. Robots are tireless and harder to kill than flesh and blood humans. They are also relatively inexpensive. If each American urban assault platoon had an armed UGV to kick down doors, it would allow one squad in the platoon to clear a floor in a building while two others rest the are fresh to leapfrog to the next floor with the robot in the lead on every floor. We know that our potential adversaries are working on ground combat vehicles and that is another reason for us to invest in them. It would be a very bad thing to have to pit flesh and blood American against enemy armored systems in an urban brawl.
The United States has made use of miniature Unmanned Aerial Systems (commonly called drones) in reconnaissance. But these are less useful in urban environments where much of the action takes place in covered building and tunnels that airborne drones can’t see. Very small and micro semi-autonomous ground systems can infiltrate building to send images of what is going on inside and even listen to conversations.
General Milley is right. We need to take on the megacity combat challenge. If the enemy know we can fight there and win, he is much less likely to fight there at all.
About the Author(s)
With respect, the greater challenge is not tactical but rather the military occupation phase. And what we're currently observing in Mosul (quite small compared to a megacity like Tehran) is that occupation operations take effect while the battle continues to flow forward at relatively slow pace.
Civilian leadership requires realistic planning and candid assessments from the military on this greater challenge.