The world is becoming more urbanized. Continuing a process that began 200 years ago at the start of the Industrial Revolution, people are flocking to the city. This has led to the creation of so-called megacities, conurbations with at least 10 million people. Currently there are between 24 and 30 such cities including those in the developing world such as Lagos, Karachi, Cairo, Teheran, Manila, Mexico City and Dhaka; but also Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, London, Los Angeles, New Delhi and Rio de Janeiro. In fact, of the total number of megacities more than half are either in the West or in China and India. The number of such cities that are in classic war zones or areas of instability is actually quite small.
Yet, there are published reports now that the Army is seriously examining the idea of fighting in such megacities. The Marine Corps has been toying with this idea for some time but lacks the wherewithal to pull off such an operation. Analyses and war games conducted by the Army as part of its “Campaign of Learning” are exploring the technological, tactical and human demands of operations not just around but inside megacities. As described in a recent Army report, megacities pose an enormous challenge to the military:
Military operations in a megacity are complex, dangerous, and intense. Urban terrain is the great equalizer when facing determined combatants. The megacity magnifies the power of the defender and diminishes the attacker’s advantages in firepower and mobility. Thus, the United States and partner nations will face the possibility of larger entrapments.
Thinking about the prospects of warfare in a megacity led me to ask a simple question: Is there a single example of a major urban operation in the last 100 years, even before there were megacities, which was not long, destructive and bloody, not only to the combatants but also to the civilian inhabitants and infrastructure? Here is my list: Hue, Manila, Algiers, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Berlin, Nanjing, Cherbourg, Sevastopol, Brest, Antwerp, Aleppo, Warsaw, Berlin, Sarajevo, Okinawa/Nara, Homs, Beirut, Seoul (twice) and Grozny (also twice). In 1982, Israel went after the PLO by invading southern Lebanon. They swept all the way north to Beirut but studiously avoided entering the city. Despite suffering from thousands of rocket attacks by Hamas in Gaza, the Israelis have refused to be drawn into an urban battle there and for good reason.
The American experience in urban warfare over the past couple of decades has been relatively pristine. The fall of Baghdad in 2003 is practically the exception that makes the rule. Fallujah was not a major city. Moreover, most of the population and, in truth, many of the insurgents had been able to leave before the operation began. In both instances, the U.S. had absolute air dominance.
Why is the Army planning to fight in megacities? Apparently, the answer is because they are there. To be more exact, the Army is pursuing the idea of strategic landpower which centers on understanding, influencing and even controlling the human factors in conflict, most notably the will of the adversary. If the human factor is the strategic objective, so the argument goes, then you need to go where the people are. Since people the world over are concentrating themselves in cities, that is where the Army must go.
Urban warfare, particularly if it involves megacities, is also attractive to the Army because it alone is capable of such a massive undertaking, or so it believes. Moreover, a shift to urban operations will require an entire makeover of the service’s organization, equipment and training. Urban operations will require significant investments in robots, unmanned systems, specialized communications for urban canyons, new types of sensors, improvised explosive device defeat systems, armored vehicles, non-lethal capabilities and close combat weapons.
Proponents of the urban warfare concept like to reference the old Willie Sutton explanation of his habit of robbing banks: “because that’s where the money is.” Except that military operations in megacities would be like trying to rob Fort Knox. Sure there is lots of money in the vaults; but it is a loser’s game. The real question the Army ought to be asking is this: if cities are strategically important, how can we influence and control them without having to go downtown?
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