A few weeks ago, I published the article “It’s Time to Create a Megacities Combat Unit.” This article received both criticism and support. Some of the supportive messages suggested that I take the next step and offer an organizational solution. If trends in both global population movement and the nature of warfare—both of which I discussed in the previous article—do in fact warrant the establishment of a brigade trained and equipped for the full range of military operations in a megacity, the next question to be addressed is clear. What would such a unit look like?

One of the principal counterarguments to my article was that any discussion of the Army’s future role in megacity operations is pointless. Operating in such a complex domain is an impossible mission and, therefore, not one we will undertake. But there are many scenarios, including natural disaster situations, that would—despite the most concerted efforts to avoid them—call for the use of military forces in megacities to protect national interests. Even Gen. Mark Milley has stated that the Army must be prepared to operate in dense urban terrain. Given the range of potential unforeseen events that could pull us into megacities and the service leadership’s views, the Army should organize, train, and equip units for these operations.

Megacities cannot be ruled no-go areas for military forces. The intent of the Army as outlined by U.S.C. Title 10 is to be “capable, in conjunction with the other armed forces, of—(1) preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense, of the United States, the Commonwealths and possessions, and any areas occupied by the United States; (2) supporting the national policies; (3) implementing the national objectives; and (4) overcoming any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace and security of the United States.” These are global requirements. And the globe is increasingly made up of megacities. As I pointed out in my first article, by 2030 there will be 662 cities around the world with at least one million inhabitants (compared to 512 today) and 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. The potential for operations in dense urban areas will rise correspondingly, presenting a challenge the Army cannot ignore.

Another counterargument is that the 5,000-soldier unit I proposed would never be enough—that a megacity operation is an Army corps-level mission or that a city of ten million inhabitants would swallow any size unit. These criticisms argue essentially that megacities are simply too challenging for military forces. I agree that for a range of missions and situations, a single brigade of 5,000 soliders would not be enough. But there is also an array of feasible missions where a single brigade could achieve military objectives. The point is that creating and experimenting with a unit focused on preparing for operations in a megacity would provide insights across the DOTMLPF-P (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities, and Policy) framework that will inform the entire Army’s planning and training. During urban contingencies, the unit would serve as the vanguard of the opening phase of the operation.

I chose a 5,000-soldier unit because that is roughly equivalent to the largest US Army Brigade Combat Team (a Stryker BCT, with 4,500). I also chose it because the BCT is the major combat force element used as the “building block” for Army and joint operations in Defense Planning Scenarios or Strategic Choices and Management Reviews to determine force structure. The Army also uses BCTs in Unified Quest wargames and its Deep Futures exercises to identify capability gaps and solutions to future challenges. The BCT is the unit of measure.

One of the first steps towards imagining a megacity unit is to provide a probable scenario and define the missions the unit would be designed and trained to accomplish. The scenario used by the NATO Urbanization Project seminar wargame is a good start. The wargame envisioned three missions: joint forcible entry; combat operations (offensive and defensive) against conventional, hybrid, and unconventional threats; and security operations after a man-made disaster to stabilize, secure, and facilitate the transition of efforts to a follow-on force. These missions could be used to develop and prioritize the new unit’s mission essential task list.

By using a current brigade force package, each of the unit’s warfighting functions of mission command, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, and protection can be tailored and assessed against the challenges of military operations in dense urban areas, particularly megacities. A Stryker Brigade Combat Team is an appropriate starting point to build out a megacities unit because it was designed to address many of the gaps between light infantry and heavier armor brigades. Many of the Stryker BCT’s design attributes—speed, deployability, robust infantry forces, mobile protected firepower, and advanced technologies—will be needed in a megacities unit. So what subordinate units would such a unit include?

3 Battalions of Mobile Infantry

Each battalion would be airborne to facilitate forcible entry operations when needed. (Drop zones in megacities are necessarily limited, but even the densest cities have airfields, parks, or even landfills.) Until a new infantry fighting vehicle is fielded for the urban environment, two battalions would have Strykers and one would have Bradley Fighting Vehicles. These platforms provide dismounted infantry the integrated high-angle protected firepower necessary to meet the extreme elevation requirements of urban terrain. These mobile firepower platforms should continue to be integrated with evolving guided, scalable (adjustable multi-purpose warheads) missile systems.

The ability to maneuver forces is one of the biggest challenges of the dense urban environment. New combat vehicle platforms will be needed. The Abrams tank, Bradley, and Stryker range in width from eight to twelve feet. Many of the developing cities of the world are built upon ancient infrastructure with narrow roads—like central Baghdad’s Adhamiyah District. Others have vast tracts of unplanned and chaotically organized networks of similarly narrow passageways—like Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. Such constraints require dismounted infantry to separate from their mobile protective fire. When I first heard hover bikes mentioned for military operations, I was extremely skeptical. But with highly trained soldiers, equipped with weaponry, and protection, these vehicles or others with similarly small size and high maneuverability would be measurably more valuable than current vehicles that are simply too big to operate in dense terrain.

The ability to communicate with the population will also become a requirement. The tactical use of social media, internet, and co-opted local networks (like emergency alert systems) will be needed, but equally important will be the skills to develop the right message—language, culture, narrative. Military Information Support Operations units have historically not been a component of maneuver units but should be made organic, instead of a requested enabler.

It is clear that megacities will require major changes to today’s fighting vehicles, weapons, and equipment. Every aspect of the “shoot, move, and communicate” framework is challenged by the urban environment. Current systems will have to be modified, new capabilities and technologies implemented. Depression and elevation capabilities of weapons will have to be increased. The paradigm of adaptable organizational design of fighting formations will be challenged in every aspect, from equipment design to the formations themselves.

1 Armor Battalion

A tank battalion trained for the specifics of urban warfare is crucial. Yes, they’re too big and too unwieldy for large sections of dense cities—but not entire cities. And where they can be brought to bear, they can offer the necessary decisive advantage on the urban battlefield. Historical urban warfare case studies repeatedly show the demand for mobile, protected firepower.

The ability to combine armor and infantry into decentralized fighting teams, with armor supporting infantry, infantry supporting armor, has been shown to be key to success in urban fighting. An army that can execute combined arms maneuver with precision indirect fire and air support overwhelms enemies even in urban terrain.

Israeli troops, supported by a tank, conduct operations in Nablus. (Credit: Israel Defense Forces)

Urban operations demand decentralized, small-unit operations at the tactical level, with junior leaders capable of operating independently. Much of the fighting in Iraq was by company- and platoon-level teams of infantry, armor, aviation, sniper, and intelligence, all combined at the lowest level under the command of captains and lieutenants.

The three infantry battalions and one armor battalion should be trained much like the combined-arms Armor Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) deployed to Iraq. These would be companies of Strykers, Bradley, and tanks platoons with organic intelligence teams and enablers to conduct independent operations within the cities.

1 Fires Battalion

Much has been learned and continues to be learned from the current fight in Mosul, Iraq about the integration of fire support to maximize effectiveness, while minimizing collateral damage, through the use of precision joint fires.

War in a megacity will also require protection systems. The counter–unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS) mission is quickly becoming a vital capability requirement in urban warfare. Current conflict zones like Iraq and Ukraine show a growing use and weaponization of civilian UAS. Both members of the Army and members of Congress have recognized the immediate requirement for a new “highly maneuverable, short-range air defense system” to protect soldiers from enemy drones, helicopters, and attack aircraft.

1 Multifunctional Engineer Battalion

Engineers tailored for urban warfare must have enhanced capabilities for mobility and counter-mobility. In particular, they need to be able to emplace obstacles (e.g., concrete walls) to isolate enemy forces, canalize enemy movement to facilitate targeting, and deny access to critical or high-risk areas. Urban terrain also allows for complex obstacles to be emplaced. Doing so—and reducing obstacles—places engineers at the forefront of urban operations.

Army engineers emplace concrete T-walls along Main Supply Route Tampa in Iraq. (Credit: Spc. Kiyoshi Freeman, US Army)

The use of “mouse holing,” creating holes in walls to allow soldiers to move between adjacent buildings rather than exposing themselves on the street, has been seen in many urban battles. This is just one example of a mobility tactic unique to urban terrain, which an environment-specific engineer unit could further develop.

The battalion would also need licensed professional civil engineers. This qualification is an added individual development goal in existing engineer units, but not a unit capability. Knowledge of civil works will be critical to military operations in dense urban terrain. We learned the hard way in Iraq how infrastructure destruction hampers military efforts in population-centric conflicts. This will be even more true in megacities, where understanding and protecting immensely complex critical infrastructure networks could be as important as protecting the population.

1 Multifunctional Aviation Battalion

Operations in a megacity will require many of the same aviation capabilities of attack, reconnaissance, assault, and medical evacuation used in operations in less dense terrain, but with considerable constraints. Megacities offer limited landing and pickup zones. Flying close enough to soldiers on the ground to provide air support is made more difficult by powerlines, antennas and satellites on rooftops, and narrow flight patterns between buildings. There is high risk to slow-moving aircraft from small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Current developments in aviation armament systems and vertical lift for precision personnel and cargo resupply would be a significant addition to a standard aviation unit.

Rooftops in Cairo. (Credit: Myrna Machuca-Sierra)

1 Support Battalion

The complexities of a megacity are not confined to mobility and maneuver. Providing support, services, and maintenance to decentralized units will be difficult. It will require support organizations with more capabilities than they have today, such as rapid prototyping to allow the unit to evolve quickly as our understanding of the environment’s requirements change; on-demand additive manufacturing to increase self-sufficiency; and drone resupply and transport to make up for the restrictions on manned aviation platforms.

1 Military Intelligence Battalion

Wargames and studies demonstrate the heightened intelligence demands of military operations in megacities. The ability to understand the enemy, terrain, weather, and civilian considerations cannot happen without a robust military intelligence capability. With the increased density of both people and infrastructure, there is also an increased information density, creating unique intelligence challenges and more challenging intelligence requirements. For this reason, a megacities unit should have an entire intelligence battalion instead of the existing military intelligence company organic to BCTs.

A megacity-focused military intelligence package would need to include robust human intelligence collection capabilities, including social media. Enhanced tactical signals intelligence capabilities would allow for more rapid targeting, necessary in a highly dynamic urban environment. And dedicated reach back channels should be created where either collection or analysis resources cannot be pushed to the BCT level, so as to further speed the F3EAD process (find–fix–finish–exploit–analyze).

Decentralized small units would need intelligence capabilities currently in battalion and BCT headquarters. Intelligence officers should be assigned to every maneuver company. The creation of Company Intelligence Support Teams (COIST) demonstrated great results in Iraq. COISTs were discontinued in the current BCT modernization plans, but should be included in the BCT built for urban operations. The military intelligence battalion should therefore be organized in a modular fashion, so resources can be flexed to individual COISTs on a rapid, needs-based basis.

1 Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) Battalion

The particulars of a CEMA unit is still in development, but the diverse capabilities being combined are the exact capabilities that will be needed at the tactical level in a hyper-connected complex city. Electronic Warfare capabilities to detect, jam, and deceive enemy sensors and communications, while protecting the unit’s own GPS, communications, and control technologies is critical. Offensive and defensive tactical cyber capabilities are also necessary.

1 Explosive Ordnance (EOD) Battalion

EOD will be present in all tactical operations of an urban unit, rather than an attached capability as it is today. The BCT’s survivability will depend on EOD capabilities in dense urban areas where improvised explosive devices and booby-trapped structures and drones have become common. Like the military intelligence battalion, this should be a modular unit, capable of operating centralized and in support of the BCT commander’s overall mission, or broken up to integrate fully with units down to the platoon and even squad level.

This force package would allow for the forming of multi-domain combat teams (infantry, armor, cyber, intelligence, information operations) all the way down to the company and platoon level needed to operate and win in megacities and dense urban terrain.

The urban BCT would be different in other important ways than today’s BCTs, specifically in their organizational commitment to three principles.

Rapid experimentation, structure changes, and equipment fielding. The urban BCT will provide an organizational base for rapid experimentation, equipment fielding, and structural change. The unit would need advanced capabilities from Army and Department of Defense labs, academia, and industry. Many of the proposed soldier and unit enhancements, such as robotics, population mapping, sensors, scalable-effects weapons and munitions, and soldier and command networked communication and control systems, could all be inserted for experimentation and testing while training for megacity operations.

The proposed urban BCT structure, outlined here, is only a starting point. Brigade combat teams are force packages that have, as one of their core design principles, the ability to adapt to a wide range of environments. A megacity unit must be designed with a capability one step further—not only to evolve in response to our constantly refined understanding of the unique requirements of big cities, but to evolve rapidly to fit the needs of each city’s unique characteristics once deployed. Unlike existing units that conduct experimentation, such as the brigade that until recently was permanently assigned to the Joint Modernization Command, which must maintain their BCT organization, a megacity unit would need authorities to radically and rapidly change its organization. The unit would also need addition funding lines in its authorizations to support changes.

Unit personnel management exceptions to policy. BCTs are not only the Army’s building blocks, but also a key Army leader development tool. Almost every officer in a brigade is doing on-the-job training because he or she has never held that particular position before. This practice is a great strength but also takes away from unit performance. In the 75th Ranger Regiment, officers are accepted for a position only after successfully executing that position’s duties in a previous unit. The need for this unit to quickly develop a capability not resident in the Army today means that it should have a similar policy.

The unit would also need compulsory release authority. Lessons from experiments like the Network Integration Evaluation and different battle lab experiments show that some soldiers thrive with new weapons, technology, and multiple feeds of information; others do not.

Study group. The complexities of megacities and the dilemma of military operations within them have been studied by the Army since 2013. Operations in urban terrain more broadly have been studied multiple times before that. Wargames, conferences, writing contests, tabletop discussions, and experiments have been conducted. But not much has actually been done with the fruits of these efforts. For a megacity unit to constantly adapt based on ongoing refinements of our understanding of the domain, it needs a small, diverse group of permanently assigned experts committed to studying, learning, capturing lessons, and developing doctrine for megacities.

* * *

One can only speculate about where the Army might be engaged next. But in all likelihood, given global trends in urbanization, the Army can count on being asked to conduct military operations in a megacity. When (not if) this happens, it is going to be ugly and costly. When we’ve faced other difficult domains and environments in the past, the Army hasn’t been afraid to adapt to meet them. We need to do the same now by committing one of our thirty-one BCTs to prepare for this mission.


Maj. John Spencer is a scholar with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. A former Ranger Instructor, he has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units during his 23 years as an infantryman. He looks forward to connecting via Twitter @SpencerGuard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Stephen Hickok, US Navy

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